When women go to the polls this year, they are unlikely to cause the stir they created 98 years ago when they were granted the right to vote. After seven decades of activism, American women cast their first ballots in the presidential election of 1920.
On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote. Achieving that milestone required extensive and challenging struggles; victory took decades of activism and protest. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change to the U.S. Constitution. Opponents heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused these women. Few early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920.
The movement started with a group of activists led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in 1848, publicly claimed that American women deserved equal rights under the law. By 1916, almost all major suffrage organizations were united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.
On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment and two weeks later, the Senate followed. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, the amendment passed its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920, changing the face of the American electorate forever.
Yet today, we face an assault on voting rights that is one of the greatest self-inflicted threats to our democracy in our lifetimes. These assaults threaten to silence voices of those least heard and rarely listened to in our country—the elderly, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, the young, and persons with disabilities.
State legislatures across the country have embarked on a zealous mission to fight a non-existent problem of “voter fraud.” Claims that illegal immigrants are stealing elections away from voters have become common refrains in the right-wing media and in political debates.
Nothing is more fundamental in a democracy than the right to vote. Decades after women won that right, there are extraordinary attempts to reverse the trend towards equality and throw roadblocks in the way of many voters.
We cannot afford to be silent about the overt and covert ways some states, including Florida, have tried to restrict access to voting. It’s crucial that leaders and citizens speak up and be ever vigilant.
“We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the political and civil rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.” Susan B. Anthony.