This Week in History: A Woman’s Right to Vote

Many Americans with a basic knowledge of history know that the 19th Amendment guarantees American women the right to vote. A lot of modern-day women take for granted this very milestone which required a lengthy and difficult struggle from women who lived over a century ago; a victory which took decades of turbulence and strife.

The journey to give women their basic American right of voting began in the mid-19th century. This was a time when woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a revolutionary change for that time.

While women struggled with their rights to vote, believe it or not, the first woman to run for President in a major election took place in 1872. You probably won’t read about her in your high school US History I or II books; but her name was Victoria Claflin Woodhull and she was the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Her opponents were Ulysses S. Grant (R) and Horace Greeley (D). Woodhull, fought hard for women’s rights and even founded her own newspaper. She became the first woman to own a Wall Street investment firm. Luckily, she would live to see her dream of women’s right to vote realized before she died 7 years later in 1927 but what does that have to do with the significance of this very week?

In order to answer that question, we need to go back to 1878, when the amendment we know today as the 19th amendment was first introduced in Congress. It all began when Victoria Woodhull addressed the House Judiciary Committee, arguing women’s rights to vote under the fourteenth amendment. This ideal was met with such distain that the Anti-Suffrage Party was founded and push back began. From that moment forward it would be 42 whole years later in 1920, when the amendment would finally be ratified! Could you even imagine fighting for something that men your age could do simply by being born male for 42 years? While this seems discouraging to many, it was all made possible by the early champions of voting rights for women. These women, like Victoria Claflin Woodhull, worked tirelessly to make progress on this basic American right. Their strategies varied and while some tried to pass suffrage acts in each state. There were nine western states which adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912 these states included: California, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Washington State, Oregon, Kansas and Arizona.

Other states, like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts continued to reject woman suffrage. While many well-known women in our history books challenged male-only voting laws in the courts, some of the more well known public tactics included parades, silent vigils, and even hunger strikes. Supporters were heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused simply for the rights that men were freely given. I am reminded of the movie Iron Jawed Angels starring Hilary Swank in which she plays Alice Paul. The movie details Paul’s experience after she was arrested for “obstructing traffic” while picketing for women’s suffrage. The struggles she underwent when she was denied counsel, placed in a straitjacket, and subjected to examination in the psychiatric ward (simply for wanting equality!) is just baffling. When it’s concluded that Paul showed no signs of mania or delusion, she got returned to the prison’s general population, where she led the suffragettes on a hunger strike that ended with the warden force-feeding her raw eggs and milk.

The fight was long and exhausting by the time 1916 came, most of the major suffrage organizations stood united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York officially adopted woman suffrage in 1917, President Wilson (who was in office during Paul’s imprisonment) changed his position to support an amendment in 1918 and the political balance finally 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 was officially adopted 100 years ago this past Tuesday. While decades of struggle to include African Americans and other minority women in the promise of voting rights persisted, the face of the American elections had changed forever.

As a woman in America, I feel honored and privileged to have been able to vote in every major election. To have my voice heard and not be denied simply because of my gender is something I never take for granted. It is hard to believe that only 100 years ago women gained the right to legally get out and vote, while today so many American women are unregistered to do so. If this post could inspire someone out there who isn’t registered to do so and make their voice heard, then I will feel I’ve done my part in honoring the legacy of the women who came before us, who fought tooth and nail to ensure women were included in “all” being “created equal”.

If you haven’t already, please consider registering to vote as it was a privilege up until the last century that was denied to many. Be sure to leave a comment below and tell me; are you registered to vote? How important to you is voting in elections both national, statewide or local?

Until next time…

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