The Better Half

There are a lot of ways to think about how long it took for us to arrive at the year 1920. As a universe, it took something like 13 billion years, give or take. As a solar system and a planet, something around 4.5 to 5 billion years. As a planet with life on it, something closer to 4 billion years. As primates, a few million years. As a species, a few hundred thousand. As a civilization, a few thousand. As a nation, 144. As a nation with a Constitution, 131. By any of these measures, it boggles the mind how long it took to state unequivocally that half our adult population could vote.

Couple that with how long it took to extend the vote to all races, to end slavery, and to act against genocide – and then couple that with the simple fact that these same wrongs are still being done in parts of the world today, and not as far from home as you might think – suffice it to say we are still in our infancy as an enlightened civilization.

Nonetheless, the 19th Amendment, passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified by three quarters of the states in 1920, righted one of these wrongs for one nation:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

My first thought when reading the actual text here was that maybe “gender” would have been a better word than “sex”. I’m wondering if there’s ever been a court challenge suggesting this Amendment is really only referring to the voting rights of virgins.

It should be noted that the length of time it took to amend our Constitution in this way was not for lack of trying. The original Constitution essentially left it to the states, who typically tied voting rights to the owning of valuable land, which not only eliminated slaves and most women, but also poorer men. Actually, New Jersey originally *did* give women the right to vote back in 1776. But they revoked it in 1807 when it was believed that men were dressing as women to cast second votes. Voter fraud is by no means a new conversation in American politics.

Although moving at a pace that would try a glacier’s patience, piece by piece some progress was made toward women’s suffrage over the decades, particularly after the Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the early pioneers in pushing for a Constitutional Amendment – first arguing that existing Amendments applied, and then seeking a new one. Anthony actually voted at one point, but was subsequently arrested and convicted for it. Some western states, beginning as territories, entered the Union with more progressive laws; Wyoming was actually the first to guarantee women the right to vote in their constitution – followed by Utah, Colorado, and Idaho.

Initial attempts at a new Amendment began in the 1870’s, but momentum didn’t really build again until the 1910’s. It passed in the summer of 1919, and Tennessee put it over the top in August of 1920, by the narrowest of margins in their House of Representatives: 49-47.

The polls were not flooded with women voters right away, as there were other institutions that made it difficult to vote, including the poll tax that was later repealed by the 24th Amendment. And of course there was an almost immediate challenge by one of the states that didn’t originally ratify the 19th Amendment (Maryland), which was shot down by the Supreme Court in 1922. Since then, there hasn’t been much of a challenge, but there’s something eerily believable about worlds like the one described in “A Handmaid’s Tale”. As long as it took us to get to 1920, we shouldn’t assume a mere 99 years later that we’ll never get it wrong again. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of freedom.

Lady Liberty, unable to vote until 1920 (Photo by bruce mars from Pexels)

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