Women’s Equality Day 2020: 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage

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Prominent signers of the Declaration of Sentiments are immortalized at the Women’s Suffrage Convention Center, Seneca Falls, New York. (Photograph by C. Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which declared “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.” It enfranchised women with the right by law, to vote in all national and local elections. Within months 26 million women were qualified to vote in the November 1920 presidential election.

However there were still hurdles to overcome by certain sections of the population. In spite of the 19th Amendment there were obstacles that prevented certain groups from voting. It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that the poll tax and literacy tax which made it difficult for black men and women from vote were outlawed. And it was The Indian Citizen Act of 1924 that gave Native American men and women full citizenship and the right to vote.

The formal struggle for women’s suffrage began in the 1848 with the adoption of The Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. Resolution nine of the Declaration stated, “That it is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” The convention was also attended by men some of whom (including Frederick Douglass) also signed the Declaration. The movement encountered a great disappointment in 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave free black men the right to vote but did not include women – white or black.

After the Civil War the struggle continued and intensified where in New York Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, Sojourner Truth persisted in the struggle. Susan B. Anthony and fourteen other women were arrested in Rochester NY, for voting illegally in the Nov. 5, 1872 Presidential elections. She was found guilty of “knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully vot[ing] for representatives of the congress of the ‘United States’ in Rochester, NY, being a person of the female sex.” She was fined $100 which she herself refused to pay.

In 1869, Virginia Minor of St. Louis Missouri became the first person to challenge the constitutionality of disenfranchisement. In a speech at the first Women’s Suffrage Convention of Missouri, she declared “I believe the constitution of the United States gives me every right and privilege to which every other citizen is entitled, for while the constitution gives the states the right to regulate suffrage, it nowhere gives them the power to prevent a citizen from voting.”

Minor tried to register to vote on October 15, 1872. She was denied by the registrar and filed suit in the State court. Because of Coverture laws (married women had no legal standing on their own to file a lawsuit), she had to file through her husband Francis Minor, an attorney and supporter of the movement.

Her suit worked its way to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) and became a landmark case (Minor v. Happersett, 1875). She argued that women who were U.S. citizens were given the right to vote under the 14th Amendment and that the 14th Amendment “nowhere gives [states] the power to prevent” a citizen from voting.

Her appeal was denied. Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite who wrote the decision of the court stated, “The constitution of the United States does not confer the right to vote upon anyone.” and “it cannot for a moment be doubted that if it had been intended to make all citizens of the United States voters, the framers of the constitution would not have left it to implication. – it would have been expressly declared.” He further noted: “The right of suffrage, when granted, will be protected. He who has it can only be deprived of it by due process of law, but in order to claim protection he must first have the right.”

The struggle continued with gains being achieved in increments. By 1912 nine western states had adopted legislation on women suffrage. New York adopted its suffrage laws in 1917.

On June 4, 1919 the Joint Resolution of Congress proposing the constitutional amendment extending the right of suffrage to women was approved and ratified on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it. Finally it was certified by the U.S. Secretary of State on August 26, 1920. That same year more than 8 million women exercised their franchise for the first time.

Two significant legislation made it less problematic for non-white citizens of any gender to vote. The 24th Amendment, ratified January 1964, prohibited the paying of poll and other types of taxes as a qualification of the right to vote. In 1964 (June) also, the Civil Rights Act prohibited segregation in public places and banned employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
None of the first suffrage fighters lived to see the fruits of their struggle in 1920. But according to a Pew Research Center 2019 Report, women vote at higher rates than men. In 2018 women made up about the same share of voters as in the previous five midterm elections. 53 percent were women and 47 percent were men. And last year 35.3 percent of women 18 to 24 voted – a significantly larger turnout, compared 29.5 percent of men.

Still there is still more to be done. Vigilance to protect the right to vote and have each vote counted is especially important in this November general election. With the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc across the United States, millions will vote by mail. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted August 14-15, shows “far more voters worry that people will be prevented from voting (65 percent), that legitimate mail ballots will not be counted (75 percent) — and that one of the candidates will not accept the outcome of the election (64 percent).” The president opposes funding for the postal service because he opposes voting by mail – making the false claim that it will lead to widespread voter fraud. The post office has warned that the ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted.

The date the 19th Amendment was certified (August 26) is observed annually as Women’s Equality Day.

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