Tahlequah Daily Press


July 13, 2014

Women got the vote with 19th Amendment

TAHLEQUAH — During its first 140 years, the United States Constitution underwent a series of changes intended to extend voting rights to those who were not white or didn’t own property - but as the American experiment entered the 20th Century, half the adult population still had no protection to vote.

Though they certainly had political opinions, women could not cast a ballot in most states. That changed with passage of the 19th Amendment, which reads:

“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.”

Though earlier amendments only enumerated the voting rights of men, there is no clause in the Constitution forbidding women the vote. The Framers left it to the states to decide qualifications, and the states almost unanimously told ladies to stay home on election days. New Jersey was a slight exception, until it abolished the vote for widows with property in 1807.

The issue of women’s suffrage was as old as the republic itself. Dr. Daniel Savage, chair of the Department of Geography, Political Science and Sociology at Northeastern State University, mentioned a letter written to John Adams by his wife, Abigail, in 1776.

“She asks why men, whose blood-boiled with passion because of the injustice of taxation without representation, would not recognize the same passion in others - namely women,” Savage said. “And if the colonists, she argued, were not obligated to obey British laws because they were not represented in Parliament, then why should women be obligated to obey laws made by all-male legislatures on which women had no representation?”

There were sporadic attempts by women’s groups to politically organize and fight for voting rights, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the suffrage movement found its momentum.

“When black men were given the right to vote by the 15th Amendment, members of the women’s movement were furious,” Savage said. “Susan B. Anthony, who was once arrested for voting, opposed the 15th Amendment because it did not include women. The slight was felt so strongly that the post-Civil War women’s movement focused on a single issue: women’s suffrage.”

The movement’s challenge was towering; women couldn’t get the vote unless men gave it to them.

“Ratification of the 19th Amendment was a lengthy and difficult struggle,” said State Rep. Mike Brown. “Starting in the mid-19th century, victory for the women’s suffrage movement took decades of lectures, protests, marches and even civil disobedience. Few of the early supporters lived long enough to see final passage.”

Two of the movement’s titans, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, drafted the text of the 19th Amendment, which failed to pass the Senate in 1887. Neither saw the amendment ratified. Stanton died in 1902; Anthony in 1906.

After several defeats in Congress and the courts, suffrage shifted its focus to the states. Passage of the 19th Amendment became possible due to the precedent of states relaxing or repealing their prohibitions on female voting. In the 30 years before ratification of the amendment, the movement lobbied many states to change their laws.

When the amendment was passed, only seven of the 48 states forbade women to vote in any election. Women had full voting rights in 15 states, including Oklahoma. Another 13 states allowed women to vote in presidential elections. Women could participate in the Texas and Arkansas primaries. Five states allowed women to vote in municipal elections.

Other states had unusual arrangements. Eight allowed women to vote on municipal issues, but not in races for office. There were cities in Florida and Ohio which allowed women to vote in municipal elections, and some Georgia cities let women participate in primaries. Ohio women could also vote for president.

The House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment, 304-89, on May 21, 1919. The Senate approved, 56-25, on June 4. Ratification was achieved when Tennessee became the 36th state to approve. The 48 states of the day all ratified the amendment, though some were tardy. Mississippi was the last to ratify on March 22, 1984.

Though the suffrage movement deserves most of the credit, Savage said men finally acknowledged the hypocrisy of denying women the vote - even if it took decades to recognize it.

“It should be pointed out that, like all constitutional amendments, a super majority was needed to propose and ratify it and, because women could not vote, that super majority consisted of men,” he said.

Today, it may seem preposterous that women could be legally turned from the polls as recently as 94 years ago. But the U.S. was not behind the curve on the suffrage issue.

“A few western democracies recognized the right of women to vote before the United States did, but many other democracies took a lot longer,” Savage said.

Universal female suffrage barely existed in the 19th Century. The Pitcairn Islands granted women full voting rights in 1838, as did the Cook Islands and New Zealand in 1893, though New Zealand women could not hold office. South Australia granted full suffrage and office-holding rights to women in 1894. Women gained full suffrage in Western Australia in 1899.

Argentina, Denmark and Germany granted universal suffrage before the U.S.. Sweden did so in 1921, and the United Kingdom in 1928. The French government-in-exile gave women full voting rights in 1944. Switzerland waited until 1971, and Liechtenstein gave women the vote in 1984.

Today, there are some countries which still restrict female voting, but only Saudi Arabia denies any vote to women. The House of Saud wants Saudi women eligible to vote in local elections and hold municipal office by 2015, but is meeting resistance from men.

The 19th Amendment has generated little controversy. The Supreme Court unanimously affirmed its legitimacy in the 1922 case of Leser v. Garnett. The plaintiff sued to prevent two women from registering in Baltimore. Oscar Leser based his case on procedure, claiming the Maryland Constitution did not allow women to vote, that some state ratification were invalid because their constitutions also didn’t allow female voting, and that West Virginia and Tennessee did not ratify properly.

The court ruled that the 19th Amendment was consistent with the 15th Amendment, that Article V of the U.S. Constitution did not allow state constitutions to add further stipulations to the federal action of amendment, and that West Virginia and Tennessee had re-ratified via proper procedures.

As the Constitution stands today, any citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote, though some states are making the process more complicated, and a huge segment of the population simply chooses not to vote - or even register.

Brown said the suffrage movement should remind us that voting rights are hard-won and to be cherished.

“On November 2 of 1920, more than eight million women across the United States voted for the first time,” he said. “Often, we take the right to vote in this country for granted. We must remember that the rights we enjoy today were achieved through the dedication and sacrifice of those who came before us. It is our responsibility to see that these rights are protected for future generations.”

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Do you think "blue laws" related to Sunday alcohol sales in Oklahoma should be relaxed? Choose the option that most closely reflects your opinion.

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Liquor stores should be open Sundays, but drinks should not be served anywhere on Sundays.
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