March is Women's History Month. What better way to commemorate it than to take a look at the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution?
The 19th Amendment
The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, also known as women's suffrage. The amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878. It was finally passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920. So, although the women's suffrage movement began in the mid-1800's, it took nearly a century of protests and other efforts before the Constitutional milestone was finally achieved. In fact, many of the women who supported it did not live to see the final victory.
Specifically, the 19th Amendment reads as follows:
“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.”
The Women's Suffrage Movement
Although the movement for women's rights, along with women's suffrage efforts, began prior to the Civil War, activism stalled during this period as attention turned to issues related to the war. In 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) with the goal of a federal constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote. (Unfortunately, Stanton died in 1902 and Anthony died in 1906, neither of them living to see their goal materialize).
President Woodrow Wilson and WWI: The Suffrage Movement Gains Momentum
When World War I started in 1914, women in eight states already had the right to vote. World War I introduced a new urgency for the right of women to vote. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson faced a tough midterm election and had to address the issue of women's suffrage. By this time, fifteen states had already extended the right to vote to women. President Wilson changed his stance on women's suffrage and when the amendment came up for vote, he addressed the Senate in favor of suffrage. He also tied the proposed suffrage amendment to the United States’ involvement in World War I and the increased role women had played in the war efforts. Despite the President's support, the amendment proposal failed in the Senate. It was another year before Congress took up the measure again.
Although the country was divided on the amendment, with the southern states deeply opposing it, the amendment was ultimately passed by the Senate and ratified. On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was certified by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, and women finally attained the right to vote throughout the United States. The addition of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution made the United States the twenty-seventh country in the world to give women the right to vote.
The "Right to Vote"
Interestingly, although many Americans view the "right to vote" as a fundamental right, neither the original Constitution nor the Bill of Rights expressly guaranteed the right to vote. Instead, each of the states had their own rules for who could vote. The main differences among the states on who could vote had to do with land ownership, gender, and race. Some states permitted women and free black men to vote. These were controversial and highly divisive differences that would need to be resolved in order to establish a uniform standard across the country.
Other Amendments Addressing Voting
In addition to the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, other constitutional amendments that address voting issues include: the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination in the vote; the Twenty-Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the use of poll taxes in national elections; and the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which prohibits denying the vote to those over 18 years of age.
This August will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Various groups and organizations, including lawmakers, educators, and civic associations, among others, will be recognizing and promoting the importance of the right to vote and participation in democracy.
Additional Information & Resources
For resources to help in planning commemoration activities, visit the American Bar Association website at: https://ambar.org/hqthu.