About 10 years ago, I wrote a book called Economics Takes a Holiday. I organized my essays by month from New Year’s Day to Boxing Day. When I came to August, I was stumped. I wound up with a single essay for August, called The Month with No Holidays., which was about the lack of leisure time among American workers compared to those in other developed countries. After the book was published, I discovered my glaring omission, a holiday of great meaning to me personally as a politically engaged woman. Now I regularly celebrate August 26th, Women’s Equality Day, the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment ending the 72 year struggle for women’s right to vote.
Where did the story begin? There was Abigail Adams, writing to her husband John at the Constitutional Convention urging him to “remember the ladies.”There were the Grimke sisters out of South Carolina, campaigning for abolition of slavery, and when they were told they could not speak before men, they added suffrage to their causes. There was Frederick Douglass, a freed slave and eloquent speaker, who added suffrage for women to his crusade for abolition. But the pivotal event was the Women’s Convention in Seneca Falls, New York which met for three days and produced a Declaration of Women’s Rights that was modeled on the Declaration of Independence.
Women in 19th century America had few rights. They could not buy, sell or inherit property. In a divorce, the husband was entitled to the children. If she earned money, she had to turn it over to her husband. There was no recourse from physical abuse. In a criminal trial, there would be no women on the jury. Women were barred from the professions and denied access to higher education. The right to vote was seen as a significant form of protection that would change the subordination of women and grant them equality before the law.
The struggle was long and hard. Efforts were to add sex to the conditions for which the right to vote could not be abridged (fifteenth amendment), but they failed. Instead, the women’s movement, led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, won small victories. Individual states, many of them in the west, grated women the right to vote–some in all elections,others only i presidential elections. By 1912, 15 states gave women the full right to vote and another 12 in presidential elections. In 2013, the National Women’s Party led by firebrand Alice Paul upped the game. They had a march on Washington. They picketed the White House and protested at the Capitol, demanding an amendment for women’s rights. Suffragists were jailed, suffered abuse in prisons and went on hunger strikes. Aware of he rising number of women who could vote (and especially after the 17th amendment called for direct popular election of senators), Congress finally passed the 19th amendment and sent it to the states for ratification.
By March 1920, a presidential election year, 35 of the reuqired 36 states had ratified the amendment. And then it stalled. The final hope was Tennessee, whose legislature was still in session in August. OnAugust 19th, ratification passed the Tennessee House (it had already passed the senate) by a single vote from a first term legislator who was urged by his mother to empower her to vote.A week later, the amendment was entered into the Constitution. That November, eight millionAmerican women went to the polls. One of them was my great-grandmother, who had participated int he 1913 Washington march.
In gratitude to our courageous, determined, and persistent foremothers, be sure toeexercise your right, privilege, and responsibility as a citizen. Be an engaed and active voter. It’s how domecraciy is supposed to work,