The Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal. Man is a troublesome word in English. Sometimes it means a human being and other times it means a male human being. I took four years of Latin in high school, which taught me a lot about languages and how they shape and are shaped by their cultures. Despite the patriarchal, misogynistic, authoritarian, slave-owning culture of the Roman empire, Latin did distinguish between a homo as a human being and vir and mulier as, respectively, a male human being and a female human being. In fact, the word man in the Declaration of Independence, the word man meant even less than that. It meant a white male property owner. It took a Civil War and four constitutional amendments and several Civil Rights Acts and the Voting Rights Act to broaden our definition of man. In this month we celebrate one of those acts, the 19th Amendment.
In 2010 I published a collection of essays called Economics Takes A Holiday. It explores the story of 28 holidays through the lens of economics, because after all, I am first and foremost an economist. The origin of this book was in a series of weekly columns by faculty in my department in the Greenville newspaper. One day about 50 years ago I decided to write a column for Valentine’s day, with the title of Heartless Capitalism. That was the beginning of the holday series. Every month had at least two holidays, some four or more. Until I got to August, and I was stumped. Yes, there was the ascension of the blessed virgin, but I couldn’t do much with that. I settled on an essay titled August, the month with no holidays. I lamented the long hours and few vacations and holidays for American workers compared to other developed countries. After the book was published, I hit my head and said Duh! Women’s Equality Day. I celebrate this holiday every August with my friends in the local League of Women Voters. We kick off a new League year with a party in which we celebrate voting, and famous woman, and fighting for our rights. Even in South Carolina there was a celebration of this holiday in 2020 at the statehouse, while glossing over the fact that the state only got around ratifying in the 19th amendment in 1969 for its upcoming 50th anniversary.
This year we are once again fighting for women’s rights, the right of reproductive choice and control of our bodies, which we have enjoyed for fifty years. I was married in 1962 in my native state of Connecticut where contraception was illegal. Fortunately, condoms could be purchased for the prevention of socially transmitted diseases and birth control pills could be prescribed for menstrual irregularity, both of which were apparently epidemic in the state. In 1965, SCOTUS handed down a ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that overruled the Connecticut contraception blue law, , on the grounds of a right to privacy inherent in the 14th amendment. That case set the stage for Roe v. Wade.
Only in recent years have we learned the extent to which rights are fragile—voting rights, civil rights, privacy rights, safety rights. A major difference between the contraception ban in Connecticut before 1965 and the new abortion laws was enforcement. There was no enforcement in the earlier era , but now some states have established criminal penalties for doctors, clinics, and women for having abortions—even miscarriages that someone claims was actually an abortion. The struggle for the 19th amendment may offer some insights into what comes next.
How did it finally happen after 72 years of agitation that women finally won the right to vote? The movement was launched in 1948 at the Seneca Falls Women’s Convention with a Declaration of Women’s rights. Soon that agenda had to take a back seat to the battle over slavery. In 1868 after the War of the Rebellion, as it was sometimes known in the north, the lesser known 15th amendment was ratified. It prohibited the federal government and each state from denying or abridging a citizen’s right to vote “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Efforts by women to explicitly include gender were ignored.
Four other significant events took place in the intervening years that helped the suffrage cause. One was the settlement of the west, which was less conventional about women’s roles than the east. One by one, western states gave women voting rights. Another was the 1913 constitutional amendment requiring direct election of senators by the people instead of appointed by state legislatures. Western senators had to court the women’s vote, and increasingly, so did presidential candidates in states where women could vote.
The third event was the service rendered by women in so many ways for the war effort during the first world war. They could fight, nurse, or do men’s jobs while the men were away, but they had no say in the government they were serving. A fourth and final factor was the victory of the female-dominated temperance movement in enacting prohibition, passed in 2018. Many men and especially liquor interests saw a link between suffrage and prohibition, but when liquor became illegal even without women being able to vote, the opposition lost its steam.
How do we explain the Dobbs decision and possibly other to follow? Backlash. The political right is dominated by wealthy old white men. Abortion gave them an issue that they could use to enlist unlikely allies in the religious right. It has been an unholy but effective alliance that made it possible to gain and control political power as they saw themselves becoming a minority. The Constitution was written by old wealthy white men, many of them slave owners. Today it has been weaponized to reinstitute the misogyny of in the right wing of Christianity and control of their bodies away from women.
Most of us believe that the democratic process rests heavily on the first amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, yet the Supreme Court is embracing a religious minority’s interpretation of when life begins. Not only do most Christians but also Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims consider abortion permissible.
When asked if I am pro-choice or pro-life, I always say Yes. How can one not be pro-life? Would anyone claim to be either anti-life or anti-choice? But when it comes to a choice between the life of a living, breathing human being and a small, half-formed cluster of cells, I have to choose the woman. I’m sure there are occasional abortions for frivolous reasons, but I believe that most of them are important life-shaping decisions for the woman and her family and her future. Just ask the 10 year old rape victim in Ohio who had to go to Indiana for an abortion.
The 19th amendment in 1920 was the culmination of a 72-year battle. Tennessee, the 36th state to ratify, passed it into law by a single vote, giving the required ¾ majority on August 19th. The U.S Secretary of State enrolled the amendment in the Constitution on August 26th, giving us not Women’s Equality Day but Women’s Equality Week. A fitting length for such a long labor before it was birthed. Only one of the original suffrage leaders was still alive in 1920 but too ill to vote.
Back in the days before the 19th amendment, when my great-grandmother was marching for women’s suffrage, there was a split in the movement over strategy. Two splits, in fact. One was whether to over focus on suffrage or push the ERA. Realistically, the ERA would probably not have made it, but suffrage did. Sometimes compromise is the best path. But if the ERA had been enacted as a Constitutional amendment, then or later, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The other split was more tactical. Get the right to vote state by state or focus on Congress and a Constitutional amendment? And the answer was yes. It took both to get the 19th amendment through Congress and ratified by 36 of the 48 states..
In the case of reproductive choice, a state-by-state strategy is already underway, at least at the legislative level. Blue states are strengthening the right to an abortion and preparing to serve the needs of those whose states embrace the minority view. Red states are busy rewriting their trigger laws and enacting punitive measures for all who conspire to help end an unplanned, high risk, unwanted pregnancy. Anti-woman forces are gathering steam to make it even mor restrictive, even as pro-life, pro-choice folks are trying to pile up exceptions. Ectopic pregnancies. A girl under age 15, with the presumption of lack of ability to consent. Life and health of the mother. A fetus with no potential for viability. Some hope that a blue wave in the midterms may make it possible for Congress to codify abortion as a federal right.
I know that many of us are hopeful, although not optimistic, about using the power of the vote to change this situation. We can contribute to campaigns, get out the vote, make sure people know what Is at stake. We can grill candidates on their position on this and other privacy rights issues, because the victorious majority of the court is now thinking about contraception and same-sex marriage. We can support organizations that make abortion available through telemedicine and access to non-surgical abortions. We can make sure that girls AND boys get sex education and know how to access and use contraception.
There are lessons in that struggle about compromising and holding firm, about strategy and tactics, and about the truth of Reinhold Niebuhr’s dictum that nothing worth accomplishing is ever accomplished in our lifetimes. Therefore, we are saved by hope. As we struggle to keep hope alive and make a difference in abortion rights, voting rights, democracy, and climate change, let us hold up and retell the stories of these past struggles to revive our commitment and determination.