Today, November 3, 2020, is Election Day in the United States. The race has come down to the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, the Republican incumbent Donald Trump, and several third-party candidates who receive much less media attention. Chances are that you are of the major policies and controversies surrounding the two major party candidates, so I shall not rehash those points here.
In light of…all of 2020, many states have expanded their absentee vote and mail-in ballot options. Because of this more widely employed mail-in voting business that requires that a ballot is postmarked but not necessarily received by November 3, the good people of the world1 may not know until week’s end who will sit in the Oval Office for the next four years.
I’m sure a walk down Electoral College Lane would be lovely. It seems that every election season, people want to contest the legitimacy of the election methods for the United States president. Interest notwithstanding, this, too, is not the conversation topic. To read more about why the Electoral College exists and how it works (and the legislation proposed to overturn it), the National Conference of State Legislatures has a quick summary.
Instead of the technicalities of the presidential election system in the United States, I wanted to dig into the history of women’s voting rights2, being that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary that the states ratified the 19th Amendment, which determined that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
The women’s suffrage story in the United States often begins with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, featuring, among others, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who formed the National Women Suffrage Association in 1869. The NWSA emerged from contention between the suffragettes; the activists disagreed 1) on the enfranchisement of black Americans by the 15th Amendment and 2) on the focus of the movement. Specifically, the NWSA opposed the 15th Amendment and rallied for not only voting rights, but also women’s equality in other areas of society; the “other side”, the American Women Suffrage Association, supported the 15th Amendment and focused their activities on voting rights.
In 1890, the NWSA and AWSA combined again to form the National American Women Suffrage Association. To that point, the movement had secured voting rights in five states, but the goal was national suffrage.
At the same time that American women were organizing and rallying, women in the United Kingdom had their own suffrage movement, activists hitting Parliament hard with demands for equal voting rights. Women in the U.K. had started on the warpath a few decades earlier than women in the U.S., and the latter drew much inspiration from the former. New Jersey-born Alice Paul is credited for introducing to the American movement the more military tactics of picketing, parading, and demonstrations leading to imprisonment, which she witnessed and was part of while in Britain for university. She eventually split from NAWSA to form the National Women’s Party, as many in the NAWSA did not like Paul’s confrontational, Women’s Social and Political Union-inspired methods.
The suffrage movement had been gaining grounds for a number of decades, but in 1914 social progress froze when the Serbian terrorist group Black Hand commissioned the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June of 1914 and World War I broke out. (This is, admittedly, a very simple and incomplete description of events leading to World War I. It barely deserves the title of explanation. You may refer to this cause-effect breakdown from the state of Indiana for a better discussion.) As it happened, though, World War I strengthened the argument for women’s voting rights – in the United States as well as Canada and several European nations.
If ever there was evidence of women’s ability to fully participate in and contribute to society, WWI was it. As millions of fathers, brothers, and sons were rushed to the battlefields, mothers, sisters, and daughters remained in the homeland to fill the vacated positions and to supply the new demand for war-related goods like munitions. President Woodrow Wilson, who had previously held a states’ decisions stances on women’s suffrage, sang a different tune in his September 1918 address to the U.S., less than two months before the war ended. He said,
“I regard the concurrence of the Senate in the constitutional amendment proposing the extension of the suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged.”President Woodrow Wilson, address to the Senate Chamber on September 30, 1918
In 1919, when the women’s suffrage organizations laid the proposal for a constitutional amendment before Congress for the umpteenth time (one had been proposed every year since 1878), the memory of WWI was fresh and the determination of the activists was stronger than ever. In June, the amendment was passed; the following summer, it was ratified.
And here we are, 100 years later.
While Anthony and Stanton are the most well-known names in the American women’s suffrage movement, there are a host of other women also deserving of recognition including women of color like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, and Jovita Idár. I note this not because racial diversity is some barometer of social movement legitimacy, but because the fight for universal women’s voting rights didn’t end with the 19th Amendment. Women of color, of which I am one (Asian here; hi!), continued to face barriers to voting because of discriminatory immigration and citizenship laws and unconstitutional voting restrictions (ability to pay a poll tax, pass a “literacy” test, etc.). The latter affected poor white voters as well.
Also of note, the women’s suffragist movement was not devoid of male supporters, some of them powerful figures whose reputations wouldn’t be “sissified” by involvement. Certainly, there were men who thought women should stay out of the polling booth (you can see propaganda from 20th century Britain reflecting some folks’ concerns here), but to paint all men during the women’s suffrage movement with a broad brushstroke of misogyny3 would be unfair. (Surprisingly, too, some women opposed the efforts of the suffragettes. In my own state of Massachusetts, seven women founded the Massachusetts Association Opposed to the Further Extension of Suffrage in 1894, which grew to over 30,000 members by 1915.)
Today, thanks to the amendments and laws passed since the 19th century and especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, voting is available to more than white male landowners, the original voting class. With a few exceptions for convicted felons and naturalized citizens (the latter, for example, must fulfill a residency requirement), all American citizens aged 18 or over have the legal right to vote.
This is not to say that voter suppression4 is now non-existent. As long as we’re human, a nation, no matter how democratic5, will fail. It will have good theory about freedom and human rights without proper application 100% of the time. However, the U.S. has moved, since its inception in the 18th century, to a better realization of its ideals. The right to vote is one such area of continual progress.
1. I note “the world” because, while the U.S. is certainly not the Most Important Country on Earth, it is one of the largest economies and a global superpower. What happens in the States has considerable influence on global foreign policy, trade, etc.)
2. The other significant amendments on voting rights are the 15th, which gave black men the right to vote in 1870 (2020 is the 150th anniversary); the 24th, which eliminated the poll tax in 1964 (the year my dad was born); and the 26th, which lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971.
3. Or, to use a more accurate term, sexism. (Disclaimer: The linked article contains crude language.) Misogyny (and, simarily, misandry) and sexism are related, but there are important differences, as is the case with stereotype, prejudice, and racism.
4. You can read different perspectives on voter suppression in American elections at:
– The Guardian (center-left bias with mixed factual reporting)
– The Toronto Star (center-left bias with high factual reporting)
– The Center for Public Integrity (center-left bias with high factual reporting)
– The Hill (least biased, mostly factual reporting)
– Associated Press (least biased, very high factual reporting)
– Wall Street Journal (center-right bias with mostly factual reporting)
– Fortune Magazine (center-right bias with high factual reporting)
– The Heritage Foundation (right bias with mixed factual reporting)
News source bias and quality of reporting information is taken from Media Bias/Fact Check. Moreover, as of writing, another media bias organization ranks The Guardian, The Hill, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and Fortune Magazine as some of the most reliable news sources.
5. More accurately, a constitutional republic or representative democracy, but “no matter how constitutionally republic” doesn’t sound nearly as nice.