The 19th Amendment: Why 100 Years Matter
Written by Rebecca Reed, Lycoming '14
Remember when you were a little kid, and a $100 bill felt like a brick of gold? I have a vivid memory from my childhood of receiving a $100 from my grandfather and heading to the mall with my newfound riches. I thought I could purchase whatever I wanted! I don’t remember what I bought with my $100 bill, but I do remember trying to quantify all that I could do with that money.
As an adult, you realize that $100, and 100 as a number, is really not all that much. $100 can be spent in minutes. I spend more than $100 every weekend at the grocery store in less than an hour – it never fails that I look at my haul and think, “how in the world did I spend $100??” 100 pennies to make a dollar doesn’t feel like a whole lot. Looking at the number 100 and realizing that the Constitution has only granted women the right to vote for 100 years is sobering.
What is even more eye-opening is learning about how long women had to fight for the right to vote. The United States didn’t just wake up one morning to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. It’s tough to understand why one hundred years matter without knowing about the work that led up this amendment, and the fight that continued after it was passed to ensure that all women were afforded this right.
I am a historian by training, and have spent many years studying nineteenth century American women, including the suffrage movement. The history surrounding the Nineteenth Amendment is complex and diverse, and alone could fill hours’ worth of lectures and span many written volumes. However, a basic understanding of this history is critical to understanding why 100 years matter. If you will allow me to put on my historian hat, I would love to give you some food for thought as we celebrate this milestone.
Suffrage envoys from San Francisco on their way to petition Congress in 1915 are greeted by New Jersey suffragists. Photo in the National Woman's Party Records (I:159), Library of Congress (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suffrage_envoys_from_San_Francisco_159032v.jpg)
The first glimpse of women’s suffrage comes from early America, long before suffrage was elevated to a national platform. When the New Jersey state legislature passed the state constitution in 1776, it allowed women the right to vote, so long as they held property of a certain size and value. Importantly, this right was also given to African Americans who met the same property requirements. This feels really progressive – and it was. However, it ultimately did not enfranchise many, as only unmarried women were able to hold property. In the grand scheme of women’s suffrage though, this is a big deal, especially since the constitution was amended to only include white men in 1807. (Source)
Fast forward a few decades to 1848, which many historians pinpoint as the traditional start of the women’s rights movement. In Seneca Falls, a small town in upstate New York, a group of approximately three hundred men and women met and drafted a list of rights that women should be granted, which included the right to vote. After Seneca Falls, the movement produced more regular conventions, held once a year until the American Civil War disrupted this pattern. These meetings, which were more publicized and reached more women than the Seneca Falls meeting, allowed the movement to gain national traction. (Source)
Over the next 72 years, the women’s rights movement would transform and shift numerous times. Different leaders led efforts in various directions. In the years leading up to the American Civil War, the women’s rights movement would at times strategize and collaborate with the Abolition movement, while at other times, would flagrantly oppose abolitionists in order to advance their own platform. Following the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which was passed in 1870 and stated that states could not deny the right to vote based on race, white suffragists disagreed on whether or not they should support the amendment.
As a result, the American Woman Suffrage Association split from the National Woman Suffrage Association. The American Woman Suffrage Association supported the Fifteenth Amendment, but did not fully support their Black suffragist counterparts; therefore, Black women founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to further the movement. These organizations are only a few that fought for suffrage, but nevertheless illustrate that the movement was a complex web of many leaders, communities, and platforms.
Mrs. Stanley McCormick and Mrs. Chas. Parker holding a banner which reads "National Woman Suffrage Association. (Source)
100 years ago, on August 26, 2020, three-fourths of states ratified the nineteenth amendment into law. While this is cause for celebration, it is critical to understand that the nineteenth amendment did not guarantee every woman the right to vote. Even with the passage of the fifteenth amendment 50 years earlier, it was still common for states to enact hurdles at the polls that disproportionately affected voters of color. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were common tactics that white officials employed to ensure that minority voters were blocked from exercising the right that they should have been guaranteed by law.
For this reason, it was not until the passage of additional legislation, such as the Snyder Act of 1924, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (with a subsequent extension in 1975), that Black, Native American, Latina, and Asian women were protected at the polls. (Source)
So… given all these complications, why do 100 years matter? 100 years is not a long time, and seems even less so when you unpack how many women have exercised the right to vote for less than 100 years.
Globally, women’s suffrage is still unfolding (see this link) All of this to say – you, as a woman in the twenty-first century, have a civic duty to vote. It is critical that you register to vote, develop a plan for doing so, and execute that plan on November 3rd.
It is your right and privilege to vote. Don’t waste it. Let your voice be heard.
If you would like to learn more about the nineteenth amendment or women’s suffrage, I would encourage to check out these resources.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement by Elizabeth Crawford
This book is intersectional. It is an anthology – an easy read and a great place to start if you are just dipping your toes into the suffrage movement.
Another intersectional piece. Pick this one up if you are interested in learning about the movement through the eyes of different activists.
The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss
I personally have not read this one yet, but it is in my TBR pile. It came out last year and got RAVE reviews!
About the Author
Rebecca Reed is the Associate Director of Area Development for Area II for Fraternity Headquarters. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in History and American Studies at Lycoming College. Upon her graduation, she traveled for the Fraternity as an Educational Leadership Consultant from 2017-2018. Rebecca currently resides in Charleston, South Carolina, with her fiancé, Billy, and puppy, Yankee Doodle, where she enjoys visiting local historical sights and spending time at the beach.
Rebecca Reed is the Associate Director of Area Development for Area II for Fraternity Headquarters.