Last Thursday was the 90th anniversary of the 19th amendment. The amendment states, “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.”
I think I speak for most women when I say it seems incredulous that we had to be “granted” the right to vote. Why did “we” have to wait over 70 years? The struggle began in the 1830s and made headlines in 1848 when voting rights for women were first seriously proposed at the Seneca Falls Woman’s Rights Convention in New York. The women in attendance passed a resolution that stated, “It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
An amendment to give women the right to vote was first introduced in Congress in 1878. Meanwhile individual states began to see the light. In 1893 Colorado became the first state to allow women to vote, followed by Utah and Idaho. Nine Western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912 (California in 1911). In 1914, women could vote in Montana and three years later that state elected Jeannette Rankin the first woman to Congress. She was a Republican, a Pacifist who voted against entering both world wars and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Like today, a heated debate about whether individual’s rights are better served at the state or federal level stalled the women’s suffrage movement. After World War I, Woodrow Wilson announced his support of the amendment – a no-brainer given the contributions women made during the war. The next day, Jan. 10, 1918, the House of Representatives passed a proposed Amendment to the Constitution. But the United States Senate took until June 4, 1919, to endorse the 19th amendment in a 56 to 25 vote (just two more than the necessary two-thirds) which sent the amendment to the states for ratification.
llinois, Wisconsin and Michigan were the first states to sign on, but Georgia and Alabama hurriedly rejected the amendment. The 36th state to vote yes and ratify the amendment was Tennessee, but that win didn’t come easy. On Aug. 18, 1920, the Tennessee General Assembly vote resulted in a 48-48 tie. Harry T. Burns, a 24-year-old lawyer, read a long letter from his mother while he waited for the tally. Mom said, in part, “I have been watching to see how you stood but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy.” He changed his “nay” vote to “yea” and the 19th amendment was ratified.
California was the 18th state to ratify on Nov. 1, 1919, but 12 states (Connecticut, 1920; Vermont, 1921; Delaware, 1923; Maryland, 1941; Virginia, 1952; Alabama, 1953; Florida, 1969; South Carolina, 1969; Georgia, 1970; Louisiana, 1970; North Carolina, 1971 and Mississippi on March 22, 1984) were not among the 36. Most of these originally rejected the amendment.
On Aug. 26, 1920, a package containing certified documents from the Tennessee legislature arrived by early morning train at the nation’s capital. At 8 a.m. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the 19th amendment at his residence without ceremony. The headlines in the New York Times stated: “Colby Proclaims Woman Suffrage, Signs Certificate of Ratification at his home without women witnesses, militants vexed at privacy.”
In the 2008 presidential election, 53 percent of the voters were women.
Reach Michele Thomas, The Daily Triplicate’s publisher, at mthomas @trip li cate .com, 464-2141, or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.