Updated: Oct 2, 2020
Last week, on August 18, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. On that day in 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, thus satisfying the requirement that three-fourths of the states approve an amendment to the Constitution (there were only 48 states in 1920) and federally granting women the right to vote.
But why, then, is Women’s Equality Day held today, on August 26?
We’ll get to that in a bit, but first, let’s dive into some history!
Since the very first days of the United States, women have gained and lost the right to vote countless times. As early as 1776, New Jersey’s first constitution extended voting rights to “all inhabitants of [the] Colony.” In 1790, the newly formed state legislature even reworded the laws pertaining to suffrage to say, “he or she,” clarifying that both men and women—including free Black men and women—had voting rights in New Jersey. There were restrictions, of course: people had to have lived in their county for a full year prior to the election, and only people who owned property worth more than £50 (roughly $11,000 today) were allowed to vote. However, because married women were not entitled to own property, only single women could vote. They did so until 1807, when the all-male state legislature amended the state constitution yet again, this time to restrict suffrage to tax-paying, white male citizens.
We tend to view “American history” through a white, generally male, generally Eurocentric lens, but in doing so neglect the contributions and accomplishments of those who don’t fit that description. The reality is that women’s rights in what we now call the United States have existed for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years...just not in our society. We need look no further than the indigenous peoples of North America to observe numerous robust matrilineal societies, tribes in which the women, not the men, owned the property, created the laws, and made the important decisions for their families and communities. Six of these tribes, collectively referred to as the Haudenosaunee—also known as the Iroquois Confederacy—would serve as inspiration for a group of white women living on what was once Cayuga land in a small village in upstate New York called Seneca Falls.
The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first of its kind in United States history, “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition of woman.” On July 19 and 20, 300 women and men attended two days of discussion about women’s role in society. This culminated in the signing of the Declaration of Sentiments by 100 signatories (68 women and 32 men), which amounted to a second Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”
There is, however, a certain mythology to the Seneca Falls Convention, propagated after the fact by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in an effort to whitewash and shape the narrative surrounding feminist history. Although it later came to be considered a major turning point in the women’s suffrage movement, the convention was rather hastily planned and thus primarily attracted a local audience. It also proved to be a racially exclusive event: of the three hundred attendees, only one—Frederick Douglass—was Black. Moreover, neither Stanton nor Anthony had supported the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870—Anthony famously stated, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman”—which created deep divisions and partisan rancor within the movement. Stanton and Anthony chose to distance themselves from and erase the achievements of pro-Fifteenth Amendment suffragists like Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, and to stifle the voices of Black suffragists like Sojourner Truth and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
As a co-author of the massive six-volume History of Women’s Suffrage, published between 1881 and 1922, Anthony went so far as to set up a paywall around the book: the only women featured in the book were those who paid to have their portraits in the book. Fortunately, we have begun to unlearn that deeply entrenched and skewed version of history and to give credit where credit is due. For example, Truth Be Told explores the countless contributions that Black women made to the women’s suffrage movement, and a new statue by sculptor Meredith Bergmann will have its unveiling in New York City’s Central Park today; it features Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth and will become the first and only statue in Central Park to feature nonfictional women.
Although the women’s suffrage movement began in the Northeast, it gained more of a foothold in the newest part of the United States: The West. In 1869, Wyoming became the first United States territory to enact women’s suffrage. This may have been a matter of sheer practicality, as this part of the country was sparsely populated: the population of Wyoming in 1869 was approximately 7,000 (6,000 men and 1,000 women). Progress is often painfully slow, however, and this was no exception: when Wyoming became a state in 1890, it broke its own record and subsequently became the first state that allowed women to vote. By the turn of the century, only three other states had joined it: Utah (1870, suffrage granted while still a territory), Colorado (1893), and Idaho (1896).
In other territories, like Washington, women found themselves trapped on a suffrage seesaw. Between 1869-1888, Mary and Emily Olney fought for and earned the right to vote three times, only to see the laws invalidated or overturned soon thereafter. Washington gained statehood in 1889, but what would prove to be the final campaign for statewide women’s suffrage began in 1906. Movement leaders Emma Smith DeVoe, May Arkwright Hutton, and Dr. Cora Smith Eaton used cookbooks, cherry pies, and even a trek to the summit of Mt. Rainier (where a group of suffragists planted a pennant that said, “VOTES FOR WOMEN”) to convince the male electorate to amend the state constitution and grant some* women the vote, which it did on November 8, 1910. Still, this proved to be a watershed moment for the women’s suffrage movement, as seen in the figure below: within the next decade, another ten states (plus Alaska) enacted equal suffrage laws.
* Suffrage in Washington “was still limited to those who could read and write English, and restrictive citizenship laws blocked Native American and immigrant Asian women from voting. It would take 64 more years of struggle before the English literacy requirement was finally expunged from the state constitution.”
(Map from “Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics, The Essentials.” Barbour, Christine and Wright, Gerald C.)
The Nineteenth Amendment, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, was first formally introduced to Congress on January 10, 1878, but it would be another 41 years before it would finally garner the votes necessary to pass. It is a mere 39 words in length, but those 39 words would galvanize women of all races, classes, and political leanings to organize, take to the streets, attempt to cast ballots, and even petition the president himself. This came to a head on November 14, 1917 when the Silent Sentinels, representatives of the newly formed National Women’s Party led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, picketed outside the White House and demanded action from President Woodrow Wilson. They were arrested and thrown in jail, then beaten and tortured in what became known as the Night of Terror. Nevertheless, they persisted, and President Wilson, sensing that backing women’s suffrage might help his Democratic Party make gains in the 1918 midterm elections, pivoted and began urging Congress to pass the amendment. [That instinct turned out to be wrong: voter turnout was low because of the ongoing Spanish Flu pandemic (sound familiar?) and Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and held them until 1930.] The Senate finally voted to approve the amendment on June 4, 1919, and it was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.
(The Silent Sentinels. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress)
By the middle of 1920, 35 states had voted to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, but four other states—Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, and Vermont—refused to consider the resolution for various reasons, while the remaining (mostly Southern) states had rejected the amendment altogether. This brings us back to Tennessee, which became the unlikely battleground for the fate of women’s suffrage. Despite massive lobbying efforts both for and against women’s suffrage, the state legislature remained deadlocked with neither side willing to budge. In the end, it was a letter from Febb Burn to her son, 24-year-old freshman legislator Harry T. Burn, that moved the needle. "Hurrah and vote for suffrage," she directed her son, "and don't keep them in doubt." It was sound advice, and Harry followed it on August 18, 1920, swinging the vote to 49-47. The next day, he told his colleagues, “I knew that a mother's advice is always safest for a boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification."
So why is Women’s Equality Day held today, August 26? Because it took the ratification paperwork six days to travel by train from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. for final certification. When it arrived that morning, it fell to the Secretary of State, Colby Bainbridge, to sign off on the confirmation, which he did in truly underwhelming fashion:
“The signing of the proclamation took place at [8 o'clock this morning], at Secretary Colby's residence, 1507 K Street Northwest, without ceremony of any kind, and the issuance of the proclamation was unaccompanied by the taking of movies or other pictures, despite the fact that the National Woman's Party, or militant branch of the general suffrage movement, had been anxious to be represented by a delegation of women and to have the historic event filmed for public display and permanent record ... None of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement was present when the proclamation was signed.”
(Fun Fact: any amendments made to the Constitution would now have to be certified by the Archivist of the United States, which is indeed a real position!)
The addition of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution immediately enfranchised nearly 27 million (white) women just in time for the 1920 presidential election. It led to the formation of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor—the first federal agency to be headed by a woman, Mary Anderson, and the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women in the public policy process—as well as the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, which came to represent some 12 million women and was then the most powerful lobby in Washington D.C. It led to the passage of numerous laws that benefited women, including:
The Sheppard–Towner Act AKA Promotion of the Welfare and Hygiene of Maternity and Infancy Act of 1921: a precursor to social security, it sought to address the correlation between poverty and infant mortality; it provided states matching federal funding establish prenatal and natal health clinics, health and safety guidelines for maternity and infancy care (including public education materials), and regulation and licensure of midwives.
The Cable Act AKA Married Women's Citizenship Act: allowed American women to retain their citizenship if they married “an alien eligible to naturalization” (which at the time meant a non-Asian alien) and remained in the United States (as women who married foreigners and left the country could still lose citizenship).
However, it was not until the passage of the Snyder Act of 1924 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as its subsequent amendments, that women of color would finally see the same barriers lifted for them that white women had overcome 45 years earlier. In 1971, following the August 26, 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, Representative Bella Abzug of New York submitted a bill to Congress that would designate August 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The proclamation reads:
“WHEREAS, the women of the United States have been treated as second-class citizens and have not been entitled the full rights and privileges, public or private, legal or institutional, which are available to male citizens of the United States;
“and WHEREAS, the women of the United States have united to assure that these rights and privileges are available to all citizens equally regardless of sex;
“and WHEREAS, the women of the United States have designated August 26, the anniversary date of the certification of the Nineteenth Amendment, as symbol of the continued fight for equal rights;
“and WHEREAS, the women of United States are to be commended and supported in their organizations and activities,
“NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that August 26th of each year is designated as Women’s Equality Day, and the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote, and that day in 1970, on which a nationwide demonstration for women’s rights took place.”
Today is a day of commemoration, not celebration. Today, we remember that the fight for women’s suffrage was long, arduous, and featured ample whitewashing and erasure. Today, we recognize that because of Supreme Court decisions like Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the fight over voting rights continues to this day. Finally, we acknowledge that "women's equality" is not a linear struggle; its purpose will only be fulfilled when women are equal to men, and when women of all races are equal to one another. We have won and lost many battles, but the war is not yet over. We will achieve lasting victory when people are no longer grouped into categories, when demographics are no longer an excuse to deprive people of their rights, when it is no longer “us” versus “them.” Only then will it be self-evident that all people are created equal.
-Ian Vlahović, PROTESTRA
Additional sources (not previously linked):
Want to help us Take a Stand?