This August we celebrated 100 years of women’s right to vote. On August 18, 1920, after 72 years of a sustained, strategic, and sometimes shocking battle, women’s suffrage was won. You know some of their names: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth. But, there were hundreds of thousands of others, who each made a contribution that made the difference.
Winning the women’s right to vote was greater than the sum of its parts. But each part, each woman, and each man, who supported the cause was a critical piece to the puzzle. We must thank these courageous suffragettes from the 1800’s and early 1900’s. Today, it is almost unimaginable what it was like to not have the right to cast a ballot.
The sheer scale and scope of the changes ushered in by the 19th Amendment is nothing short of unparalleled. And, the legacy isn’t just about the ballot box.
“We are a nation of laws, not of men.”
It’s important to recognize both the history and the evolution of women’s right to vote. As the colonies were organizing into a nation, men laid out infrastructure for governance. John Adams noted they were building a nation of laws. The founding fathers understood that laws were needed to protect the citizenry. But they also acknowledged laws must allow for some flexibility and change. Times will change and so must laws. There has been no shortage of changes to our laws since the early days of our fledgling nation. And there is no shortage of new laws on the books every year.
In fact, nearly 12,000 changes to the US Constitution have been proposed in the last 230 years. Only 33 became amendments, and of those, 27 were ratified. There was no time wasted after the Constitution was laid out in 1787. The first 10 Amendments were proposed in 1789, ratified in 1791—our Bill of Rights.
That means, since 1791, just 17 amendments have been successfully added to the US Constitution. That’s over a span of nearly 230 years!
Celebrating 100 Years of Women at the Ballot Box
On August 18, 2020, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify. On August 26th, we celebrated the amendment certification. But the story didn’t end there.
It took until 1984 for all 48 states that were in the Union in 1920 to ratify this amendment. (Today, 38 states are required to officially add an amendment to the US Constitution.) It is, nevertheless, disheartening that a dozen states ultimately disagreed that women should be allowed to cast a vote. Eight of the 12 states that didn’t care for women at the polls are in the south. Mississippi was the last to ratify, on March 22, 1984.
On November 2, 1920, just two months after women won their right to vote, more than 8 million women voted. From coast-to-coast. For the very first time.
When the polls open on November 3rd this year, it will be for the 59th presidential election. But women will be casting a ballot for only the 26th time.
A Long and Arduous History
The battle for women’s right to vote passed from generation to generation. Probably the most disappointing setback occurred during the first major push for voting rights. This was just after the Civil War. Changes to voter eligibility focused on Black free men, former slaves, and other disenfranchised citizens. The 15th Amendment was proposed, passed, and ratified. It prohibits the “denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
During early rounds of debate, “other disenfranchised citizens” included women. And, women leaders in the movement had high hopes. They thought the terms of the 15th Amendment would include gender as well as race and color. But the final draft included no accommodation for women to vote. In reality, women were still 50 years away from their right to vote.
It took another two generations of women to lead the charge. Unbeknownst to them, 50 more years of uphill political battles lay before these women.
Women Understood the Importance of Political Power
But at long last, women cast their first ballots. It was in the 1920 Presidential election. They arrived at the polls in long dresses and corsets, big hats, and high heels. And, they voted for the men who supported policies and platforms important to them. Not simply on “women’s issues.”
The power of the vote is tremendous. When you cannot vote, you are powerless to influence change. By the mid-1800’s many women starting demanding change. They wanted the chance to do more than their lot in life allowed. Many insisted they could become more than wives and bearers of children. The most visionary among them wanted independence and gender equality in four key areas:
- at the state level,
- in the church,
- within their families, and
- in the workplace.
And they were passionate about dispelling the myths that they were fragile, uninformed, and pious.
Collectively, the leaders of the early women’s movement understood political power. In order to influence real, sustainable change on their behalf, they had to be able to vote. They understood that their futures were limited by the laws of the land. Power lay in the hands of lawmakers. And politicians only changed course when forced to by the vote.
Three Strikes Against Women
- Women started gaining ground where it mattered most in the 1800s: land and property. Women were forbidden by law to own or inherit property in their name. In a few states, she could inherit, but was not allowed to control it. A married woman could have property ownership, but only if her husband became incapacitated.
2. If a woman invented something, she could receive a patent. However, she couldn’t open a business to produce the idea or keep profits from any success. Few job opportunities were available to women, and married women were not entitled to keep their wages if they did find paid work. By the mid-1800’s some states were changing laws to allow women limited trade licenses and control over their earnings.
3. Women wanted legal standing. It was no longer acceptable to her that once married, she became her husband’s property. She had no ability to sign a contract. She could not serve on a jury. If she was curious and smart, there was no opportunity for her to attend a public university.
In short, a woman had no avenue to independence or equality in society or at the bank. Only independent citizens were allowed to vote. And few woman were welcomed into a bank.
After the vote came financial empowerment
The hard-fought, seven-decade war for the vote began a cascade of improvements for women. Once she could vote for policies that were important to her, other opportunities started to open up. On the job front. In leadership roles. But, as with most change, it is glacial in pace. And, these advancements were in addition to her role in the home.
With each step forward, women started building financial knowledge and empowerment. Many have wide ranging philosophies and beliefs about the power of money. It has taken a long time for women to embrace money and finance. The road has been rocky. But, it’s important to recognize that each person is influenced by her experiences, set of beliefs, and the influences from her upbringing. Then, if she gets married there are two, often opposing, sets of beliefs to navigate.
Each woman’s role in her household’s financial decision-making, and how much say she has will be different. While celebrating 100 years of women’s right to vote, each woman can acknowledge why she’s in the position she’s in. And, to recognize that none of our ownership of property, money, and independent financial thinking would have been possible without first winning the right to vote.
A Tremendous Debt of Gratitude
The win for women’s suffrage ushered in a series of changes that continue to this day. As with all watershed moments in history, there is such substantial change with no option to go backwards. These strong, courageous, tough-as-nails women knew change was necessary to move forward. And, boy, have women been moving forward over these past 100 years!
For my personal freedoms and power, I think of those nineteenth century women with tremendous awe and great respect. Their mere staying power—72 years of waging political battle—is nothing short of amazing. They were change agents during times with so little to work with. No internet, no phones, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing! Just white dresses and purple sashes to wear in parades and protests. It is truly a most remarkable accomplishment.
I believe they would be amazed at the road to progress they started. It isn’t just about women’s right to vote. Though that is incredibly important, and I always make sure my vote is cast. It’s about the ability and the expectation that women are part of this great Democracy. And, it’s about equal input in a woman’s household and her bank accounts. We can thank the women who went before us. And remember them. Now, it’s our turn.