On August 18, the U.S. will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to our Constitution which guaranteed women’s right to vote. The women’s suffrage movement in our country began in the 1840s as women abolitionists saw the parallels between the effort to free enslaved Americans and their own desire to vote. A convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 which produced an organized group led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, among others.
The two movements worked together until women suffragists became angered over the fact the Fifteenth Amendment gave freed slaves the right to vote but didn’t extend that right to women. Over the next 50 years women suffragists labored to gain the franchise. One bloc worked to pass a constitutional amendment at the national level while another focused on the individual states. The Wyoming Territory was the first to give women the right to vote in 1869, followed by the Utah Territory and Idaho.
Momentum built in the 1910s when Washington state, California, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, the Alaska Territory, Montana, and Nevada gave women the right to vote. But, states in the East and South were reluctant to do so and the effort to add a constitutional amendment picked up speed. While Republicans were generally supportive, Democrats weren’t. President Woodrow Wilson preferred a state by state approach, but suffragist leaders kept up the heat, even sneaking a banner challenging him into his speech to a joint session of Congress.
When the US entered World War I some wanted the suffragists to back off, but they indignantly fought on with the argument that the fight for freedom and democracy in Europe should be paralleled at home with a constitutional amendment enfranchising the one half of the U.S. population denied the right to vote. By 1918, President Wilson changed his mind. The House passed the amendment, but the Senate couldn’t get the two thirds required vote even after Wilson took the unprecedented step of addressing them on the Senate floor.
Suffragist pressure finally swayed enough votes to get Senate passage in 1919, and ratification was achieved with Tennessee’s vote on August 18, 1920. It’s hard to imagine that my two grandmothers, both adult women with families of their own, weren’t allowed to vote until that year. The Nineteenth Amendment is too often a forgotten part of our history, but I hope we will use this anniversary to remember how important it continues to be.
When I look around Alabama, I see the fruit of the suffragists’ labor. We have a female governor in Kay Ivey and two female members of Congress, Martha Roby and Terry Sewell. Women serve as Federal judges, state appellate and court judges, district attorneys, and in the Legislature. I work with women county commissioners, mayors, and city council members across the First District. They, each of them, make great contributions to our quality of life and the administration of justice.
My little granddaughter, Ann-Roberts, is a very smart and active girl. I have no idea what she will do when she grows up, but she’ll be darn good at whatever that is. Imagine telling her she can’t vote or hold public office. I can’t. And, I’m glad my grandmothers finally got to vote. It took far too long to give it to them. Let’s remember this important anniversary and the value to all of us of our previous right to vote.
Congressman Bradley Byrne currently represents Alabama’s 1st congressional district.