Cheers to the 19th Amendment–96 Years Ago Today!

Welcome to MMD’s newest contributor, Dr. Bailey Sisoy Isgro, owner of Detroit History Tours!

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August 18th should be a national holiday. We should make potato salad and grill hot-dogs. Fireworks should be loosed and kids should wear patriotically themed face paint. It’s the anniversary of the liberation and equalization of the largest disenfranchised group in the history of America. Women.  On August 18th 1920 The 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was ratified into the U.S. Constitution. Ninety six years ago today, women in America earned the right to vote.

The amendment was the culmination of more than 250 years of amazing, honorable, courageous suffragists who fought the injustice of being governed by officials they were unable to elect. Its two sections read simply: “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” and “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Vote every damn time you have the option to cast a ballot, Vote knowledgeable, vote with the weight of 96 years behind you.

Ninety six years, ninety six short years between 51.3 percent of the American population being able to vote freely in elections and women handcuffing themselves to the railings of polling places. One lifetime. It is so recent, that according to 2010 U.S. census records 1.9 million living Americans were alive to see the amendment passed. Nearly two million people alive today were born to mothers who at the time they gave birth had no legal right to elect the Mayor, Governor, or President that would govern their children.  What do the sinking of the Titanic, the introduction of the Oreo cookie, and World War One all have in common? They happened before women had the right to vote in America!

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The suffragettes were working long before the Titanic hit the iceberg or the Oreo hit the glass of milk. The women’s suffrage movement in the United States, started in the mid-19th century. It wasn’t a big bang type event where like minded ladies ran into each other whilst corset shopping at the ye olde mall and said “lovely boobcage ma’ dear how abouts we rally for equality?”. These women had been politically active through their work in the abolitionist (great idea) and temperance (bummer at parties) movements for decades. They had held some amount of political sway due to influential and wealthy families, their work in the Underground Railroad, anti-slavery campaigns, and ability to smash bottles of whiskey with a hatchet.

The truest start of an organized suffragette movement is most likely July 1848 when two hundred woman suffragists, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott met in New York. These two hundred women gathered in Syracuse to discuss the educational and employment opportunities available to women at the time.  Then in a stroke of founding-mother’s brilliance they passed a resolution so meaningfully written we should etch it in every women’s locker room nationwide. Our girls should grow up memorizing it with catchy cartoon theme songs and we should love it so dearly that we protect and honor it yearly by voting. The two hundred women of the Syracuse convention declared: “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”

Lots of people hated that this happened. Some politicians who had previously backed women’s rights for education even withdrew support after the proclamation was made. Undeterred two years later in 1850 the first national woman’s rights convention was held. These amazing women, whose effigies should adorned currency and and postage stamps, were on a roll and hosted the convention each following year. It quickly became a yearly hotbed for the growing women’s suffrage movement.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

America is rolling along at this point and we are doing some wild rebuilding post American Civil War in the Reconstruction era. Factories are taking over and people are moving to cities. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, granting African American men the right to vote. As of 1870 as long as you have a penis regardless of its color, you can vote, great news for the penises among us but the ladies are still disenfranchised.

Then in 1869 drum roll please… Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in all their considerable glory, founded the National Women’s Suffrage Association.( Boom. Pow. Zoom. I like to imagine them wearing capes over their heavily bustled wool dresses – swooping in to liberate and protect.) Their main goal was add a women’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And the same year the equally badass Lucy Stone formed the rival American Woman Suffrage Association to work through the state legislatures. In 1890, these two groups were united as the National American Woman Suffrage Association. That same year Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote and after all their hard fought efforts these great women finally saw some progress. Three cheers for Wyoming!

In rolls the new century, 1900! The role of women in American society was changing rapidly.  Women were working outside the home more regularly, receiving a better education and having far fewer children. Excitingly- three more states Colorado, Utah, and Idaho had yielded to the demand for female enfranchisement, allowing women to vote in statewide elections. Nine cumulative cheers for Colorado, Utah and Idaho!(In 1912 the Titanic sinks and the Oreo was invented).

In 1916, the National Woman’s Party which was formed in 1913 at the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage adopted a more forceful approach to achieving their goals. No longer content with the results of questionnaires and lobbying, The women of the congressional union for women’s suffrage began picketing the White House, they marched in four major cities (Washington DC, New York, Chicago and Detroit), and staged acts of civil disobedience. Its members handcuffed themselves to railings at voting places and were often arrested by local police. They were the first women to picket for women’s rights in front of the White House. Known as “Silent Sentinels”, they maintained a continuous presents from January 10, 1917 until June 1919. They were eventually arrested by police for obstructing traffic after the start of World War One.

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Many of the NWP’s members upon their arrest went on hunger strikes; some were force-fed by jail personnel as a consequence. Anne Henrietta Martin, the NWP’s first vice chairman, was sentenced to the Occoquan Workhouse (President Wilson pardoned her in less than a week). For fighting for the right to vote a woman was sentenced to a workhouse where she was literally expected to break big rocks into small rocks and chop lumber. Today many people skip the polls because the lines longer than twenty minutes.

Sadly the greatest aid to women’s suffrage was in 1917 when America entered World War One. With men off to war, women aided the war effort in various capacities. Women took on jobs they were previously barred from. They managed family businesses, worked in factories, produced food and took up nursing. The war helped break down most of the remaining opposition to woman suffrage because how can a women not be capable of voting when she can drive a Model T? Women proved their overwhelming value to the nation and by 1918, women had acquired equal suffrage with men in 15 states (hold your applause until the end).

In the same year both the Democratic and Republican parties openly endorsed female enfranchisement. With the feminist ball rolling in January 1918, the woman suffrage amendment passed the House of Representatives with the necessary two-thirds majority vote (clap). In June 1919, it was approved by the Senate and sent to the states for ratification (lookin’ good). Suffragettes kicked into high gear and did the modern day equivalent of the morning talk show circuit. They rallied, they dispersed leaflets, they marched and on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, giving it the two-thirds majority of state ratification necessary to make it the law of the land (Booya!).

The package containing the certified record of the action of the Tennessee legislature was sent by train to the nation’s capital, arriving in the early hours of August 26th. It was literally a train of change that came steaming into the station.  Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed it without ceremony at his residence in Washington. None of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement were present when the proclamation was signed, and no photographers or film cameras recorded the event. Not even a painting was made. Literally millions of American gained the right to vote and no one documented the moment it happened, talk about a Kodak moment.

That afternoon, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Suffrage Association, was received at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson the First Lady (who could now shockingly vote!). Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had died years earlier never seeing the 19th amendment become the law of the land.

So let’s have a party this August 18th. Let us join hands men, women, black, white and purple, and raise a glass of lemonade to the 19th amendment. Let us celebrate the super heroines who knew that women were as valuable as all other groups in the democracy of the United States of America. Paint your children’s faces with flags or little number 19’s. Make sugar cookies in the shape of ballots and play constitutional charades. Or don’t. Don’t do any of that, simply talk to your kids in the car about the time when women had to fight to have the same political power as men, or raise your glass at the dinner table to the work of these fine women, or most importantly vote.

Vote every damn time you have the option to cast a ballot, Vote knowledgeable, vote with the weight of 96 years behind you.

Today we celebrate the ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America.  May your celebrations be equal for all, your rights be preserved, your votes be counted, and your joys know no bounds.

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