Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment

The Legal Arc Volume 1 Issue 1 Articles

Anuraag Asiwal

Anuraag Asiwal is a Third Year student of law at NMIMS Kirit P. Mehta School of Law. He is an avid reader and film connoisseur. He is currently interested in Constitutional Law along with Intellectual Property Rights.

“It is incredible to me that any woman should consider the fight for full equality won. It has only just begun.”

American suffragist, Alice Paul, on the Nineteenth Constitutional Amendment, 1920.

The fight for complete equality for women at large, in common parlance, the feminist movement has seen waves that have been instrumental for women acquiring a plethora of rights: the right to work, the freedom of choice, the right to pursue an education, freedom from sex discrimination, sexual and bodily freedoms, etc. None, however, would be as important as the right to vote.

The fight for complete equality for women at large, in common parlance, the feminist movement has seen waves that have been instrumental for women acquiring a plethora of rights: the right to work, the freedom of choice, the right to pursue an education, freedom from sex discrimination, sexual and bodily freedoms, etc. None, however, would be as important as the right to vote.

It could be argued that the use of the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence, 1776, was a misnomer. History testifies that this has not been the case. The ‘men’ alluded to must have fulfilled certain criteria to claim the ‘unalienable rights granted by the Creator’: They must be cisgender, heterosexual, male, white and land-owning. Anyone who fell outside the ambit of these criteria would not be endowed with the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

The year 2020 marks the centennial of women being endowed with the right to vote in the United States of America; a right granted the Nineteenth Amendment of the US Constitution. The popular story about the Women’s Suffrage Movement begins in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. Here, the first women’s rights convention was held and the ‘Declaration of Sentiments’ was signed, condemning the tyranny that men exercised over women, voicing the grievances women had, and calling attention to the laws that governed them unfairly. The tale closes in 1920, with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The wildly popular ‘suffragettes’ have become synonymous with women’s right to vote, and are often looked up to as the leaders of the movement. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul and Lucy Stone are adulated to this day. Many women, after exercising their right to vote, visit the final resting places of these women to honour them for their painstaking activities culminating in the right to vote.

In recent years, it has become clear that this propagated version of events is distorted by the Mandela effect. For starters, the term used for women demanding universal suffrage is suffragists and not suffragettes. This is the tip of the iceberg. The movement is often encored with great vigour as a story about middle-class white women fed up with the status quo, retaliating through protests, petitions and prayers demanding a right to vote, just like their male counterparts. The story, however, is much more convoluted and nuanced. Sadly, it has taken almost 100 years for the naked truth to come to light, but it is here nonetheless.

While reminiscing about the tumultuous late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the fight for ensuring universal suffrage was marked with contributions of women. All women. Not just middle-class and white women. The contribution of African-American, immigrant, and working-class women was indispensable. The significant contribution of disenfranchised women, such as Ida B. Wells, Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin, has been conveniently swept under the carpet.

The ugly history has come to light, owing to mainstream conversations about race and racial violence and discrimination. The dark side of demand for suffrage is racism, arising due to the right to vote being conferred onto black men by the Fifteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, 1870. Many suffragists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, warned white women that they would be ‘degraded’ if Black men were to place first in the race to get the right to vote.

Thus, it had become extremely evident that the right to vote meant two different things to white and black women: parity and empowerment. White women sought parity, while the recently liberated black men and women sought empowerment and a representative voice in the legislature that governs them. Owing to this, the suffrage movement was rooted in the abolition of slavery. This fact is often lost on people. Although black men were given the right to vote before the Nineteenth Amendment, it would be remiss to ignore racially motivated violence by the Ku Klux Klan in the South, and voter suppression against Black men motivated by white supremacy.

This brings forth another issue about the women’s suffrage movement, the myth that all women could vote after the Nineteenth Amendment. Women in multiple states such as Wyoming, the first state to grant women unrestricted suffrage, California, Illinois, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Rhode Island, New York, etc., were already granted suffrage in many shapes and forms. Women had been voting for years before the Nineteenth Amendment. The erroneous statement overlooks a major falsity: Women were not guaranteed the right to vote after the amendment, rather, any law that reserved the extension of the ballot to men only became unconstitutional. There were still hurdles to overcome, namely the criteria of age, citizenship, place of residence and mental competence. These were clear attempts to keep women from voting. Apart from this, State laws were exercising the same.

However, no one was as disenfranchised as black women. The South continued to be a hotbed of racial violence and fear-mongering, leading to voter suppression in a region that longed dearly for the conventions and status quo of the antebellum South. Black women and men — who had received liberation decades ago — were still unable to make their vote count. While these were the more surreptitious manners of voter suppression, it would be lackadaisical to neglect the legislative voter suppression in states, including time-barred registration, literacy tests, taxes on the polls, and grandfather clauses, along with Jim Crow Laws of racial segregation. These show that there is more than one way to block access to ballots. Nevertheless, the suffragists persisted.

It took over a year for the Nineteenth Amendment to attain the thirty-six State majority requisite for ratification. The final state to do so was Tennessee, and thus, the disqualification based on sex about voting was held to be unconstitutional. This came into effect on the Eighteenth of August, 1920.

The suffragists were recounted during their time as ‘bold’ and ‘unladylike’, and disloyal to their country for expressing dissent during war-time. Women were regularly arrested for causing traffic jams and ‘nuisance’. While heralded as the foremothers of the modern feminist revolution now, during their day, they were ‘not respectable’. They were slandered and maligned in male-owned media by men with voices and the ears of the people. Their efforts, spanning decades before fruition, were commendable.

The image of these women, in their long skirts and poster boards “SUFFRAGE FOR WOMEN”, has been brandished into the eyeballs of the world at large and is one that shall continue to be a consistent reminder of what the country once was, how it changed, and how it is imperative that it never returns to the fascist, dystopian nightmare that it once was.

A hundred years, in comparison to mankind’s existence, is not very long. The United States of America attained independence 244 years ago. The right and eligibility to vote had been enshrined in the US Constitution in Article 1. The states had the responsibility of conducting federal elections. The eligibility and requirements to vote have changed throughout the years through Constitutional Amendments to ensure equitable representation, ensuring that the governed had a voice in who governed them.

In this politically contentious period in the United States, incepted since the election of the incumbent 45th President, Donald J. Trump (R.), the country has never been more divided on partisan lines, with disagreements in the United States Congress and among the citizens represented. Trump won the Presidential ticket by votes in the electoral college, losing the popular vote, which his Democrat opponent, Hilary Clinton, had won.

Subsequently, with the removal of the Voting Rights Act, 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination during voting, after 2013, voter suppression through legitimate and legislative manner has increased rampantly. With inconsistent state laws, gerrymandering, ex-offender disenfranchisement and restrictive voting requirements such as early registration, photo-ID requirements and inaccessible polling places, typically in Black and brown neighbourhoods, not every vote made a difference, as it should have.

The foremothers and forefathers of the nation, who fought to ratify the Nineteenth and Fifteenth Amendment, did not wish to see commonplace voter suppression. They fought to abolish such practices so that their descendants could exercise their Constitutional right in federal elections to make their voices heard, which is the very thread of a Democratic Republic.

With the resurgence of mainstream interest in civil rights, with the Black Lives Matter movement and the eagerly awaited 2020 Presidential Election, the eyes of the world are on the United States. The agenda of the incumbent President to stop mail-in voting and disband the US Postal Service is a clear attempt at vote suppression. During this highly divided time, it has never been more important as members and allies of minority communities to do right by those oppressed by the current administration. It is essential to exercise the right to vote that was so heavily fought and dearly bought by abolitionists and suffragists, as Thomas Jefferson said, “We do not have the government by the majority. We have the government by the majority who participate.”



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