“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.” -19th Amendment of the United States Constitution
These are the words that allowed women to officially vote in America. Over 100 years after the founding of the United States,the group that made up about half of the population finally had a voice. Women were granted the right to vote and could finally take a part in the democratic system that America was founded upon.
August 18th marks the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote in the United States. The Amendment was passed by Congress in 1919, but ratification occurred on August 18th, 1920. This was a huge milestone for women - we could finally be seen as equal in terms of voting rights. The voice of women could be heard by everybody through their votes.
Although this was a momentous occasion, it was not the first time that women came together to fight for equal rights. The first women's rights convention in the United States was the Seneca Falls Convention that took place in 1848. Many heroines gathered to voice their opinions and to begin taking action for equality. These trailblazers were led by the activist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton who called for women’s equality and suffrage in the Declaration of Sentiments. The Seneca Falls Convention can be seen as a spark to bring about women’s rights in the future.
The reason that both the Seneca Falls Convention and the ratification of the 19th Amendment are so important is because of the rights that they brought to women. One of the key components of a democracy is the right of the people to vote because it holds representatives responsible for their actions. Without the guaranteed right to vote, women were mainly left unheard. In fact, coverture laws have slowly eroded over the years with new laws and regulations, but nobody really discusses them. Coverture was a set of common laws that meant married women basically did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. Women had no right to own property under coverture which was a key requirement for voters. Coverture laws were yet another restriction on a woman’s right to vote.
While the Coverture laws left women without rights and a legal standing to protect themselves, there is one outlier which is known as the New Jersey Exception. Women were able to vote freely and fairly in New Jersey from 1776 to 1807, as long as they were not married. Women who chose not to marry and widows were granted the right to vote just like any man. The New Jersey law, until 1807, stated that all inhabitants of the state “of full age, who were worth fifty pounds” had the right to vote. This means that,in theory, women and people of color were eligible to vote. There are even polls that show that between 1797 and 1807, 208 out of the 2,695 documented voters in Montgomery Township, NJ were women.
In 1807, there was a drastic change and the law that ensured women could vote was dismantled. The law was rewritten in a way that explicitly limited the franchise of voting to white men. The switch occurred after a perception that “petticoat electors” were incompetent and easily manipulated. So, for about 30 years, women were granted to vote in one of the colonies but that was taken away from them. It took over 100 more years of organizing to bring back the right to vote and get rid of coverture laws that prohibited women from living as freely as their male counterparts.
Not only were women disenfranchised for generations, their rights were actually taken away from them in New Jersey after election problems. The best way to ensure that men could stay in charge and women remained subservient was to strip them of their right to change anything. The ratification of the 19th Amendment has not only given women the right to vote, but it has also proven that the history of America was wrong. Women are as smart and knowledgeable as men and they deserve to contribute to elections of politicians that will affect their everyday lives. Prior to the 19th Amendment,women were limited to the right to organize and petition for change. Now, thanks to the ratification, women can vote and run for office. There are no longer constraints that force women to indirectly participate in our democracy, but we can actually run the show.
I have talked about the leaps and bounds that the rights of women have changed specifically due to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but there is still more to do. Teen Vogue actually did a series entitled The Uncounted to look at the remaining inequalities after August 18th, 1920. Although the 19th Amendment brought about the largest expansion of the franchise of voting in America’s history, it left out a lot of women. Women of color and those who did not have money to own property still could not vote in elections until the passage of the 15th amendment and through the Civil Rights Movement. Today, the disenfranchisement of Black LGBTQ+ women is a battle that proves that our work in bringing rights to all women is yet to be finished. Basically, women’s suffrage in 1920 benefited upper class straight white females and few others. The women that Teen Vogue interviewed in their series are all women of color and do not ascribe to the description of the women who could vote in 1920 and for the decades to follow.
I say all of this to say that we still have a long way to go in terms of women’s suffrage and universal voting rights. It is not enough to simply be happy for the 19th Amendment, and we all must demand more. We need to say that not only white women deserve a seat at the table, but all women do. We need to continue demanding equality for women. As the rule in 1920 stood, I would not be able to vote or take classes at an elite university like Notre Dame because of the color of my skin. Today, there are still women being looked over because of their background or sexual orientation and it must stop. It is important to remember this quote by Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s Free Until Everybody’s Free”. We will continue to fight for justice by using platforms like HerCampus to uplift and inspire each other in the honor of the 19th Amendment!