19th Amendment: commentary

Women in the United States had been advocating for the right to vote (also known as “women’s suffrage” or simply “suffrage”) since the early years of the 19th century. (Actually, some enlightened American women, such as Abigail Adams, expressed support for women’s rights even before the Constitution was framed.) To most folks (women included), it was simply unthinkable that a woman should be able to do what men could do: vote and hold office. It wasn’t modest; it wasn’t moral. They feared that once women got the vote, they would become monsters. Society would be turned upside down and ruined.

As the century progressed, women formed organized movements to stir up public awareness and push for for social change. But they faced stubborn opposition from church, government, the courts, and the press. A few brave women actually showed up at the polls to cast ballots. They were arrested and taken to jail, then fined for breaking the law. So, according to their society, it was illegal for women to vote. The suffragists wanted to change this. It took a long while for public opinion to accept the possibility of change. Many men were terrified at the prospect of women gaining political power. They found it preferable to spend time, money, and effort to fight against these women than to face the prospect of sharing political power with them.

For insisting on their rights as U.S. citizens, suffragists were not only jeered at, they were mobbed, beaten, jailed, and treated like traitors.

But gradually, the tide began to turn. Women were winning the right to attend college and to enter the professions. Was it so very unreasonable to ask for the vote? Refusing to give up, suffragists gained more popular support, and some allies in in Congress. Bit by bit, they won support public and legislative support for their cause.

Although suffragists had many gripes against their society and government for the unjust way they had been treated, when the United States entered World War I, suffragists participated enthusiastically in war efforts. They called on all American women to volunteer, to enter the workforce, to raise money, to do everything they could to support their country. In gratitude, their country finally gave them the right to vote.

Although women in half of the states already had partial or full voting rights by 1918, Congress passed and ratified the 19th Amendment in Summer 1920, officially granting women in every state the right to vote. Great rejoicing followed, and women lined up to register. It was only a matter of time before women began participating in politics—as mayors, governors, and members of Congress. A number of them have served with distinction. It is only a matter of time before the United States elects its first woman president.