[December 6th marks the 150th anniversary of the ratification of perhaps the most important amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the 13th. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some contexts for five other amendments, leading up to a special weekend post on the 13th!]
On how the long, hard road to women’s suffrage might parallel a current political journey.
A bill proposing a Constitutional amendment that read “The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex” was first introduced into the Senate (by California Senator Arlen Sargent, a friend and ally of suffrage activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) in January 1878. The bill met with lukewarm reception at best from Sargent’s fellow Senators, however, and never made it out of hearings in the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections. It would be reintroduced by one like-minded Senator or another every year for the next 41 years before finally being successfully proposed (as a Joint Resolution of Congress) in May 1919, but the long road continued even after that point. Indeed, it was not until August 18th, 1920 that the proposed amendment received its 36th state ratification (Tennessee, thanks in significant measure to the private plea of the elderly mother of one state legislator), the two-thirds majority needed to be ratified and become the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
It’s not just that the suffrage amendment had such a long and uphill journey to passage and ratification, though. After all, I would bet most thoughtful 21st century Americans could imagine how such a sweeping political change (some 10 million new voters were immediately enfranchised when the 19th Amendment was ratified) might be controversial, even if nearly all of us (ahem) would of course now support it wholeheartedly. But what is likely far more difficult to imagine—and thus to remember, although as I argue in this Talking Points Memo piece we certainly must remember it, for its own sake and as part of a long, dark American history—is just how consistently virulent and violent was the opposition to women’s suffrage (and specifically to those activists advocating it). As late as March 1913, a suffrage march organized alongside Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration was attacked by an angry mob who cursed, spit upon, and physically assaulted many of the (overwhelmingly female) marchers, while DC police looked on. Suffrage activists were far from victims, I hasten to add—it was precisely their efforts that finally secured the vote—but these histories of violence do add one more striking layer to our understanding of how long and hard this half-century journey was.
In 1923, three years after the 19th Amendment’s ratification, activist Alice Paul drafted a new amendment guaranteeing full equality of rights under the law regardless of sex. This Equal Rights Amendment (or ERA) was introduced into Congress every year between 1923 and 1972, when it finally passed and was sent to the states for ratification. When the time limit for ratification expired in 1982, however, only 35 of the 38 required states had ratified the ERA; the amendment has been re-introduced into every Congress since but has not yet been passed again. For those of us who support the ERA, this history of stagnation, slow and partial and ultimately incomplete progress, and repeated effort without resolution could easily feel deeply frustrating, could turn us off to the possibilities of political movement on such an amendment and issue. Yet without minimizing those frustrations and realities, I would note that the history of women’s suffrage and the road to the 19th Amendment reveal the need and value of continuing to fight for equality and justice, even—indeed, especially—when that journey is a long and difficult one. Those fighting to secure passage and ratification of the ERA are doing precisely that, and they have history on their side.
Next amendment tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
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