Editor’s note: August 26, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the Woman Suffrage Amendment. To commemorate this historic event, NDNA, in partnership with the North Dakota Woman Suffrage Centennial Committee, has prepared and made available a package of stories and photos remembering the women’s movement.
By Dr. Barbara Handy-Marchello
The second decade of the 20th Century was a time of great social and economic experiment in the United States. People demanded and created social, political and economic changes, some of which needed to be addressed by revisions in the Constitution.
Congress passed and the states ratified four constitutional amendments between 1913 and 1920, the most constitutional activity our nation had seen since the 1790s. Of these four amendments, we are celebrating nationwide only the 19th. Let’s review: The 16th Amendment gave Congress the right to collect income taxes – useful, but not much to celebrate there. The 17th amendment allowed the direct election of Senators – worthy of celebration, perhaps, but largely ignored and unknown today. The 18th amendment prohibited alcoholic beverages – an amendment fondly pursued by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union for decades, but not really celebrated until its repeal in 1933.
But the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to exercise a voice in government through the vote, was widely celebrated in 1920 when it passed and rightly celebrated today as we approach its centenary. On Dec 1, 1919, North Dakota was the 20th state to approve the amendment (of the required 36). It wasn’t a unanimous vote in the North Dakota House or Senate, but the amendment passed by a large margin. Not every state approved the amendment before the 1920 deadline – Mississippi didn’t get around to it until 1984.
Why does this amendment, unlike the others of that period, deserve attention 100 years later? We celebrate knowing that the goal was righteous. But the application of suffrage expansion was flawed. In 1920, many citizens were unable to take advantage of their new opportunity to vote.
This amendment advanced voting rights, but large gaps in the voting public remained. Historians estimate only about 25 percent of African-American women lived where Jim Crow laws and customs did not prevent them from voting. Although many American Indians had achieved citizenship status, states and counties still limited their access to the polls and, of course, that included women. Universal citizenship for Native Americans did not happen until 1924. Asian Americans experienced continuing restrictions for decades.
We celebrate today the expansion of citizenship privileges in 1920, with a clear understanding it was not the final piece in building our democracy. The process continued throughout the twentieth century and the debates over voting rights and access continue today.
We celebrate today the expansion of citizenship privileges in 1920, but with a clear understanding it was not the final piece in building our democracy. The process continued throughout the 20th century and debates over voting rights and access continue today.
We celebrate the 19th amendment to honor the women who trained themselves in democratic procedures through the Votes for Women Leagues, who entered into public life through reform organizations, and who crafted political arguments and public actions that, over the course of 72 years, resulted in the passage of the 19th amendment.
These women, and the men who supported suffrage, had faith that the institutions of this nation would respond to their call for a stronger democracy through expanded voting rights. We celebrate to renew that faith. We celebrate not only their strength, their patience, their faith, but the privileges of citizenship they bequeathed us.
Dr. Barbara Handy-Marchello is a historian and co-chair of the North Dakota Woman Suffrage Centennial Committee.
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