Women’s Suffrage

Note to the Reader. Any missed nuance found by those more knowledgable than I, was made by oversight, not intent.

John Stewart Mill says that every successful mass movement has three stages: The first stage is ridicule. The second is discussion. The third is acceptance. 

This piece is the result of a discussion I had with one of my wife’s long time best friends. She wanted to know why it was that only all MEN were created equal in the Declaration and Constitution. Why were women excluded? Seeing this was not the time for a snappy comeback, I took the chicken’s way out and crossed the road. But as to the phrase, it should be read in its entirety.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

So without the entire phrase as purposed in the context of the time, we miss its point. But it did get me thinking about women and their fight for suffrage. So in roughly 675 words I’ll see if I can condense 250 years of women’s suffrage as I, a white, paternalistic male, understands the journey that is so closely intertwined with racial discrimination.

The Constitution was written when the Founders were primarily concerned with the new country’s unification. Compromise was the order of the day. The Southern States demanded, the Northern States demanded. The issue was slavery–and sex was edited out. So they put together a document which was, as much as possible, colorblind to race, skin color, ethnicity, sex, and religion. But often the actual words of the document are twisted by whoever reads them, as they are above by simply saying that “all men are created equal.

In the founding days of the Republic, there were individual State differences as to which citizens were allowed to vote. Some women of special circumstances could vote in a few States. When the Fourteenth Amendment passed in 1868 to give former slaves equal protection and voting rights under the law, it was not intended to apply to and protect women. In fact female slaves and all women were excluded. Susan B. Anthony however, argued since the Constitution counts women as “whole citizens” for the purpose of representation, suffrage should also extend to them as well as black males. Did she win?

Well, two years later, the Fifteenth Amendment specifically addressed the right to vote. It provided that no State could deny any male US citizen the right to vote, “..on account of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude…” But women? Susan B., to say the least,was likely miffed.

However, some forward leaning States/territories did give partial or full voting rights to women. The first was Wyoming Territory in 1869, then 19 more followed suit through 1918, the last two being South Dakota and Oklahoma. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment finally recognized a woman’s right to vote. However, “women of color, immigrants, and lower income women” were often subject to voter suppression tactics, such as a poll tax, to keep them from voting.

Then in 1964 the Civil Rights Act was passed to insure a better economic, social, and political landscape for minorities. Although the Act did not specifically protect women from employment bias, this was resolved in 1967, when Executive Order 11375 specifically included women and made any employment discrimination against them illegal as well. Thus, all women were ushered into the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a consequence of this action.

So the uphill road for women’s suffrage which started with Abigail Adams, finally reached its crest. Using a quote by the great American orator Frederick Douglass, who was referring to slavery and apply it to suffrage, “The Constitution may be right, the government wrong.” Our Constitution is a document for the ages. Government’s interpretation? Sometimes not so much. So Rhonda, I learned something. Passed 4 June 1919, ratified 18 August, 1920. 

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