“Everybody counts in applying democracy. And there will never be a true democracy until every responsible and law-abiding adult in it, without regard to race, sex, color or creed has his or her own inalienable and unpurchaseable voice in government.” These are the words of Carrie Chapman Catt, a famous suffragette, during a speech at the 1917 event Votes for All: A Symposium.
Within three years, Catt would achieve a lifelong dream – securing equality at the ballot box.
Recently, America celebrated the 99th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees, “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.” After nearly 100 years of petitioning the US government, women were finally granted the right to vote in 1920 under the presidency of Woodrow Wilson.
Women activists called suffragettes, or women suffragists, loosely formed voting rights advocacy groups as early as the 1820s. It was not uncommon for women to push the social boundaries of the day as men were in the more traditional role of providing for the family. Temperance leagues fighting to prohibit alcohol and the abolitionist movements working to end slavery were powered by women.
Most groups were localized and didn’t gain national momentum until Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Antony, and Lucretia Mott teamed up in 1848 and hosted the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY. The event propelled the idea of women voting into the national spotlight. The struggle would last another 60 years, finally concluding with ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Barring a brief break during the American Civil War – when their efforts were diverted to aid soldiers – women remained dedicated to ensuring the right to vote.
Suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, who campaigned loudly while leading an army of voteless women in 1919 to pressure Congress, became the thorn in the side of President Woodrow Wilson. But persistence paid off and in May 1919, Rep. James R. Mann (R-IL), chairman of the Suffrage Committee in Congress, proposed a resolution in the House of Representatives to approve the Susan Anthony Amendment. This would prevent the federal government from denying the right to vote based on gender. The measure passed the House 304 to 89.
Two weeks later, on June 4, 1919, the Senate also passed the 19th Amendment 56 to 25. The amendment was then sent to the states for ratification. The decision finally hinged on the vote of one young Republican, Rep. Harry T. Burn from Tennessee. Or maybe it hinged on his mother, who wrote to him saying, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Harry listened to his mother and cast the deciding “yea” vote.
99 Years and Counting
Women went to jail in the early 1900s for the crime of asking for the right to vote. The United States has grown in the desire for inclusiveness. We solve our governmental problems with the ballot box. Suffragettes and their allies forever changed this nation by expanding representative democracy and inspiring constitutional change and reform.