Today is the 90th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gave women the right to vote, 144 years after the founding of the republic based on the principle that “all men are created equal.”
As I reflect on this anniversary, I am struck by how long it took for a country that has been a beacon of democracy for the rest of the world to acknowledge the basic human rights of a class of people that accounts for more than half the population.
Having grown up in a small east Texas town in the 1940s and 1950s, I remember with some sadness the travails of citizens of color when it came to exercising this right, a right that had been granted long before women were granted suffrage. It was dangerous for a black person to even attempt to register, let alone vote.
President Woodrow Wilson supported the Amendment on January 9, 1918, and the House of Representatives passed it the next day. The Senate, however, refused to even debate it until October, delaying action for months. It took two years for the 36th state, Tennessee, to ratify the Amendment, making it an official part of the Constitution.
One would think that this was the end of the story, right? After all, the Amendment was ratified and had become the law of the land. But, that wasn’t the end of the story for women any more than passage of the Amendment granting suffrage to blacks meant that they could freely exercise that right. The difference, though, was that women attempting to vote weren’t lynched or burned out of their homes in the middle of the night by sheet-wearing clowns.
It’s tempting to say that this objection to granting the vote to anyone but white males is a southern disease, and in fact, it was in the so-called Deep South that resistance was probably strongest. The state of Mississippi, for instance, didn’t ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until 1984. Other southern states, Georgia, Louisiana, and North Carolina only ratified it in the early 1970s. Not all southern states, though, opposed granting the vote to women. Texas was the ninth state to ratify it, and Arkansas was the twelfth. Resistance to black voters was more intense, and lasted until well into the 1970s in many places.
I’ve spent most of my life serving my country in one official capacity or another, mostly in foreign countries. As I look back on the history of voting rights in the United States, I’m personally struck by how we as a country criticize others for failing to ensure that every citizen has the right to vote in free and fair elections; often ignorant of, or ignoring our own record on the issue. But, I’m heartened by one fact; despite a history of denying or depriving whole groups of people of this basic right, the founding fathers put in place institutions that allow for eventual remedies. It might take over 100 years, but when a thing is right, we have mechanisms to get it done. That, and that alone, makes it possible for me to engage foreign officials on issues of voting and proper elections.
We’re not perfect as a nation by any means. But, we are constantly seeking perfection. In the case of granting this basic and inalienable right to women, it took a long time, but as we contemplate having a woman president at some point in the not too distant future, one can say, perhaps the wait was worth it.