Guest Essayist: Cleta Mitchell


On Aug 26, 2020, we will celebrate the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing the right to vote to America’s women citizens. It is a short and simple statement of law:

“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.“ Amendment XIX, United States Constitution.

It may seem unusual in post-modern America of 2018 to think that there was ever a serious doubt or question about whether or not women should be granted the right to vote, but in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, extending voting rights to women was as contentious as the fight over citizenship and voting rights for former slave African-American men.

The struggle to achieve women’s voting rights began at a conference in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848, when a group of men and women gathered to discuss the laws and legal status of women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who became one of the national leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the last half of the 19th century, wrote the report of the Seneca Falls meeting, signed by the participants. She patterned it after the US Declaration of Independence, and it contained the first recorded demand for the right to vote for American women. Her compatriot in the women’s suffrage movement was Susan B. Anthony, often referred to as the mother of woman suffrage in America. Indeed, the Nineteenth Amendment was referred to at the time of its ratification as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment”.

Following the Seneca Falls proclamation in 1848, there was a slow but steady growth of the national movement to pressure lawmakers in state legislatures, state constitutional conventions, and in Congress as well as newspaper publishers and the American public to support voting rights for women.

The movement gathered steam in earnest following the Civil War. There came to be a bitter struggle within the women’s suffrage movement, as some believed that any voting rights conferred on former slaves should simultaneously extend to women. Others, including the leading abolitionists of the day, argued that it was the time of the “Negro Man” and that women’s voting rights would have to follow in time. That debate split the women’s suffrage movement into two groups, which remained divided until 1890, when the two rejoined their efforts, and worked together over the remaining thirty years until securing the passage and final ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

The struggle for women’s voting rights went on for 72 years from that original meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. From the first (unsuccessful) state referendum on women’s suffrage in Kansas in 1865, the womens’ suffrage movement engaged in 480 petitions and lobbying drives in state legislatures, 277 campaigns at state party conventions to get woman suffrage endorsed by the state parties, and 56 separate state referendum campaigns to persuade male voters to enact women’s suffrage.

In addition, the suffragists targeted nineteen sessions of Congress in their quest to get Congress to approve a federal woman’s suffrage amendment and send it to the states for ratification.

Of all the state efforts, the suffrage movement in New York was perhaps the most disappointing but two years later, it may have been the most significant.

In 1915, the male voters in New York defeated the woman’s suffrage proposal but in 1917, that same referendum was approved by the most populous state in the country, and that victory made politicians take notice, including President Woodrow Wilson. Never an ardent supporter of woman suffrage, President Wilson nonetheless made the political calculation that support for a federal suffrage amendment would be a politically smart decision and, in 1918, announced his support for a federal constitutional amendment to grant women voting rights.

By the time Congress finally passed the Nineteenth Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification in 1919, all but a handful of states had enacted some form of woman’s suffrage, either for all purposes or for certain elections such as in school board or other local elections, or solely in presidential elections. Many western states had come into the Union in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries with woman suffrage as part of their state constitutions and Jeannette Rankin from Wyoming was elected to Congress in 1916, the first woman ever to serve in the United States Congress.

Thirty six states were needed for ratification of the Susan B Anthony Amendment. By August 1920, thirty five states had approved the ratifying resolution and after some surprising defeats in Delaware and Maryland, the last best hope for ratification rested in Tennessee.

The battle could not have been more vicious or intense. And in the end, despite all the arguments and political shenanigans, the Tennessee legislature passed the ratification resolution on August 18, 1920. It was enrolled by the Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby on August 26, 1920 — who announced at 8 am that morning that the struggle for women’s suffrage was finally over.

The Nineteenth Amendment was the law of the land.

One hundred and thirty years after ratification of the United States Constitution, women were, at long last, granted full citizenship and voting rights in America. The Nineteenth Amendment is a piece of the struggle for freedom that had eluded half of America’s population for more than a century.

Cleta Mitchell is a partner in the Washington, DC office of Foley & Lardner, LLP, where she practices election and political law.


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