This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women in America the right to vote.
Without this important legislation that became law on August 18, 1920, American politics, business and social life would be far different than it is today. There would be no such thing as the women’s vote, or the “soccer mom” vote for political and government leaders to worry about. Legislation that supports families and children would likely never exist. And women’s roles in business and medicine would be greatly diminished if women were disenfranchised.
We take for granted today that women have the right to vote and that there are such things as the women’s vote and childcare legislation. But history shows women and families lived in a far different world before 1920. It was only through perseverance and education that women became equal partners in American society and government.
The women’s suffrage movement was decades in the making and its proponents had to overcome entrenched opposition by both men and women, as well as disruptions caused by the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I.
The drive to pass the 19th Amendment was fueled by a century of often unequal and, in some cases – horrible treatment of women in the home and the workplace. In most states married women did not have property rights. Early suffrage supporters, including Susan B. Anthony, remained single because in the mid-19th Century married women could not own property in their own right and could not make legal contracts on their own behalf.
In 1848, the suffrage movement became aligned with some slave abolitionists. Women gathered in Seneca Falls, NY to discuss the problem of women’s rights. They were invited there by the reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Most of the delegates to the Seneca Falls Convention agreed with the then revolutionary concept that American women were autonomous individuals who deserved their own political identities.
The post-Civil War constitutional amendments illustrated how low on the social and political rung women were. The Fourteenth Amendment affirmed the new rights of freed women and men in 1868. The law states that everyone born in the United States, including former slaves, are American citizens and could not be denied their rights to “life, liberty, or property.”
However, the 14th Amendment declared that all male citizens over 21- years old could vote. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment affirmed that the right to vote “shall not be denied…on account of race.” – it said nothing about gender. These amendments gave Black men the right to vote, but not women of either race – and it would take another 50 years before women were on the political par with former male slaves.
Women were exploited in the factories of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. There is no more horrible example of that exploitation than at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, where 145 workers were killed in a deadly fire on March 25, 1911. The young women were barricaded in a burning building because the factory owners at the time kept their doors locked to make sure the women did not leave during working hours. Many of the trapped women jumped to their death from windows 9 or 10 stories high rather than burn to death. Most of the workers were young immigrant women in their twenties; the youngest to die in the fire was 15 and the oldest was 38. Working in deplorable conditions for 12 hours a day – the women were paid as little as $15 a week.
The nation was horrified by the Triangle Fire and suffragist and unionists seized on the event to push their equality agendas. The deplorable carnage caught the attention of then President Theodore Roosevelt, who was a former New York City Police Chief and former governor of the state. But Roosevelt was more interested in workplace safety reforms than in woman’s suffrage.
In a 1908 letter to a Massachusetts suffragette Roosevelt declared himself lukewarm on suffrage, saying: “Personally I believe in woman’s suffrage, but I am not an enthusiastic advocate of it, because I do not regard it as a very important matter.”
Nevertheless, the suffragist – men and women – continued pushing their cause and Congress approved the 19th Amendment on June 4, 1919, but it needed 36 states to approve it before it became law. Tennessee provided the last vote needed in the summer of 1920. Incidentally, New Jersey ratified the amendment on February 9, 1920.
With women instilled with the right to political participation – many great women rose to the top positions in government – including seats on the U.S. Supreme Court. Their influence has touched every corner of our lives and our nation. But, like most great accomplishments, woman’s suffrage took years of dogged determination to achieve. We need to recognize that achievement and I am honored to do so.
BettyLou DeCroce represents residents of the 26th Legislative District which encompassed municipalities in Morris, Essex and Passaic counties.