on Suffrage

“Because man and woman are the complement of one another, we need woman’s thought in national affairs to make a safe and stable government.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), social activist, abolitionist, and leading figure of the early women’s movement

This past August 18th was the 91st anniversary of the ratification of 19th Amendment, which granted the right to vote for all women in 1920. However, did you know that women were allowed to vote in certain elections prior to that? In fact, women took an active role as early as  colonial times in the political life of their local communities. It was only  natural to allow that to continue as our young nation took shape. However, when the US Constitution was ratified in 1787, it left the official determination on who could vote to the states.  One would think the denial of voting rights to women was solely due to colonial male chauvinism, but, as you dig deeper into history, you will find that a good portion of the reason had to do with maintaining political power.

The most blatant example of this was the state of New Jersey. In 1776, New Jersey adopted a state Constitution that was gender neutral in its voting laws, limiting the vote only by a residency & property requirement. Then, in 1790, it was amended to specifically grant the vote to both genders, as long as they met the residency and property requirement. However, in 1807, when the Anti-Federalists came to power, the right for women to vote was repealed. The legislation was sponsored by a politician who was nearly defeated ten years earlier by the strong women’s voting bloc, who generally voted with the Federalists. This was the first time women were seen as political threat.

Although many early state constitutions did not allow women to vote, the push for women’s suffrage continued, and the fears of what would happen if they had a say in politics continued. The worry was often tied to certain political issues, especially with the sale of alcoholic beverages. Many feared that women would favor the restriction of the sale of alcohol, and would thereby elect those that supported that issue. The irony of this fact is that the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol, was ratified in 1919, before women were even allowed to vote, and was not repealed until 1933, after women were allowed to vote.

Prior to the 19th Amendment, the level suffrage of women in the United States was not consistent, and it changed over time.  In some states they were allowed to only vote in school board elections. In others, they were only allowed to vote in local municipal elections. In some, like Iowa, women were allowed to only vote on issues, rather than candidates (in 1919 they were allowed to vote in Presidential elections only). However, as our country spread further west, full suffrage was allowed in many of the Western territories. Settling the west was difficult, with women being relied on as much as men in its settlement, and were given the same rights as men in having a voice in its governance.

One of the constants that I have seen in history is that restrictions of liberty result more from the desire to maintain, gain, or usurp power than bigotry, racism or chauvinism. A democratic republic, while not completely immune from political power grabs, is the only form of government that at least makes it harder for those that seek power to hold onto it.  I encourage you to not be distracted by those that try to divide us with petty jealousies; it is merely a smokescreen used to hide the truth. Let history remind us – and them – that Americans will always fight for liberty, never resting until it is restored, whether it is for our generation, or the next.

“There is not the woman born who desires to eat the bread of dependence, no matter whether it be from the hand of father, husband, or brother; for anyone who does so eat her bread places herself in the power of the person from whom she takes it.” Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), leading activist in the Women’s Suffrage movement

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