On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, recognizing women’s right to vote. It reads: “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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
It had taken many decades to pass the amendment. Generations of women who had worked toward it died before they were able to legally cast a ballot. Many black women continued to be denied voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Shamefully, part of the Congressional enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 and some states have enacted discriminatory practices. The House of Representatives has passed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to address these issues, but Sen. Mitch McConnell has not brought it up to a vote in the Senate. A brief overview of the bill can be found here.
Because of the centennial, there have been a number of documentaries and news features about women’s suffrage in the United States, as well as articles and editorials. We have seen striking visual reminders of the struggle, such as the women in Congress wearing white for the State of the Union address, because white was the color that many suffragists wore during their marches and demonstrations. [A side note on wearing white: When I was a member of the Smith College Glee Club, we wore white when we performed. I don’t know if this tradition sprang from the suffrage movement or not. After I graduated in 1982, the Glee Club moved to wearing all black, but I admit that I still miss the striking sight of a group of young women blazing onto the stage wearing white.]
Because of the pandemic and the current civil and voting rights struggles, the commemorations of the ratification of the 19th amendment will be somewhat muted. I’m remembering, though, the 75th anniversary, which was a special event for me.
I live in upstate New York, a couple of hours drive from Seneca Falls, home of the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. Twenty-five years ago, I was a member of a mostly female, mostly Catholic group called Sarah’s Circle. We met for prayer and discussion on a regular basis and occasionally took part in public events. We decided to take part in the parade and other events in Seneca Falls. We marched wearing matching shirts with our logo, designed by one of our members, on the front:
The back read “Can We Talk” because, at that time, an instruction had come down from the Vatican forbidding even the discussion of women’s ordination.
This did not deter the members of Sarah’s Circle from still speaking up about women’s ordination, but we were trying to appeal to members of the hierarchy to speak with us about it. A number of the our members who felt called to ordination wore Roman collars with their shirts. At the time, I did not feel that call personally so I did not add the collar. As we marched, we sang women’s suffrage verses that one of our members had written to familiar hymn tunes.
It was an inspiring day, filled with joy, hope, and thanksgiving. We had no idea that, twenty-five years later, there would still be such a struggle for fair voting and for equal rights and opportunity. May this centennial commemoration energize us to continue to speak out and vote for those who will uphold the voting and civil rights and the dignity of every person. May we also defend vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris from sexist and racist attacks.
We’ve come a long way in one hundred years, but not nearly as far as we should have.