“How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”

How many times have you gone to the polls, waited in line, cast your ballot and attached an “I VOTED” sticker without ever giving a thought to how you got the right to vote in the first place?

Democracy in America began in the late 1700s by granting the right to vote to a narrow subset of society — white male landowners. Women were not considered able to vote because their husbands owned all property. The United States Constitution originally left it to states to determine voting qualifications, and for decades, voting was generally restricted to white males who owned property.  Some states also used religious tests to ensure that only Christian white men could vote.

After the Civil War, Congress passed the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, giving citizens the right to vote that could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” African American men were granted the right to vote on February 3rd 1870. Unfortunately, in the decades to follow, many states used barriers such as literacy tests and poll taxes to deliberately keep African American from voting.

Women began to organize and fight for equality during a convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. For the next 72 years, women protested, picketed, marched on and sat in to demand their right to vote!

In 1913, frustrated by a lack of progress toward a federal women’s suffrage amendment, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) organized a parade in Washington, D. C. But the peaceful protest was anything but peaceful. Spectators attacked the demonstrators as they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue.  Army cavalry troops were dispatched to “restore order” and over 100 women were hospitalized with injuries. In January 1917, women began to gather every day outside the White House. They carried picket signs asking Woodrow Wilson “Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait for Liberty?” Police began arresting the suffragists for obstructing traffic, but the women kept coming back. Women were sentenced to prison terms where they experienced beatings, forced feedings and horrendous living conditions.

Finally, in June 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which gave women the right to vote. For the next 14 months, women worked tirelessly to win ratification in the necessary 36 states. And then on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. The last state to ratify the 19th amendment was Mississippi, which did so on March 22, 1984.

However, the long-awaited victory which technically granted women the right to vote, did not grant ALL women the right to vote. The 19th Amendment did not extend voting freedoms to African American women, Hispanic American women, Asian American women or Native American women.  The 19th Amendment was the end of the fight for white women, but for African American women, the outcome was less clear. Another 45 years would go by before Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 with decisive and bipartisan support, which banned barriers to black voting such as poll taxes, “White primaries,” restrictive registration practices, fraud and literacy tests.

So on August 18th, we recognize the centennial celebration marking 100 years of women’s right to vote. But it cannot be a true commemoration until ALL women, all men can exercise their freedom to vote… until there is Liberty and Justice for ALL.

The next time we complain about long lines and crowded polling places, debate mail-in ballots or consider not making the effort to vote at all, it is important to remember those who made possible this privilege. Those women who never gave up. Names like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells, Marie Bottineau Baldwin, Adelina Otero-Warren and others. It is important to tell our daughters and granddaughters these stories so that our rights and freedoms to vote are never diminished… or worse, given away.

Written by Jan Langbein, CEO of Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support

Visit the National Archives Museum in Washington D.C. for a virtual tour of a special exhibit “Rightfully Hers….American Women and the Vote” commemorating the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.