By Ona Alston Dosunmu
History books say the 19th Amendment “gave” women the right to vote. As has been the case with all dramatic expansions of democracy in the United States, it is far more accurate to say that women engaged in a protracted battle and ultimately took the right to vote. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, giving it the approval of three-fourths of the states required to change the Constitution. In reflecting on the 19th Amendment and the fight for women’s suffrage, we are well served to remember that this was not an overnight occurrence or a foregone conclusion. The amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878. It took over 40 years for a right most people take for granted today to become enshrined in the Constitution. And activism in support of women’s suffrage had been going on since before the Civil War. Indeed, certain members of the women’s suffrage movement were also closely linked with elements of the abolitionist movement.
Allowing women to vote was considered radical at the time and women’s advocacy on their own behalf was not limited to letter writing and peaceful marches in white dresses. Just like later generations of civil rights advocates, activists for women’s suffrage put their bodies on the line and endured abuse and vitriol from the powers that be for having the temerity to suggest that they too were American citizens and therefore entitled to a say in how they were governed. One radical group of suffragists burned Woodrow Wilson’s speeches in front of the White House. Women were convicted and jailed. Some went on hunger strikes and were force-fed by prison authorities. According to one account, opponents of a march organized the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration “turned the event into a near riot, which ended only when a cavalry unit of the army was brought in to restore order.” Public outrage over the incident cost the chief of police his job.
As we reflect on dramatic expansions of American democracy, we would be remiss not to acknowledge the passing of John Lewis and Rev. C.T. Vivian, two civil rights icons whose activism contributed to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One of John Lewis’s last public appearances was at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C. I, for one, cannot shake the feeling that Congressman Lewis felt that he could go on to his eternal rest secure in the knowledge that the baton he had carried for so many years had been successfully passed to a new generation of young people committed to further expanding what American democracy, the words of our founding documents, and the concept of full citizenship mean to our nation.
From the 19th Amendment to the passage of the Voting Rights Act decades later, we owe a debt of gratitude to generations who came before us for expanding the experience of American democracy. It is now up to us to preserve and enhance our nation’s democracy for future generations.