Faith Alive No. 32, Part 1: Women’s right to vote: 100th anniversary of 19th Amendment

CNS illustration; photo by Nancy Wiechec

If you’ve ever read about someone suffering the ravages of a hunger strike and the violence of forced feeding, you have an insight into what the women who secured the right to vote for American females had to go through.

It wasn’t a neat and tidy process.

The 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which secured voting rights for American women, is Aug. 18.

But as a powerful film in PBS’ “American Experience” series makes clear, women weren’t “given” the vote; they won it through decades of hard struggle, proving once again that freedom is never free.

When civil rights icon John Lewis died in July, his remarks on the anniversary of the attack on the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, were widely quoted: “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble and redeem the soul of America.”

The women who fought for over 70 years for the vote got in trouble, good necessary trouble.

Changing the U.S. Constitution is not an easy thing, nor should it be. And when the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788, a small minority of Americans could vote — mostly property-owning white males.

In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. That’s over 70 years before the 19th Amendment. Most of those who attended that convention would be dead before the ballot was secured for women nationwide.

Alice Paul, born in 1885, took a leading role in advancing the cause. She had worked for suffrage in England, and she brought tactics back to the U.S., including picketing, protesting, parades and yes, even a hunger strike from jail. Many American women were incarcerated as they worked for the vote.

In 1913, on the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as president, 8,000 women marched with banners from the Capitol to the White House to stand up for voting rights. Wilson was unwilling to endorse the idea, even though many Western states had already granted women the vote. Wyoming’s women won the vote in 1869, and some women voted in territories that hadn’t yet been admitted to the Union.

In January 1917, 18 months of picketing began at the White House. The picketers endured verbal abuse and sometimes even physical attacks. In August 1917, 10 suffragists were arrested.

In 1918, Woodrow Wilson finally endorsed women’s suffrage.

Article V of the Constitution presents a complex procedure for adding an amendment to that document. Two-thirds majorities in both the Senate and the House were required, and 36 state legislatures had to ratify the 19th Amendment to make it the law of the land.

One sad and ironic aspect of the struggle was that Black women joined the fight, but their efforts were not wholly embraced. Had the movement made an issue of Black enfranchisement, many Southern states, where vicious Jim Crow laws prevented Black men from voting, might recoil from opening the door to Black women as well. So the enthusiasm of Black women wasn’t seen as part of a winning strategy.

This only serves to underscore that in the struggle for equality in the U.S, it’s often the Black American who is left at the end of the line. It’s all the more reason why we should stand up for the fight for justice that our neighbors of color continue to wage now.

The vote was secured for every woman in the nation, but it took years for some states to add their names. For example, South Carolina didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1969, North Carolina in 1971.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We must not forget that the arc bends because people are willing to stand up and fight to bend it.

In our country, there are those who still seek to repress the vote, particularly for minorities and the poor. Voter ID laws, whose proponents justify them by making false claims of fraud, make it harder for the young, minorities and the elderly to vote.

Thousands of polling places in the country have been closed, according to a USA Today analysis, often in the poorest neighborhoods.

COVID-19 adds to the struggle. Good, experienced poll workers are often retirees, and now many feel it’s in their best interest to stay home. People fear standing in long lines, yet some authorities try to suppress mail-in balloting by false claims of fraud.

As American Catholics, we treasure our right to vote as a sacred duty. When we walk into the polls or put our ballot in the mail, we know that we don’t vote alone. We vote with all those who have struggled before us to win this precious right, and we pledge to make it accessible to all.