Aug. 18, 1920, is a significant date in United States history, marking the ratification of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution. It granted women the right to vote in federal elections and for the president of the United States for the first time in the 131 years since the adoption of the Constitution.
As the fledgling nation's founding fathers were drafting the Constitution, Abigail Adams exhorted her husband, John, to "not forget the ladies." However, they left it to the states to determine the qualifications for voting and, until 1910, almost all states disenfranchised women.
Following the close of the Civil War in 1865, several amendments were proposed regarding the status of the freed slaves, including granting them full citizenship. Amendment 15 specifically states "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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude". There is no mention of women even though women's rights leaders of the Reconstruction era (1865-1877) advocated for inclusion of universal suffrage as a civil right in the Reconstruction amendments (the 13th, 14th, 15th).
The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention did not specifically mention voting rights, but it marks the beginning of the movement to achieve full equality and full rights for women in all spheres of the United States political and social life. Voting rights eventually became the principle focus of the movement.
What became the 19th amendment was drafted in 1878 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It reads: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." It was introduced in the United States Senate in January 1878 by Sen. Aaron A. Sargent of California, a dedicated advocate of the suffrage movement. The proposal sat in a committee until 1887 when it was finally considered by the full Senate and defeated, 16-34. It was not considered again until 1914 when it was again rejected. Woodrow Wilson was president.
During the mid-late 1800s to the early 1900s, the western frontier was being settled with the establishment of territorial constitutions. Through the activism of suffrage organizations and independent political parties, women's suffrage was established in Wyoming Territory (1869), Utah (1870), and Washington Territory (1883). Existing state legislatures began to consider suffrage bills, but none received serious consideration until 1910-11, when a flurry of activity prompted most western states to begin to enact full or partial suffrage for women.
Dedicated advocates of the suffrage proposal continued their attempts in Congress with voting on Jan. 12, 1915, and again on Jan. 10, 1918. It continued to be defeated, but by narrower margins. On Feb. 10, 1919, it failed by only one vote. Many members of both parties were eager to have the Amendment part of the Constitution before the 1920 election. A special session of Congress was called by President Woodrow Wilson. On May 21, 1919, it passed the House with 42 votes more than needed. On June 4, 1919, it passed in the Senate 56-25.
Within a few days Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan ratified the amendment as their legislatures were in session. By March 1920, 35 of the needed 36 states had ratified the amendment. The final state, Tennessee, approved it by one vote on Aug. 18. Gradually, all of the other (then 48) states ratified, with eight states not ratifying until the 1950s,1960s,1970s and final of the 48 not until March 22, 1984. It should be noted that Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states at this time.
Susan B. Anthony, principal drafter of the 19th amendment, was a tireless advocate of women's equality and equal rights throughout her long life. She maintained that every woman should have her own money and carry her own purse. She carried an alligator purse.
Born Feb. 15, 1820, Ms. Anthony died March 13, 1906, 14 years before her lifetime dream became reality. She never had the opportunity to exercise the right for which she dedicated her life. Her home in Rochester, N.Y., is an historic site, museum, and the western anchor of the Women's History Trail. It is visited by thousands of people annually.
We tend to take the right to vote for granted, unmindful of the many years during which half of the adult population did not have that right. We are even less aware of the efforts of many citizens - men as well as women - throughout many years to acquire that right.
During the final decade before the Amendment's passage, women's organizations staged peaceful rallies and marches in Washington and elsewhere throughout the United States. In the nation's capital, many of the women were arrested and spent weeks in jail. When they refused to eat they were force-fed. One of these women was Jamestown resident, Edith Ainge, who was jailed five times. She worked unstintingly in various capacities in Washington and in Western New York and, following ratification, served as treasurer of the National Women's Party.
There is another local connection. Bainbridge Colby, secretary of state under President Wilson, signed the proclamation which officially attached the suffrage amendment to the Constitution on Aug. 26. He married Anne Ahlstrand in 1929 and moved to Little Brook Farm in the Sunset Bay area on the old Bemus Point Road. He died there in 1950 and she in 1963. She gave the 75-acre estate to New York State as part of Long Point State Park.
In November we will once again have the opportunity and the privilege to exercise our right to vote for the candidates we deem most qualified to lead our various government levels. As the lady with the alligator purse said: VOTE!
B. Dolores Thompson is City of Jamestown historian, Jamestown AAUW public policy chair, and long-time advocate of equal rights for women and for all minorities in our community.