Virginia Kase, CEO of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said she bristles when she hears that women were “granted” the right to vote. “The hell they were,” she said, calling the push for women’s suffrage “a hard-fought battle” that took more than 70 years.
Kase was one of the panelists who commemorated the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment on Oct. 28 at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Fighting for Political Power: Women’s Inclusion from the 19th Amendment to 2020” was hosted by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, Center for Public Leadership, Institute of Politics and Women and Public Policy Program in collaboration with the American Bar Association.
“As we celebrate,” said ABA President Judy Perry Martinez in her opening remarks, “we will squander the historical gift of the 19th Amendment Centennial unless we also examine the challenges of democracy and equal rights that face us today.”
Sarah Wald, chief of staff and senior policy advisor to the dean of the Harvard Kennedy School, served as the program moderator and said that in reviewing the history of the 19th Amendment, she was struck by the variety of struggles it took to get the amendment passed. “We had lawsuits, we had attempts to interpret the constitution,” she said. “We had women who would actually go to the polls and try to vote, including some, like Susan B. Anthony, who were arrested and tried.”
As the amendment got closer to passing, Wald said, there were more “protests, direct action, bonfires of Woodrow Wilson’s speeches in front of the White House – the first time there were protests in front of the White House.”
And while passage was an important victory, she said, it was only a partial victory. She asked the panelists about what still needs to be done.
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund and an Institute of Politics Fall Fellow, answered by breaking into an old Negro spiritual about freedom, which she said was to make the point that the suffragette movement came out of the abolitionist movement.
“There were black women who were instrumental in the suffrage movement that are often unnoticed and they’re marginalized in the history of what happened,” Brown said, and cited Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells as examples of black suffragettes. Brown said it was important to “go back and tell the real story.”
In addition, she said, although black women were instrumental in the suffrage movement, their own right to vote was not secured until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965.
Today, the conversation needs to include “how protected is this right?” in the face of voter suppression, Brown said. “The fight isn’t over,” she added.
Kathleen Sullivan, former dean of Stanford Law School, noted that the 19th Amendment, which says, “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,” did not secure other rights for women.
After its passage, women could not serve on a jury, practice law or be a bartender, Sullivan said. So, the Equal Rights Amendment, which says “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex,” was introduced in every session of Congress from 1932 until it passed in 1972, and was meant to “finish the job in the Constitution,” Sullivan said.
The ERA was ratified by 37 of the 38 states needed. “I believe and have testified to Congress, that if we got a 38th state now, it could still be ratified, because nothing in Article 5, which provides for constitutional amendments, puts a time limit on ratification,” she said.
“We are the only industrialized democracy with a Bill of Rights in the world that doesn’t have a gender rights provision in the constitution,” Sullivan added. The panelists agreed that Virginia was the next most likely state to pass the ERA.
Kase said the League of Women Voters has 764 leagues at the local, state and national level, which she characterized as “going back to our roots” to build political power collectively.
You can tell a lot about a movement by its opponents, Wald said. The 19th Amendment was opposed by, among others, mill owners (who were afraid women voters would target child labor), brewers (who were afraid women voting would mean more gains for the temperance movement) and the New York Times (which editorialized that women would want to become police and firefighters, judges and elected officials).
Sullivan noted that most of what the New York Times feared has come true, not because of a constitutional amendment, but because of “bold litigators led by Ruth Bader Ginsburg” when the now Supreme Court justice worked for the ACLU, and the “second women’s movement” in the 1970s, which backed up the legal push with a social movement.
In addition to the Harvard event, Martinez said the ABA is “partnering with law schools to present programming; providing resources to state, local and specialty bar associations; developing public education materials; and devoting this year’s Law Day to the theme titled “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100.”
The event can be viewed on the Institute of Politics’ YouTube page.