The 19th Amendment guarantees women the right to vote. The text states simply: “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.”
What that simple text – a mere 28 words – conceals, however, is the long and difficult struggle required to win that right. Women (and men) protested, marched, lobbied, lectured, went on hunger strikes, practiced civil disobedience to make the change. Women who fought to ensure their right to self-determination were arrested, beaten, verbally abused, and more. It took nearly half a century between the time the the Amendment was first introduced in Congress and when it was finally ratified, in August 1920. That was 99 years ago.
In the almost one hundred years that women have had the right to vote, we have made some progress towards the promise of full and equal participation in all of the aspects of life in America, but we are still second-class citizens in many ways. We still do not have full autonomy over our bodies; we still are not treated equally in the workplace; opportunities guaranteed to us on paper still are foreclosed by the patriarchal belief that women are not as capable as men. Women struggle every day to be recognized, rewarded, and respected on an equal footing with men. Women of color have it even harder.
Most people take voting for granted. Maybe they don’t know the history of the struggle to ensure that right for women. Maybe they never learned that the idea of women voting was strongly opposed for a long time. Nearly everyone – women included – believed that women didn’t have the mental capacity to understand the complexities of political issues or of the relative merits of candidates. The notion that women should have a voice in the passage of laws that directly impact them was contrary to most people’s values. People believed that allowing women to voice their own opinions would upturn society and destroy families.
In addition to failing to honor the struggle, we have also failed to recognized the full power of our vote. Ninety-nine years on, women too often don’t vote, and when they do cast their ballot it is often uninformed or subject to too much influence by the men who purport to have more wisdom than we do and so presume to guide us: husbands, fathers, faith-leaders who still assume that they know more about what is good for us than we do.
Why don’t women vote for candidates who support equal pay for equal work, or stronger laws against sexual harassment and discrimination? Why don’t women support candidates who will fight to ensure that women have access to the types of health care that we need, or those who will ensure laws that protect our children, strengthen schools or protect our environment? Why do women allow men to make decisions that are not in our best interest and which continue to protect men’s privileged position in our society? We have it in our power to make the changes necessary to ensure that we are treated equally. Why do we fail to do it?
It has been nearly a century since women won the right to vote. How much longer will it be before we learn to use it wisely?