Editor’s note: This story is part of our MC faculty and staff series in which professors and/or staff discuss relevant topics within their areas of expertise. In light of Women’s History Month, Genevieve Carminati writes about the fight for equal rights of women in the year of the 19th Amendment’s centennial.
Genevieve Carminati is a Professor of English and the Collegewide Women’s and Gender Studies Program Coordinator at Montgomery College. She teaches women’s and gender studies, essay writing, creative writing, and literature. Genevieve is also a poet and fiction writer. She is co-editor of the recent book, Theory and Praxis: Women’s and Gender Studies at Community Colleges.
By Genevieve Carminati
This year we celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage in the United States. With the passing of the 19th Amendment, most American women gained their right to cast a ballot (racial restrictions and laws still prevented many nonwhite women from voting). As we look back at the history of the movement to win the vote for women, we also look ahead to the possible passing of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) into American law.
In 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, women and men gathered for the first women’s rights conference in America. This conference had grown out of the abolitionist movement that worked to end slavery and had awakened in women the awareness that they, too, did not enjoy full rights of citizenship in the United States. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of those who called the meeting, presented in “The Declaration of Sentiments” the many ways women were denied access: to education, to own property, to be guardians of their own children, to have possession of their own wealth or wages, to have control over their own bodies, as well as other injustices. However, it also incorporated the shocking notion that those rights should include enfranchisement, the right to vote, noting that women had been “compelled to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.”
Stanton and other organizers dared to write, echoing the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” Sojourner Truth, an African American abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and former slave, in an 1851 speech had this to add, making her plea for women’s rights:
“I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As far as intellect, all I can say is, if women have a pint and man a quart—why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not give us our rights for fear we will take too much, for we can’t take more that our pint’ll hold. The poor men seem to be all in confusion and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have you rights, and they won’t be so much trouble.”
The struggle would take 72 years, through the Civil War and World War I. The women fighting for the right to vote would be called suffragists. Along with Stanton and Truth, their names also included Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell, Lucy Stone, Cary Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, among many, many others. The women—and the men who supported their cause—organized, petitioned, picketed, protested, marched, and engaged in hunger strikes. Some were sent to prison, where they were mistreated, forced to work hard labor, and fed rotten food. It would not always be a fair movement—and those involved would make a lot of mistakes.
As we read the history, we see in the movement, along with greatness and courage, stains of racism, classism, elitism, and anti-immigrant prejudices. There would be much opposition, some from women. The opponents would say that politics was not the realm of women, who should remain in the home where they belonged—and were needed. The struggle would continue, each step of ratification barely squeezing by with the necessary votes. And even then, not all women would have access to voting, as state laws would block or make it difficult or unlawful for women of color and Native American women to cast their ballots.
We live in a time when, like the suffragists, we can help shape the future of American equality. It is an inspiring responsibility and one that, as a democracy, should reflect all our voices.
The 19th Amendment 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 sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” As we consider how we can observe and celebrate this right, we see what is most important is to be full and participating citizens of the United States. That is what the suffragists wanted—a chance to take part in how they were governed, to have a voice. We are enjoying record numbers of women in political office and government today. Although we recognize that not all women think alike or support the same causes, a government that looks more like the people it represents certainly seems to be a good idea for a democracy.
Alice Paul was a young woman when she led the National Woman’s Party, a suffrage organization at the forefront of organizing in the final years of the movement to ratify the amendment. She called it “The Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” Paul recognized that having the vote might not grant women all the full rights of citizenship. She drafted the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923, which stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
There is a lot of debate today about whether this amendment is needed to grant women full citizenship and to guarantee gender equality in the United States. Many point out that the amendment would protect men from discrimination as well. The debate also includes whether past approval of the amendment still counts and whether we can build from there. So, here is our opportunity to join in and be involved in the conversation about gender rights.
Recently, Virginia became the important 38th state to ratify the ERA, providing the essential three-quarters of the 50 states necessary for ratification. However, the deadline to ratify ended in 1982, extended from 1979. Following the lead of Nevada and Illinois, Virginia’s ratification forces the conversation to focus on the possible paths forward for the ERA. Some believe that Congress could set a new deadline, but so far, the Justice Department has disagreed. Virginia House Majority Leader Charniele Herring stated, “It is inspiring to see the amendment finally be considered, voted on and passed—long-awaited recognition that women deserve.”
We live in a time when, like the suffragists, we can help shape the future of American equality. It is an inspiring responsibility and one that, as a democracy, should reflect all our voices. Perhaps the Equal Rights Amendment is the necessary constitutional change to assure all are heard.