Longtime former ABC News Correspondent Lynn Sherr is currently freelancing on a variety of platforms. She is the author of Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. Her latest book is SALLY RIDE: America’s First Woman in Space.
Most of the following is adapted from a longer post which you can read at Moyers and company.
My mother was born in the United States of America without the right to vote. I just stopped to re-read that sentence because it seems so, you know, quaint. Okay, preposterous.
By the time she neared voting age in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote “on account of sex.” For the next seven decades, Mother didn’t miss an election. As a child, I remember watching her dress for the occasion: girdle and stockings, dress and heels, hat and gloves, because like many first-generation Americans who’d endured two World Wars, she considered voting a formal affair, a sacred privilege — and duty — defined by her citizenship.
That’s my regular ritual, too (without the body armor), which is why on Saturday, Aug. 26 — the 97th anniversary of the day American women got the vote — I’ll offer my annual thanks to the women and men who made it happen.
Early suffrage leaders understood their goal as a natural right of citizenship, right up there with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Elizabeth Cady Stanton rewrote the Declaration of Independence along feminist lines for the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention. Her colleague and best pal, Susan B. Anthony, who saw women’s status as political slavery, chalked up the resistance to “man’s egotism, which causes him to think he can run the government machine alone.”
The campaign they led took more than half a century, and was, as noted by the leader of the final surge, Carrie Chapman Catt, agonizing. It took “480 campaigns to urge legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to induce state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to persuade state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to urge presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.”
Not to mention countless insults, inanities and hurled rotten eggs.
But the result changed the dynamic, opening the electoral process to more individuals than ever before in American history.
And opening the floodgates to another century of whining from those whose monopoly of the franchise had been invaded.
As polling places moved from smoke-filled saloons and barbershops to more female-friendly schools and firehouses where alcohol and cigars were banned, the change in circumstances did not strike everyone as an upgrade. “It ain’t like it used to be,” complained one New York City policeman at a voters’ registration booth on New York’s then very seedy Lower East Side in October 1920. With “No smoking” signs and crowds of chatty moms in line with the men-folks, the once gang-ridden slum looked more like a church social. “Since the women’s been mixing in,” he grumbled to a reporter, “politics ain’t the same.”
The long march to enfranchisement was, according to Catt, “a continuous, seemingly endless chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended.”
By celebrating their success every Aug. 26, we perpetuate their vision and determination, adding new connections of our own, with gratitude. Politics ain’t the same? Nothing is. That’s called progress. So Happy Anniversary, Number 19. And thank you.