This post is contributed by LWVJ member carolyn Brown.
When I was a kid in early years of learning the saga of U.S. history, I had trouble understanding the meaning, relationship and difference between the words ”suffrage” and “suffering.” They sounded alike to me. Now, these several years later, I find myself similarly troubled to understand these two words in the lexicon of today’s society and challenges.
Suffrage: the right to vote in an election. Suffering: experienced pain, illness, injury, whether physical, psychological or emotional.
Women fought in the American Revolution, participated in “winning the West,” worked the Underground Railroad, challenged slavery, eked out marginal lives in factories and sweatshops and struggled to obtain suffrage. Suffer they did but suffrage was not theirs to have.
In 1776, women and “free blacks” were allowed to vote in New Jersey if they had property worth more than 250 dollars. This was rescinded in 1807. In 1848, women and enlightened men met in Seneca Falls, New York to create the Declaration of Sentiments that would support women’s suffrage. The first petition to Congress for women suffrage was 1866. That went nowhere. The “Civil War Amendments” dealt with abolition of slavery (13th Amendment, 1865), equal protection of the law — except for women and Indians (14th Amendment, 1868) — and suffrage for blacks (15th Amendment, 1870). None of those addressed women’s suffrage.
Would you believe the Constitution did not include a general right to vote for anybody? The Supreme Court in 1875 specifically held that citizenship did not provide an automatic right to vote. With respect to women, reasons given for this denial of the vote included the “paramount destiny” of women as wives and mothers, “protection of the weaker sex,” and “upholding the need for moral reasoning” for women. Kudos to Wyoming for granting women the right to vote in 1890.
Women did not relinquish that struggle. Individual states joined the fray. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected to Congress. Could she vote? Go figure. By 1919, 30 states provided suffrage for women without federal approval. The handwriting was on the wall.
In June 1919, the Senate (two votes edge) and the House (42 votes edge) “endorsed” the 19th Amendment. Now three-fourths of the states had to ratify it. Successful ratification did occur on Aug. 26, 1920 — 72 years after Seneca Falls. In the November 1920 election, more than 8 million women voted for the first time. It would be 64 years later (1984) when the remaining 12 states finished approving women’s suffrage.
It isn’t over. So, what’s left? In Juneau, 91 percent of citizens eligible to vote are already registered. However, from 2000–2015 voter turnout ranged from 19-44 percent with an average of 31 percent. Do the math. One-third of eligible voters decide for 100 percent of eligible voters.
Now, where the rubber meets the road. Here are some issues to consider for our community, state and nation: Adequate daycare. Minimum wage. Managing the carnage of alcohol and substance abuse. Our carbon footprints. Equal pay. Pre-kindergarten education. Child physical/sexual abuse. Gun safety. Felon suffrage. Elder support. Reapportionment. Domestic violence. Voting Rights Act re-enactment. Prison reform. Economic diversity. Electoral College. Schools and sports. Our young people’s future. There are others.
There appear to be three critical components of participatory democracy:
- Voter Registration. We are pretty good with this.
- Voter Education. What does it take? Are we apathetic? Why care? Do our votes matter? Is the system really rigged? Can we actually name our reasons to vote or not to vote?
- Voter Participation. If we decide that we will not vote, we can be sure that there will be others who will be happy to make those decisions for us. Then what?
Women and men can celebrate the 96th anniversary of the 19th Amendment today. This is also the 45th anniversary of National Women’s Equality Day. We are all in this together and we have enormous work to do.
The power of choice is one of the great gifts we are provided. We can register, educate and participate.
by carolyn Brown