The Women’s Suffrage Movement: Far More Than Just the Vote

One of the most prominent and revered fragments of U.S. history was the Women’s Suffrage movement. As we paid homage to the power of this historical movement throughout Women’s History Month, alongside its symbolic centenary anniversary, I found myself experiencing contradicting sentiments of both pride and frustration. I admired the many bold, powerful voices whose zealous efforts secured a right that all women enjoy throughout the United States today. I also relished in the notion that within a span of 100 years, women progressed from winning the right to vote to representing a name on the ticket winning the most votes in the history of the United States, as Kamala Harris became the first Black, Asian-American, woman to be elected Vice President. Such strides are nothing short of laudable, yet I couldn’t help but acknowledge the inconsistencies throughout our own history, as a nation that prides itself on democracy and freedom for all, but simultaneously drags its feet when it comes to extending the very rights it enshrines to citizens beyond white, heterosexual, cisgender men. As Sally Roesch Wagner writes, “‘We the people,’ the very first words of the Constitution, never meant all the people. The Founding Fathers meant themselves, white men with property. Our country’s road to democracy has been a tug-of-war; progressives pulling for groups to be recognized as people with citizenship, then entrenched power pushing them back by limiting that group.”

Over time, I have grown to realize that the Women’s Suffrage Movement was never really just about just the vote; nor was it a single movement. The 19th Amendment, reading, “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,” served as the Constitution’s first explicit introduction of sex-based protections. With its victorious passage, the infinite ways in which women were not protected or accounted for were simultaneously illuminated. In her infamous “And the Truth Shall Make You Free,” speech, (Steinway Hall, November 20, 1871) Victoria C. Woodhull wrote, “… If life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights in the individual, and government is based upon that inalienability, then it must follow as a legitimate sequence that the functions of that government are to guard and protect the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to the end that every person may have the most perfect exercise of them.”  This evident cognizance surrounding the Constitution’s narrow protections served as the impetus behind the birth of the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1923, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of that first 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention, the National Woman’s Party crafted a resolute amendment, which was introduced in Congress in 1924. While modified several times, the language of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) remains simple yet indomitable:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

We often envisage the United States as one of the best places in the world to be a woman, yet it lags far behind the 165 of the world’s constitutions (85%) that explicitly guarantee gender equality, according to the WORLD Policy Analysis Center. In a public letter written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Gerrit Smith (December 21, 1855), Stanton wrote, “We who have spoken out, have declared our rights, political and civil; but the entire revolution about to dawn upon us by the acknowledgment of woman’s social equality, has been seen and felt but by a few. The rights, to vote, to hold property, to speak in public, are all-important; but there are great social rights, before which all others sink into utter insignificance. The cause of woman is, as you admit, a broader and a deeper one than any with which you compare it; and this, to me, is the very reason why it must succeed. It is not a question of meats and drinks, of money and lands, but of human rights – the sacred powers of body and soul. Did it ever enter into the mind of man that woman too had an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of her individual happiness? Did he ever take in the idea that to the mother of the race, and to her alone, belonged the right to say when a new being should be brought into the world?

From the 1848 Seneca Falls convention to the passage of the suffrage amendment in 1920, suffragists endured 72 years of activism before finally attaining the right to vote. As of today, May 2nd, 2021, the charge for the passage and ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment has endured nearly a century. As though attempting to provide consolation for this disquieting disparity, many argue that the passage of the ERA is not a matter of “if” but of “when.” Even so, it remains disconcerting that all individuals across the gender spectrum are not granted fundamental respect in the way that the United States has done for the privileged and powerful since its founding. Just as the suffragists perceived the right to vote, I view the protections that the ERA will undeniably provide as neither a favor nor a privilege to be asked for, but as a right that ought to be guaranteed based on the ground that we are human beings, and as such, entitled to basic, equitable, human rights.

Sally Roesch Wagner, referring to the final passage of the 19th Amendment, reflects, “The victory must have been bittersweet. How much time, energy, and money had been consumed in finally achieving a simple right that should have been women’s from the founding of the government? What might women have achieved toward gaining full personhood and rights that they still don’t have today in the United States if they had not been tied up in pursuing this fundamental right? Where would we be today is the NAWSA had kept the vote in perspective, as simply a tool to gain our rights, not an end in itself? As the early cutting-edge issues got left by the wayside, one after another, our right to our bodies, to be free of violence, to have full legal rights and employment equity faded into the background. As a result, when we got the vote, we forgot what to use it for.” Just as Wagner asserts that the 19th Amendment was not an end in itself, it is critical that we cultivate such a mentality in relation to the ERA, maintaining other imperative causes in our purview. For instance, the United States is not a signatory of CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), which was adopted by the United Nations in 1979. An “international bill of rights for women,” CEDAW promises to end discrimination, establish equality and fight against violence. Nearly all of the 193 member states of the United Nations have ratified it, with the exception of Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga, and the United States. CEDAW represents solely one of the many areas that desperately requires robust activism in the dismantling of discrimination. Other areas include, but are certainly not limited to, protecting and expanding access to abortion care, eliminating racial disparities in maternal health outcomes, and combating workplace discrimination.

While the ERA will unequivocally establish that across the gender spectrum, people are innately equal and deserving of constitutional protection, traditionally marginalized groups will continue to face a myriad of challenges. But the mere acknowledgement and statutory upholding of equal rights should not be one of these battles. Ruth Bader Ginsburg once wrote, “With the Equal Rights Amendment, we may expect Congress and the state legislatures to undertake in earnest, systematically and pervasively, the law revision so long deferred. And in the event of legislative default, the courts will have an unassailable basis for applying the bedrock principle: All men and all women are created equal.” Julie Suk, the author of “We the Women: The Unstoppable Mothers of the Equal Rights Amendment,” corroborates Ginsburg’s view, asserting, “The reason proponents wanted the E.R.A. was not only to get judges to strike down bad laws but also to empower Congress to write new laws that would address the inequalities that women face in society because of their sex.” The ERA is therefore focal in the dismantling of systemic sexism; pivotal in protecting the hard-won laws that ensure the rights of people across the gender spectrum today; and critical in ensuring that future laws uphold women and men as equals.

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