The Long and Winding Path Towards the Right to Vote

This post was inspired by a recent article by historian, author, and Boston College professor, Heather Cox Richardson. My blog title reflects Terri Webster’s Sunday Stills theme this week, Paths and Trails.   

The path towards the right to vote in the United States has not been a straight one, nor without dangerous twists and turns along the way. But, like with so many of this country’s struggles, there were many brave advocates who risked their reputations, their freedom, and even their lives to secure the ability to have a say in how the government was run.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States—including former enslaved people—and guaranteed all citizens the right to vote. Except, “all citizens” didn’t include women, in fact the amendment was the first time the Constitution included the word “male.”

Again, in 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, there was still no mention of women’s suffrage. The Amendment which 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude” didn’t include a woman’s right to vote.

After years of advocating for their rights unsuccessfully, women suffragists attempted to vote in the 1872 presidential election, arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment recognized their citizenship. In fact, Susan B. Anthony was able to cast her vote but, three weeks later, she was arrested for voter fraud.

Not as well known as Anthony, but just as important to women’s suffrage, was Virginia Minor of St. Louis, Missouri. When she tried to register to vote in 1872, a registrar by the name of Reese Happersett refused because of her gender. As a woman, Minor was not able to sue, so her husband sued in the case (Minor v. Happersett) that eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court’s decision, handed down in 1875, acknowledged that women were citizens, but that fact didn’t mean they had the right to vote. According to the Supreme Court, state governments could discriminate against their citizens so long as that discrimination was not on the grounds of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

That ruling helped to usher in a multitude of voter eligibility limitations that skirted the Fourteenth Amendment, by imposing requirements like education, proof of tax payments, etc. As long as it could be demonstrated that the requirements weren’t based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude, they were allowed.  

It wasn’t until 1920—just over 100 years ago—that the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving women the constitutional right to vote. Sadly, it was another forty years before voting requirements such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and other rules designed to keep Black people from voting were found unconstitutional. The Supreme Court finally decided that voting was a fundamental right protected by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Even today, barriers put in our path can make it harder to vote.

The fight for suffrage did not follow a path that was easy or smooth and this right should never be taken lightly. I sometimes wonder if I would have been as brave as those who struggled so many years ago. Would I risk going to jail to have my voice heard? I hope so but I don’t know. What I do know is that I will always value this fundamental right and never miss the opportunity to cast my ballot.

I hope you will to.   

Copyright © 2022 RetirementallyChallenged.com – All rights reserved.

Author: Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com

My blog is about travel, relationships, photography, and whatever else pops into my head (even, sometimes, issues surrounding retirement and aging).

106 thoughts on “The Long and Winding Path Towards the Right to Vote

  1. Absolutely, Janis! So strange that rights that seem intrinsic were so difficult to obtain. [Shaking my head over here.] Nicely written post, friend, and well-chosen boulder pic. 🙂

      1. We have very limited areas to physically cast our votes in Stevens County, so mail-in even on election day is highly encouraged. When I lived in Sacramento, I often took my ballot to my workplace and could drop it off there.

  2. Well said and great choice of photo, Janis. I always value my right to vote and never miss the opportunity to cast my ballot. We just had our municipal election at the end of October.

  3. Great post and reminders about not only the earned right to vote Janis but I think we all must keep in mind the obligation, privilege and responsibility as well. It is one thing to complain about our government but if we want change then we have to be the ones to implement it.

  4. Commenting on another country’s electoral system from afar is always fraught with the possibility of people taking offense but I mean none. That’s especially the case when our own shameful history includes similar struggles for women to get the vote (in my State from 1894 and nationally from 1900) and our Indigenous people were only counted as citizens with the consequent right to vote as recently as 1962.
    Like the USA, we are a federation of States and we have a House of Representatives and a Senate. However we don’t have a President; we have a Prime Minister, who is the leader of the Party in power.

    The major differences in the way voting works here in Australia are:
    1. We have an Electoral Commission, which is an independent Federal body that sets out the rules and polices them on a national basis i.e. States do not have the right to create their own rules on matters such as enrolment, eligibility to vote etc.
    2. Many Americans will cringe I know when I tell them that Australia is one of 22 countries that have compulsory voting at Federal and State level (but not Local Government) but this is widely supported by the community (including me) and the vast majority of citizens take it very seriously.

    I can but wonder how the history of the USA might have evolved differently under such a system.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Doug. Although I don’t fully understand your system, I do like the concept of compulsory voting. I’m curious how it works and if there are any penalties for not voting. I also wonder if, in order to fulfill their “obligation,” some just show up and check boxes without any thought. Fortunately, as you said, most Australian citizens take it very seriously.

      Do you also have the problem of gerrymandering in Australia. It has gotten completely out of control here.

      1. Hi, Janis. Yes, there is a penalty of $20 for not voting without a valid reason in a Federal election ($50 for second and subsequent offences) but it can be up to $92 and potential loss of licence for failing to vote in State elections, although this varies from State to State. If you take the matter to Court and lose (almost certain) you also have to pay the Electoral Commission’s legal fees.
        Although you are legally required to register to vote once you turn 18, some 7% of Australians don’t, almost exclusively those in the 18-24 age group.
        Which brings us to your question about voter obligations. Technically voting itself is not compulsory but attendance at a polling booth or submitting a postal vote is.
        Voter turn-out on polling day is usually around 92-95%. Around 4-7% of votes will be informal i.e. ballot not completed, incorrectly filled in, ballot defaced etc.
        Up to 2% will be ‘donkey votes’ i.e. people just number their choices from top to bottom.
        Which in turn brings us to the other major difference with your system in that ours is a preferential system, not ‘first past the post’ as it is the US and many other countries e.g. UK. What that means is that you can choose to nominate your second and third preferences and so on, which leads to far less violent electoral swings and allows independents and small parties to gain a seat in our Senate.
        Finally, outrageous gerrymandering has existed here in the past but these days electoral boundaries are set independently by the Electoral Commission to try to achieve ‘one vote, one value’ and to adjust for population shifts etc.
        Sorry for the mini essay but you did ask. 🙂

        1. Thank you so much! I really appreciate the education. We had a few “ranked choice voting” in some of the primaries in some states. They seemed to have the hoped for result, although a few of the losers whined loudly.

          I love the idea of an independent Electoral Commission drawing boundaries but I’m afraid the powers that be are too invested in securing their outcomes.

  5. Complacency regarding voting is such a big problem these days, especially with youth. They don’t seem to grasp the importance of this right and how easily their complacency can lead to losing it. The voting numbers after every election is worrisome for sure. Great post.

    1. I remember being so excited when I was finally old enough to vote (I may have been more excited than when I was old enough to drink 🙂 ). I don’t understand the complacency either. Maybe now that they realize how easily their rights can be taken away, they will be more inclined to vote.

  6. Such a good post Janis and an interesting “trail” you shared. Indeed — no one should take anything for granted and we all need to use our voice at the polls. Bernie PS Love that photo. What a rock!!

  7. A hard fought-for right that should never be taken for granted. Especially by women.
    I admonish anyone who thinks it’s a chore. One vote can make a difference! However, even though it is compulsory here, and we can be fined if we don’t vote, I have shifted my position ever so slightly on compulsory voting recently and discussed this in quite a few blog posts. The compulsory vote of those who are disinterested in politics, can sway a result for the worse. Better to have people who are politically aware, vote, as the result will an informed viewpoint. Having said that, I think that is an ideal is not easy to achieve. The next best thing is to make voting mandatory.

    1. I really can see both sides to that argument. I also like the idea of encouraging more people to vote, but laws can’t make citizens care. I am wary of allowing only those “politically aware” to vote (I know that’s not what you meant) because it reminds me of our country’s history when only rich, white, landowners could vote because they were afraid of losing their power (and money).

      1. Yes, Janis, I am ambivalent about compulsory voting and I am glad you understood what I meant by politically aware – you are right that a politically aware voting perspective could easily become elitist or discriminatory. I don’t even know how you could establish political awareness. In some ways optional voting is that already, because there is no incentive for those who know nothing about politics to get out and vote.
        Laws can’t make citizens care.

  8. I am always amazed that ‘men’ could get away with treating women the way they have (and do) for YEARS! Irrefutably, other than slavery, the treatment of women is the worst thing ever perpetrated by men.

  9. Nice history lesson, Janis, thanks for sharing. I love the photo you chose too. The roadblocks found in history on our way to fair elections may still find many votes blocked even today, IMHO. So, yes, VOTE. We live a little over a mile from our polling booth. I’m looking forward to Tuesday when I can enjoy standing in line with fellow citizens who are there to cast their votes. It’s sad that many people don’t think that mid-terms are worth spending their time to vote. Thank you for encouraging us to vote!

    1. I’m so amazed when I see long lines of people (it seems, mostly in poorer, non-white communities) waiting to vote, when all I have to do is fill out my ballot at home and mail it in. Some precincts have a lot of polling places, some have very few. Some citizens have weeks to vote, some not. It does seem that voting rules and regulations should be the same everywhere.

          1. Me too – we ended up chatting with an 80-year-old retired Navy Pilot. He served in Vietnam in 1967-1969. The line wasn’t too long, but long enough for him to tell us about his scary flights and his last and final flight. It was a nice chat that made the line seem short. You’ll get a kick out of the fact it was only 40 degrees too, so it was chilly standing in the wind.

  10. And now we cannot sleep…our rights are precariously on the threshold of evaporating as if they never were ‘meant to be’ or intended in our Constitution…geesh. I will give kudos to Mr. Minor – so progressive for those days and much needed sensibility for our ‘leaders’ in these times. The battle was already fought and now here we are again.
    And we just keep doing what we need to do one step at a time and we cannot sleep…

  11. I am always a stunned when it comes to voter turnout. So many fought so diligently to earn our right to vote, it is up to us to engage & allow our voices to be heard. I fear for what is happening with our neighbours to the south. Get out & vote people!

  12. Janis, As usual, you have a brilliant take for a Sunday Stills theme. Sometimes reflecting on history makes me mad, but it is a reminder of how far things have come. By the way, each time I move, voting gets easier. The last mid term elections, we voted early to avoid blatant voter intimidation. This year, we were able to use the drop box system here. Voting should be compulsory and easy.

  13. I sometimes look at old family photos of my female ancestors and realize they didn’t have the right to vote. It seems odd to me, yet it was a fact for them. I vote if for no other reason than my great-grandmother and great aunts couldn’t. I like to believe they appreciate me doing so.

  14. This is so well written, Janis, and such a timely reminder. It always shocks me how many people don’t vote. Even if I feel pretty certain that my vote isn’t going to make a difference, you better believe I’m going to vote.

  15. If I didn’t vote I think it would be because I didn’t believe in what any of the politicians were promising or I didn’t think any of the candidates deserved to be elected. Not voting is as valid, in my mind, as voting is.

  16. I am so very grateful to the women who went before us. Amazingly, I never asked my grandmother about the woman’s suffrage movement. She would have been 14 when women were given the right to vote. There are so many things I wish I would have asked her before she slipped into dementia.

    I can’t comprehend why any woman would voluntarily give up their vote. But then, I can’t understand why any woman would vote for an anti-woman candidate. But sadly, some do.

    Sent from my iPhone

    1. I never asked my grandmother about that either… that would have been an eye-opening discussion. My mother was always active in the local League of Women Voters so I got my interest in politics from her.

      It will be interesting to see if more women come out to vote after the recent court decisions.

      1. More women voting is no guarantee. I’m horrified when I see women wearing red MAGA hats. Sadly there are many out there who would not only give up THEIR rights, but would vote to take away rights from ALL women. Tomorrow will be a long day. Let’s hope we don’t go backward.

        Sent from my iPhone

  17. Great post Janis. I’m spending Monday and Tuesday at our county elections office, opening absentee ballots in preparation for feeding them into the vote counting machine. It’s fascinating and I’m happy to be looking under the covers, so to speak.

      1. I actually get paid for this gig, Janis. Not a lot, and I’d happily do it for free. But I think they are struggling to find enough people to help out. Many of the elderly folks who traditionally did poll work are dropping off the rolls, for one reason or another…

  18. Great post! I’d forgotten that literacy used to be a requirement for voting. I’m glad to see so many people making the effort to vote in this election. I just got back from early voting, and it took me over an hour. So much for “hoping to beat the long lines!”

      1. They allowed early voting this year (in person), but I read the instructions wrong and thought that you had to have a valid reason not to do it on election day, or by mail in vote (which needed to be notarized.) So I decided that I would go today rather than tomorrow, and that might have been a mistake! A friend of mine said she voted a few days ago, and it only took about ten minutes.

          1. I have no idea! My 92-year old mom was going to vote until we realized we’d have to get her mail-in ballot notarized. I have long thought that the government delights in making things complicated, exhibit A being the IRS and signing up for Medicare!

  19. The first women got the vote here in 1918, but they had to be over thirty and there was a property qualification. All women over 21 got the vote in 1928. My mother was born in 1926 – my granny was under 30 and certainly owned no property so would not have had the vote. This makes it so close, not ancient history at all.

    1. Those requirements seem odd by today’s standards but I know that those – and others – were there to stop “certain people” from voting. I’m curious, did the women have to own the property outright, or could it be in her husband’s name (which, of course, most property would have been)?

  20. It really is a profound privilege to be able to participate in our voting process, and it’s tremendously important that we not grow discouraged when our candidates don’t rise to the top. I read Heather Cox Richardson as well, Janis and she inspires me to think about issues I might otherwise overlook. I love what you’ve shared here, and timing is perfect!

  21. Florida offers a multitude of ways to cast a vote and I have availed myself of each of them over the years; standing in line on election day (least favorite), mail-in ballot, dropbox, and my most favorite, early voting. I prefer going to my polling place and like someone else mentioned, offering my thanks to the poll workers. My MIL was one of them for many years. There is a sense of pride when being rewarded with an ‘I Voted’ sticker as I walk out the door and continue my errands. Maybe, just maybe that little sticker will remind someone in my path to do the same. Timely and informative post Janis. Thank you.

    1. I used to continue to go the the polls in person so I could proudly wear my I Voted sticker. Now, the sticker is included in our mail-in ballot envelope. Yay! I also remember the year some bean counter decided not to give out those stickers… the outrage was heard county-wide 🙂

  22. Excellent essay and summary. And now some want to turn back the clock on women’s rights and I wonder when that will include our votes. I will always vote and fight for the right to do so.

  23. Well said, Janis. I find it sad that so many people take their rights for granted (or ignore them) and don’t understand, realize, or forgot the struggles those brave ones before us endured to gain these rights and freedoms!

  24. We vote by mail in Oregon, Janis, but for years, when I lived in CT, I voted in person, and it always brought tears to my eyes. I must have been a sight – a young woman all teary and choked up as she cast her vote in those big old machines with all the levers. The right to vote and have our votes count is a privilege that we should never take for granted. ❤

    1. That is a good question… I have mixed feelings. If mandatory voting meant a well-informed electorate, I’ll be all for it. I fear though, that those who aren’t interested would remain uninterested and either just show up and check boxes or be susceptible to coercion.

  25. I’m a little late to respond on this one, Janis, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to second you on the importance of voting and expressing my appreciation for those who fought for my right to vote. Thank you for sharing this history with us.

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