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.
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.
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