Today in American history: Women can vote!

Suffragist with poster reading, "Kaiser Wilson, Have you forgotten your sympathy with the poor Germans because they were not self-governed? 20,000,000 American woman are not self-governed. Take the beam out of your own eye.

(National Archives)

My grandmothers didn’t vote when they were young women. They couldn’t. Women didn’t have that right in this country.

Legally, black men got the vote in 1870. Granted, they often weren’t able to exercise that right. But what often gets lost in the discussion is the fact that the 15th Amendment was introduced in Congress in 1869–and passed the same year. The following year, 31 state legislatures (of a possible 37) ratified the amendment, giving black men the vote.

By contrast, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which would have given the vote to women, was introduced in Congress just a few years later, in 1878. And there it languished, unpassed, for over 40 years.

The fight for female suffrage had actually begun well before the Civil War. The Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York the summer of 1848 is often pointed to as its starting point. There Frederick Douglass made an impassioned argument for giving women the vote.

But white men apparently found it far easier to treat black men as political equals than they did to extend that same courtesy to women–of whatever color. It took over 70 years after Seneca Falls–70 years of marching, petitioning, picketing, being jailed, and being shamefully mistreated in jail–until, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th, and deciding, state to ratify the 19th Amendment:

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.

Hard to believe it took 70 years to figure that out, isn’t it?

But the battle wasn’t over yet.

Two months later, on October 12th, two Baltimore women–Cecilia Streett Waters and Mary D. Randolph–registered to vote. A nationally-known Baltimore tax lawyer, Oscar Leser, with several others, brought suit against the registrar, one Mr. Garnett, and the board of registry, asking that the women’s names be stricken from the voter rolls because the Maryland Constitution gave only men the right to vote.

The trial court dismissed Leser’s petition and the state appellate court affirmed that judgment. But Leser appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in January, 1922, the Court, presided over by Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft, and including Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, heard the case.

In a unanimous decision, written by Mr. Justice Brandeis and handed down 90 years ago today, the Court held the 19th Amendment constitutional. The right of women to participate in the political life of their country was at last recognized in American law.

Mississippi, by the way, has the distinction of being the last state in the union to recognize women as full citizens. Mississippi finally ratified the 19th Amendment in 1984.

And female suffrage still isn’t universal. The Saudi King announced last fall that Saudi women will be able to vote and run for office beginning in 2015. Of course, the Saudi government previously had said women would “definitely” be able to vote in the 2009 election. And in the 2011 election. So we’ll see.

And that, dear reader, is why the 90th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s acceptance of woman suffrage in the United States is worth celebrating.


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