The 19th Amendment, Women's Suffrage, and the Long Game of Democracy

Posted by Pete on Aug 18th 2019

After decades of feminist persistence, the 19th Amendment was ratified 99 years ago today. Tennessee provided the winning margin - by just a single vote.

Tennessee’s given a lot to America.

Country music, Jack Daniels, Aretha Franklin.

But the state's biggest contribution to the American story has surely got to be the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

It was 99 years ago today that Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment – which instructed that “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.”

36 was the magic number – the number of states (at that time) needed for an amendment to become law.

It hadn’t been easy getting them.

The 'Susan B. Anthony Amendment' and the Race to Ratify

Although Congress passed the Suffrage Amendment on June 4th 1919, the work was far from over.

With the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP) on the front lines, feminists began pressing governors and state legislatures up and down the country in order to get the 3/4 majority of states needed to ratify the amendment.

Photo Credit: Carl Deeg (Public Domain)

Above: A group of suffrage activists watch as the ratification resolution is signed in Missouri, July 1919 

Led by fearless women like Carrie Chapman Catt (president of NAWSA), suffragist pressure pushed Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan to ratify within days of Congress passing the Amendment.

They were followed by a wave of western states, where the movement for women's suffrage had always been strong.

In the South, however, sexist reactionaries were mobilising in the opposite direction.

Georgia and Alabama soon rejected the 19th Amendment, and Ruffin Pleasant, the conservative governor of Louisiana, was at work rallying a much wider coalition of Southern states to follow suit.

So when Washington State became the 35th state to ratify in March 1920, all eyes turned to Tennessee.

It was a tough summer of politics, with NAWSA and the NWP throwing everything they had into the state, which became a straight-up battleground between patriarchy and progress.

But it was progress which prevailed – by a single vote – in the  Tennessee state legislature on 18th August 1920.

Changing the Constitution: The Long Struggle for the 19th Amendment

The struggle to get Congress to pass the Women’s Suffrage Amendment had been a long and bitter one.

After first being introduced to the Senate way back in 1878, the amendment was rejected several times before finally getting through.

What’s more, this wasn’t the first fight for women's suffrage in the United States.

Before Congress would even consider it, American feminists had to get the idea of votes for women into public discussion against sniggering, sexist prejudice.

Suffragette legend Alice Paul played a key role in getting the 19th Amendment over the finish line - click to see our tea towel with her immortal words

And at Seneca Falls in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton battled to even put suffrage on the agenda of the women’s movement in the first place, amid doubt and concern from her comrades that it might be too radical.

What the Women's Suffrage Movement Can Teach Us Today

We'd do well to remember the long game of the women's suffrage movement, with so many battles for equality and justice still raging in our own time.

It's hardly fair that women like Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Anna J. Cooper, and Alice Paul had to fight for over 70 years just to win a right to agency and self-determination which should have been theirs to begin with.

But this is the way of every radical movement. Progress must be won, because it will not be given.

Those accustomed to a monopoly of power have never enjoyed sharing it out.

So they push back against efforts to make democracy more inclusive – whether the battle is over women's suffrage, racist Jim Crow laws, gerrymandering, or voter ID.

We’re forced to keep pushing ahead, even when the road in front looks uncertain.

And while that can feel exhausting, the 19th Amendment stands as proof of what  such stubborn persistence can win.

Read on for more on history's most radical and inspiring women