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The 19th

Posted by Pete on Aug 18th 2020

Today marks the centenary of the 19th Amendment, the culmination of a struggle which had contested the limits of what it means to be human in the United States.

Source: Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (ca. 1914)

In Philadelphia, the Founders promised far more than they delivered.

Jefferson, Adams and the rest spoke of liberty as if it were universal but African Americans, indigenous peoples, the poor, and, of course, women were excluded from the gains of Independence.

The radical history of modern America since then can be written in terms of the great struggles to resolve these hypocrisies of the Founding.

And a hundred years ago today, one of these struggles culminated in Nashville.

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Poison at the source

There, on 18 th August 1920, Tennessee became the final state required to ratify the 19th Amendment.

An American woman's right to vote was enshrined in the constitution by this stage, bringing the first great wave of US feminism to a close.

Decades of struggle, going way back into the depths of the 19 th century, had expanded the meaning of humanity itself in the United States.

That’s because the rich, white men who crafted and governed the United States didn’t exclude groups of people from its freedoms absent-mindedly.

They did so by denying them their humanity.

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In other words, all people were free in America – but not everyone was a full person.

Black enslavement was justified by the monstrous claim that black people were less than human, and women were cast as half-people – the effective subjects of their fathers or husbands – so as to keep them down, and out of public life.

Liberation struggles like the suffrage movement weren’t just fighting against specific policies but against the barbaric idea that only propertied white men were true human beings.

As Lucretia Mott, a leader at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, said,

"The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source."

The commitment of activists like Mott to building an expansive and full idea of humanity led women’s rights campaigners into alliances with other liberation struggles in the US fighting for the same thing.

The original linkage between the women’s movement and abolitionism was one.

19 th century feminists like the Grimké sisters and Abby Kelley fought hard for black emancipation, and their solidarity was returned, as in Frederick Douglass’ support for women’s suffrage.

Later, the turn-of-the-century US socialist movement attracted some leading feminists like Crystal Eastman.

Sojourner Truth reflected on the unequal treatment of black and white women.

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Ain’t I a woman?

But the suffrage movement was as much a battlefield as an army for human liberation.

Within the ranks of the early women’s struggle itself, the humanity of some was denied and so had to be demanded.

The movement fought for women’s freedom but several of its white leaders seemed to exclude non-whites from their idea of womanhood.

Against this racism, steadfast black women fought back.

Ida B. Wells defied the segregationist organizers of the 1913 March on Washington, shouldering her way into the delegation from Illinois to walk with her white sisters.

And in 1851, Sojourner Truth reflected on the unequal treatment of white and black women in the US and demanded:

"Ain’t I a woman?"

Both as a crucible and a vehicle of struggle, the early US suffrage movement triggered and made demands for an idea of humanity which includes all human beings.

The 19 th Amendment, like most victories, was not the end of this struggle for women’s liberation – not even with regards to women’s voting, with black women practically disenfranchised well into the second half of the 20th century.

But it did hand down a vital resource to future women in their struggle for an ever-fuller freedom.

What’s more, it marked the end of a period in US feminism which, through external and internal struggle, had expanded the idea of humanity to limits not thought possible at the Founding.

Between Philadelphia and Nashville, America had travelled a long way.

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