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What Was the Deal with Women’s Right to Vote?

Election season is upon us. Wait a tic, it’s always election season, isn’t it? If politicians spent half as much time doing stuff as running for office and subsequent re-election… Well, on second thought, maybe that’s not such a great idea as they get us into enough trouble as it is working part-time. Anyway, one of the strange things about our election history is that it took a lot of effort over a long time for women to be welcomed into the voting process. Women’s Right to Vote? Why didn’t anyone think of that before?

The Incomplete 15th Amendment

One would think this short and sweet Constitutional Amendment, Passed by Congress on February 26, 1869, and ratified on February 3, 1870, would have solved the women’s voting issue.

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

While the 14th Amendment attempted to ban direct voting discrimination, practices continued for quite some time. Those not willing to part from the old ways devised all manner of diabolical policies to target minorities, like poll taxes, literacy taxes, and more. While not a direct ban on voting, these practices prevented large segments of minority communities from participating in elections. Future congressional acts and court decisions whittled away at these injustices over the next century. The 15th Amendment aimed to settle the discrimination issue once and for all. Sort of.


Note that sex isn’t included in the list of voting rights. So far, every reference to voting rights has either outright stated or assumed “males” aged 21 or older. Apparently, voting was still considered a man’s thing. Maybe frustration with the men was a driver of the 21st Amendment a bit further down the road… Don’t shoot the messenger, ladies; I’m just relaying the story as it happened…

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony, with a good deal of help from her friends and associates, prompted Senator Aaron Sargent from California to introduce what would later become the 19th Amendment.

Yes, the 19th Amendment established that the right to vote should not be denied because of one’s sex. When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, 15 states, mainly those in the western territories, already recognized a woman’s right to vote. Ratification took care of the rest in one fell swoop.

Historical Tidbits

Before, during, and after the founding years, women’s voting rights were essentially non-existent. The underlying rationale for this was the concept of coverture. William Blackstone explained coverture like this:

“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.”

Yes, if you read that and see it as code for “we’re guys, and we want to continue to remain in charge, but we’re going to do that using a thinly veiled scheme of defining marriage as a grand and glorious union between man and woman that makes them one voting entity. Oh, and by the way, the man makes the rules and, therefore, casts a vote for the team…” you’re probably right. Whatever the reason, votes cast by women remained few and far between.

There were exception conditions in some states for various reasons. For example, single women who owned property could sometimes vote. In other cases, widows were allowed to vote, especially if they independently owned property. Some of the underlying logic was that “since the husband was no longer around to guide her, she ought to be able to vote on her own.” Remember, ladies, I asked you nicely not to shoot the messenger.

In some cases, the right to vote was arguably accidental. Ambiguous language in the state Constitution didn’t explicitly limit voting to men only, so women voted in New Jersey from 1797 to 1807, when the state legislature finally banned the practice.

As the Virginia Slims cigarette campaign used to say, you’ve come a long way, baby. Don’t shoot the messenger on that one, either!

More About the United States Constitution…

If you want to know more about the national owners’ manual, check out The Practical Guide to the United States Constitution. It’s a fun and easy way to get up to speed on essential civics lessons

The Practical Guide to the United States Constitution

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