Today in Women’s History: The U.S. Supreme Court Rules the 19th Amendment Constitutional

“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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The U.S. Constitution is, and is intended to be, a living document, but that does not mean changes are easy. Constitutional amendments are hard-fought and hard-won. The debates they spur often inspire strange political alliances. The long fight for female suffrage is the story you know, but the woman’s suffrage movement’s awkward alliance against the 15th amendment is not widely publicized (for obvious reasons).

The 19th amendment to the Constitution, ensuring “(t)he 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,was ratified in 1920. The amendment was the result of an over eighty-year battle for women’s rights in the United States. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention laid out the women’s movement’s battle strategies and goals, but the changing political landscape would often thwart the suffragettes’ plans.

The Civil War divided the nation; Reconstruction would end up dividing the woman’s rights movement. The proposed 15th amendment stated suffrage “shall not be denied…on account of race.” This gave white and non-white men the right to vote, but as it did not specify suffrage could not be denied based on sex, women were again denied the right. Woman’s rights leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony bristled at the idea and withdrew their political support for the amendment. “If that word ‘male’ be inserted,” wrote Stanton, “it will take us at least a century to get it out.[1]

“That word” was not included, but the implication was enough to bar women from voting. The women’s movement split into two groups: Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while Lucy Stone and others who supported the ratification of the 15th amendment formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Disagreements over ideology and methodology hampered the movement’s efficiency and its ability to present a united message regarding woman’s rights. Further complicating matters, some groups interpreted the NWSA’s anti-15th amendment stance as evidence of racism within the movement. Though the NWSA’s connection to groups that supported racial discrimination was tenuous at best, it impacted their image and message. It was not a particularly effective way to court the thousands of African-American women who also wanted civil rights as American citizens, to say the least.

As is often the case, an American war was the ultimate impetus to bringing about American social change. Women’s contributions in mobilization for World War I finally convinced male leaders and politicians that women’s participation could not be ignored. Anyone who gave so much for their country, and made do with so little, deserved the civil rights too long denied them. (Of course, women’s protests and other forms of mobilization for suffrage also forced politicians’ hands.) “I regard the concurrence of the Senate in the constitutional amendment proposing the extension of the suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged,” said President Woodrow Wilson in an address to Congress in 1918.[2] Congress agreed, passing the 19th amendment in 1919. It was ratified the following year.

The final challenge to the amendment’s constitutionality came in the 1922 Supreme Court case, Leser v. Garnett. In the original case, lawyer Oscar Leser sued to have two women removed from Maryland voting rolls, saying women did not have the right to vote in Maryland because the state had not ratified the 19th amendment. Chief Justice Louis Brandeis ruled women’s suffrage applied to all American women regardless of whether or not their state ratified the amendment (approved women’s right to vote). Ratifying the amendment put the law in the books, but the 1922 decision in Leser v. Garrett ensured it was a law that women could use.

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[1] Elizabeth Cady Stanton quoted in Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2005), 394.

[2] Woodrow Wilson quoted in “Women’s Suffrage and WWI,” National Park Service, Accessed February 27, 2018, https://www.nps.gov/articles/womens-suffrage-wwi.htm.

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