Reflecting on the 19th Amendment: The Right to Vote and Women’s Equality

August 26 is Women’s Equality Day, the 97th anniversary celebrating the day when the 19th Amendment went into effect mandating that the vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

On this day in 1920, the train carrying the 38th state signature needed to ratify the amendment arrived in Washington DC from Tennessee. After 72 years of fighting to include those two short lines in the Constitution, the women of the suffrage movement would finally have their dream realized, despite the fact that most of the women at the original Seneca Falls Convention had long since died.

Of course, the 19th amendment did not protect all women in the United States from disenfranchisement, as discriminatory poll taxes, literacy tests and other degrading practices, coupled with terroristic intimidation by white supremacists, would restrict black women from equal access to voting for another 45 years. Native American women, as well as Asian American women, were often denied their right to citizenship in the courts and state law, and therefore were also barred from voting in many instances.

Despite the progress that has been made, the right to vote is currently being threatened at the state level. After the Supreme Court’s 2013 5-4 ruling in the case of Shelby County v Holder effectively dismantled parts of the 1964 Voting Rights Act, the federal government had far less oversight over voting regulations in states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls. Many Republican controlled legislatures then began passing laws that could suppress voter turnout under the guise of wanting to prevent non-existent in person voter fraud.

At the time of the November 2016 election, 31 states had voter ID laws on the books, which were estimated to disenfranchise a potential 21 million Americans who did not have access to any acceptable government-issued photo ID. That is 11 percent of US citizens. The majority of these people are low-income, people of color, and the elderly, who are hindered for a number of reasons, including lacking the necessary funds needed to obtain the documents required to secure an ID.

Additionally, state legislatures are suppressing voting rights through means ranging from discriminatory redistricting plans that dilute the voting power of certain communities, to unethical purging of voter rolls without properly notifying those affected.

But while some states have passed laws aimed at suppressing voter participation, other states have passed automatic voter registration bills. Alaska, California, Oregon, Colorado, Georgia, West Virginia, Connecticut, Vermont, the District of Columbia and Illinois have all implemented an automatic voter registration system, and twenty other states have introduced legislation to implement a similar process.

Today, women hold the voting capability to decide national elections, especially women of color, who are the fastest growing voter block in the country. 63.3 percent of registered female voters turned out in the November 2016 election as opposed to 59.3 percent of registered male voters. Women tend to vote differently than men because of their respective life experiences, a phenomenon that has been termed “the gender gap.” Far from voting the same as their husbands, women frequently take more seriously into consideration a number of issues including care giving responsibilities, the pay gap, and domestic violence and sexual assault.

Unfortunately the 19th amendment is still the only explicitly guaranteed constitutional protections women have, a fact that was brought up time and again during the confirmation hearings for the newest Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is a constitutional originalist and therefore attempts to interpret the document as it was written. This narrow view of women’s protections under the Constitution left many women’s right advocates concerned that he would be complicit in eventually overturning Roe v Wade.

That’s why the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a federal Constitutional amendment that would prohibit sex discrimination and guarantee equal rights for women and girls, has picked up steam recently. In March, Nevada became the 36th state, and the first state since 1982, to ratify the ERA.

The ERA is far from symbolic; it would help women in cases of discrimination in education, employment, wages, insurance benefits, scholarships, military service, social security, violence against women, and so much more. Without the passage of the ERA, women have been forced to try to gain equality law by law. If the ERA was ratified by 38 states and became the law of the land, there would be a Constitutional provision against the Supreme Court, Congress or state legislatures gutting equality on the basis of sex.

Media Resources: Pew Research 5/12/17; Teen Vogue 8/18/17; Feminist Majority Foundation 8/26/17, 11/3/16, 2/1/17, 3/20/17

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