Pardon us Coloradans. When it comes to women’s suffrage, the significance of 2020 at first escaped us. For America, as a nation, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote. In Colorado, however, by 1920 women had been voting for 27 years! Colorado was the first state in the Union to enact women’s suffrage.
Any struggle for civil rights is usually incremental, not achieved in one fell swoop.
The right to vote: First it was only white male property holders. Then it was all white men. Then it was black men, too, although black people throughout the country and specifically in the South were kept from voting through various ruses from poll taxes to intimidation. (Indeed in the South, “Antis,” as they were known, opposed ratification of the 19th amendment, fearing it would undermine their success at blocking black voting despite the Constitutional amendment enfranchising them.)
Beginning in the mid-19th century, women solidified behind a rights movement, which waned through the Civil War, split over the ratification of the 15th amendment, which granted black people — but not women — the right to vote, but then waxed through the end of the century and through WW I. These women — along with many male supporters — remained committed to the idea that every adult should have the right to vote.
It is no coincidence that Colorado was the first. In the independent-minded West, people were not beholden to established ways. The West bolstered the women’s movement.
A contemporary critique of the women’s movement is that it was dominated by white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant women, and the opposition to the ratification of the 15th amendment cannot be ignored. Yet, the belief in women’s suffrage, and the fight for it, was not exclusive to WASPs, even if some wished it so. Black and Jewish women were deeply involved and engaged from the start.
Rights are hard won. People with power are typically loathe to cede any of it. But even when achievements come piecemeal, that is no reason not to embrace and celebrate them. The women who opposed the 15th amendment were wrong; not only on moral grounds but on strategic ones. Any law that broadened enfranchisement would only help women’s suffrage, even if it didn’t do so immediately. A century after the ratification of the 20th amendment it is hard to imagine a time when women did not have the right to vote.
Once again, enfranchisement is a matter of public discourse. Because granting someone, legally, the right to vote does not always ensure that someone can or will vote. Access to voting must be equal. Information about elections must be fairly and widely distributed. Engagement among all of America’s citizens must be sought by all seeking office. When some citizens say that it’s not worth voting, they undo the good work of generations past and weaken democracy.
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union . . . ” Thus opens the US Constitution. “More perfect” — therein lies the acknowledgement that perfection is never achieved, but that our nation toils for that goal. It will not always be an easy fight with conclusive results, but expanded civil rights underpin this nation’s founding. Celebration of women’s suffrage reminds us of the founding at a time when we desperately seek inspiration. And . . . women’s suffrage reminds us of Colorado.
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