The 19th amendment was a crucial achievement. But it wasn’t enough to liberate women.Roundup
tags: voting rights, womens history, Womens Suffrage, 19th Amendment
Holly Jackson is an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and author of "American Radicals: How Nineteenth-Century Protest Shaped the Nation."
A nationwide commemoration of the 19th Amendment is underway. Museums and the media are revisiting the history of women’s suffrage with events culminating in an August 2020 celebration of its ratification 100 years ago. These festivities coincide uneasily with a crisis of election legitimacy in contemporary America, as voting rights are eroded across the country.
Indeed, political scientists trace the roots of our current plague of disenfranchisement to the period that we are now honoring for the victory of “universal suffrage.” This benchmark expansion of the electorate coincided with a steep decline in voter participation. Though more Americans could vote, fewer did.
As we continue their fight, it’s important to understand what the suffrage activists achieved, what remains undone and, importantly, what they wanted beyond basic access to the polls. Though this single legal reform now dominates public understanding of the movement, its history holds valuable lessons for how Americans have pursued a broader vision for cultural transformation, even in the absence of the vote, and how we might do it again.
Surprisingly, the goal of suffrage was nearly abandoned at the Seneca Falls Convention before it was even adopted. At this gathering, often regarded as the beginning of the women’s movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read a manifesto that placed suffrage ninth on a list of 12 demands, and it proved to be the only one that was controversial with the assembly.
The other resolutions reveal that in 1848, American women wanted to speak in public as respected authorities, to be judged by the same moral standard as men and have the same work opportunities for equal wages. They denounced power imbalances in marriage and the psychological warfare that destroyed women’s confidence and self-respect.
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