A Series on the Constitutional Amendments – The Nineteenth

“I have always believed the iron rule of politics was that women don’t vote for men who yell.”

Gail Collins

Universal suffrage is a modern concept. In the Ancient Roman empire only those who were granted Roman Citizens were allowed to vote. Throughout western development, the right to vote was often restricted through various means; including nobility status and land ownership. This caused complications when it came to representation directly from women and minorities who traditionally did not hold a lot of land. Advocates for women’s suffrage existed throughout history; however, it was in the nineteenth and twentieth century that truly saw advancements for women’s right to vote.

The official documented start of the women’s movement in the United States is 1848. The first conference for women’s rights was on July 19 of that year in Seneca, NY. After the Civil War, the Women’s Suffrage movements lobbied hard for the inclusion of women in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment actually differentiated between men and women; this meant that states could be punished by the federal government for denying men the vote but not women.

After the founding of the women’s movement it gained power and notoriety over the course of several decades. In 1869 officially the movement split into two separate organizations: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). They adopted different tactics with the ultimate goal of amending the Constitution to allow for Women’s suffrage.

An Amendment to the Constitution was first proposed in 1878 but was rejected and tabled multiple times over the course of the next several years. In 1900 the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was the first organization to achieve universal suffrage for women in a state, with New York passing the law in 1917. The Amendment as once again brought before congress. It failed twice but due to the desire to get the Amendment passed President Wilson called a special session of Congress and May 21, 1919 the Amendment finally passed Congress and was sent to the States for Ratification.

The text of the Amendment reads, “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 states began the ratification process and on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the Thirty-Sixth state to ratify the Amendment; making this the law of the land and granting women universal suffrage. Several states rejected it; however, those that rejected the amendment later ceremoniously adopted the ratification.

The amendment was immediately challenged by the state of Maryland in Leser v. Garnett (1920). The arguments against the amendment included the ideas that the federal government was overreaching in regards to the electorate base in the state. There were also arguments from a technical standpoint that the last two states to ratify (Tennessee and West Virginia) had violated their own procedural rules. The court unanimously struck down the arguments, stating that even if the procedural votes were null that it didn’t matter as many other states had followed suit.

This court case brings up an important point regarding Constitutional Amendments; once they are passed they are the law of the land. The Justices on the court understood that they could not unilaterally strike down an Amendment that had passed the strictures laid forth in the Constitution. This is important to note because as will be seen down the line, a Constitutional Amendment can only be adjusted by a subsequent amendment and not the will of unelected officials.


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