The Nineteenth Amendment

The most remarkable things about one significant anniversary yesterday was that it passed unremarked.
On August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

It reads, in full: "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."

That's it. A hard-fought movement for women's right to vote which began in 1848 when James K. Polk was president found fulfillment in Congress 72 years later when Woodrow Wilson was president. Yes, 72 years! It's hard for me to believe that when my 92-year-old mother was born, she was born without that precious right.

Putting it into perspective, Latvia gave women the right to vote in 1918, France in 1944 and Kuwait in 2005.

We like to think of Vermont as a leader in civil rights because ours was the first state to outlaw slavery, to declare war against Adolf Hitler (months before Roosevelt) and to offer civil unions. It was also the first state to offer gay marriage by legislation instead of through the courts. Our current governor, Jim Douglas, refused to sign that bill; it passed into law through a veto override.

But back in 1920, Vermont had the chance to be the state that closed the deal on women's suffrage. It blew it because Gov. Percival Clement refused to call the Legislature into a special session to vote on ratification. I wonder what would have happened if Douglas had been in office then.

We take the Nineteenth Amendment for granted now, but it must have been as radical then as the Thirteenth, which abolished slavery, or the Fourteenth, which gave citizenship to former slaves. In 1870, the Fifteenth made it against the law to deny voting rights because of race.

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote as a test of the Fifteenth Amendment. She was arrested and found guilty of voting illegally. It would take another 48 years for American to see the wisdom in universal suffrage.

Recent events have given our Nineteenth Amendment a world perspective. A few short weeks ago, for example, the London daily The Independent reported that millions of Afghan women would be deprived of the right to vote because of a shortage of women volunteers at the female-only polling places.

"Strict cultural norms means women can't vote in male-run stations," the paper reported. "Without female staff to operate the strictly segregated stations, and more importantly, without female searchers to frisk women voters as they arrive at those stations, conservative men across the country will ban their wives and daughters from taking part."

As a director of the Afghan Women's Network pointed out, "If half of the population can't participate, the election is illegitimate." In the end, an estimated 650 polling places for women remained closed.

Under the Taliban, the Independent reminds us, "Women were banned from working, beaten for laughing, and only allowed outside their homes with a male relative to escort them... In many parts of the country medieval customs still prevail and women are treated like property."

The New York Times Magazine, in fact, devoted last Sunday's issue to women's rights. It was a hard issue to read: millions of "missing girls" in India and China either aborted or left to die because the parents place more value in boys; women regularly beaten by their fathers and husbands; rape; girls sold into sexual slavery; wives burned alive; genital mutilation.

In an article entitled "Why Women's Rights are the Cause of our Time," Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn make the case that economic aid to women, especially microloans, can solve very deep worldwide problems.

"In a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized, and it's not an accident that those same countries are disproportionately mired in poverty and riven by fundamentalism and chaos," they write. "There's a growing recognition... that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism."

American women have made many, many gains since 1920, but we can't be complacent. We still have a long way to go.
There are, however, victories to celebrate. On August 12, Mary Morris Lawrence, believed to be the first female photographer hired by the Associated Press, and a professional photographer all her life, died at the age of 95. She too, was born before women received the right to vote. In a note which appeared in her obituary, she left us with this wise advice: "In lieu of flowers, Mary would ask you to join the League of Women Voters, shop at Farmer Joes, write a letter to the editor, or break a glass ceiling!"

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