Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote.
The amendment seems a no-brainer from the perspective of #MeToo and 2019, straightforward and to the point: “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.”
Women could no longer be legally barred from voting.
But nothing is as simple as it seems, certainly not when it comes to contentious civil and political matters, and the 19th Amendment — first proposed during Reconstruction and battled over for more than 50 years by men, women, workers, blacks, whites, liberals, conservatives, radicals, feminists, and all manner of subgroups — is a tangled tale still unfolding.
The National Constitution Center is seeking to untangle the tale with a new exhibition currently being researched and assembled and likely to be unveiled in the early summer of 2020, the centenary year of ratification.
Jeffrey Rosen, head of the constitution center, said that work on the center’s new permanent exhibit, “Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality,” made moving on to the 19th Amendment seem a natural next step.
The 13th, 14th, and 15th Reconstruction amendments, which quashed slavery, granted the vote to black men, and established birthright citizenship, due process, and protections of the law for all, ushered in an era when emergent ideals of constitutional equality continuously fragmented and broke apart. Equality for whom? And at what cost?
“It made substantive and historic sense to extend the fight for African American suffrage and for equality, equal protection under the law during Reconstruction to include the right to vote for women,” Rosen said recently. “It’s a remarkable story. It includes both support and tension among men and women, African American and white people alike.”
Exhibition developer Elena Popchock, who has been taking a deep dive into the women’s movement as she maps out the exhibition, made clear that the drive for women’s right to vote touched virtually every nerve in the nation’s cultural and political zeitgeist.
“We’re currently searching for artifacts to figure out what stories can be told through the authentic materials of the time,” she said. “We’re going to be doing a research trip to Washington D.C. and we’re also going to a private collector’s home. She’s collected for her whole life women’s suffrage materials.”
The story will probably start in the 1840s, with that early period culminating in the famous Seneca Falls convention of 1848, largely seen as the launching pad for the suffrage movement.
Yet of all the resolutions passed by women at the convention, only the right to vote failed to achieve unanimity, barely passing at all, despite impassioned pleas from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass. For many women of the 1840s, trapped by meager legal and property rights, achieving the vote was not a priority.
By the time of Reconstruction a few decades later, voting rights had emerged as an achievable goal. For one thing, women began aggressively seeking to vote under the 14th Amendment, although the courts repeatedly dashed their efforts. Moreover, Western states, eager to entice population, eased voting restrictions on women.
“There were hundreds of women trying to vote under the 14th Amendment,” said Popchock. “It’s such a great story that’s never really been told and that ends, of course, with Minor v. Happersett in 1875, the Supreme Court case that ultimately says the 14th Amendment does not allow women to vote.”
Rosen, listening to Popchock lay out the tentative narrative for the exhibition, asked, “Did some women succeed in voting?”
“Yes,” said Popchock. “I’m very excited to share the story of Mary Ann Shadd Cary. She was born in Wilmington, Del. She was an African American activist who successfully voted during Reconstruction in Washington, D.C.
"You typically hear that Susan B. Anthony voted in Rochester, N.Y., with her sisters and other women, and they were turned away, ultimately arrested, jailed, fined, and taken to trial. But there are hundreds of women who had similar experiences. Mary Ann Shadd Cary is one who, indeed, did get to vote.”
“That’s amazing,” Rosen said, noting that it was hotly debated at the time whether the 14th Amendment extended to political rights, like voting, or was relegated to nonpolitical realms of civil rights.
Women in general and white women in particular were angry that their interests seemed to be brushed aside by the 14th Amendment, in favor of black men. African American women found themselves excluded from women’s organizations, and their particular concerns were dismissed.
“The movement was not a monolith,” said Popchock. "There were so many diverse interests. It wasn’t that they were all moving in one direction and doing the same thing all the time. We’re going to have this moment of fracturing of the movements because it’s really a ton of different causes. Suffrage is just one thread of that and even with that knot there are so many African American women trying to push for their rights — after being excluded from the predominantly upper-middle-class white women’s groups.
“We’re figuring out how best to convey that to people — that there were so many people working for this and how their tactics were changing over time.”
This led Rosen to ask about the “important tension as well as support between the fight for African American suffrage and women’s suffrage.”
African Americans, he noted, “were upset when women’s suffrage leaders seem to bless Jim Crow, hoping for getting the right to vote in exchange.”
There was considerable racial friction over the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced to Congress in 1923. That friction was exacerbated by the racism implicit in the work of Mount Laurel, N.J.'s, own Alice Paul, a key leader of the suffrage movement and author of the ERA, who declined support of African American women activists, and sought not to anger white Southerners.
In the massive 1913 suffrage march in Washington, Paul toyed with the notion of having either a segregated march or no march at all. As a result, Ida B. Wells and her group were relegated to the back of the march.
“When the racism of the movement really comes to the surface — we’re currently figuring out the best way to capture that, how that ties into the Jim Crow era and the ultimate exclusion of African American women from the 19th Amendment through poll taxes, literacy tests, and other things.”
That fragmented narrative leads planners inevitably to the question of how far to take the 19th Amendment story and exhibition. If black women still struggled for the vote decades after ratification, the amendment becomes a kind of springboard: The story’s not over till it’s over.
“It doesn’t end in 1920,” said Popchock. “So we’re absolutely figuring it out. Is it the Voting Rights Act (of 1964), when African American women were to to be protected ... by the federal government?”