Celebrating 100 years of voting
Not long after my 18th birthday, I remember my mother taking me down to the Board of Elections Office in Jackson to register to vote.
At the time, I didn’t even know where the office was located, having never needed to go there before. I remember someone at the office jokingly said I didn’t look old enough to vote yet. (Memorable to me because I was gearing up to head off to college in a few months and tackle the world as an “adult.” I did not want to keep being mistaken for a middle school student!) I also remember briefly second-guessing my party affiliation before confirming that yes, I had checked the correct box.
But I don’t remember much else about the experience. It was just a regular day. Just something to check off that day’s to-do list.
Had I been born more than a hundred years earlier, however, registering to vote would not have been just a simple task on a regular day. In fact, it wouldn’t have been an option for me at all.
This year, specifically this August, marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment to the US Constitution, the one that guarantees women the right to vote. Congress passed the amendment in 1919, but it was not until the next year that at least three-fourths of the states ratified it to make it official.
Getting to that ratification was a bumpy road. According to history.com, the movement began around the mid-1800’s. It took decades to garner support for the simple idea that women should be allowed to cast a vote in elections that affected their lives just as much as anyone else. There were meetings and marches and protests, some resulting in injuries and arrests for the suffragettes. There were disagreements amongst the movement’s leaders on whether or not to support the 15th amendment, which gave voting rights to Black men but no women at all.
The 19th amendment itself failed to pass in Congress a few times, even with President Woodrow Wilson switching his position to support the proposal in 1918. When it did finally pass in the House and the Senate, the next step was getting a minimum of 36 states to ratify it. Some approved it quickly while others took their time. Several states in the South outright rejected it.
On August 18, 1920, the 36th state to ratify it was Tennessee with only one vote making the difference.
North Carolina actually could have been the 36th state, but they voted the day before Tennessee did to postpone their decision until the following year. They had even sent a letter to Tennessee’s legislature asking them to postpone their vote as well. (You see how that worked out, right?) The NC legislature, however, did decide to vote on the amendment after all, just one day after Tennessee guaranteed it would become law throughout the entire country. But our state’s politicians still failed to ratify the amendment then.
It was not until 1971 that the state legislature finally went back and ratified the amendment, even though it was merely symbolic at that point. Only Mississippi held out longer, not ratifying the amendment until 1984.
Nevertheless, the 19th amendment became law 100 years ago, giving all people the right to vote regardless of their gender. But of course, things still weren’t that simple: people of color were still often disenfranchised through things like “literacy tests” and it wasn’t until the Voting Rights of Act of 1965 was passed that those problems were addressed.
How disappointing to know that there were plenty of people out there—people in power—who didn’t believe it was important for everyone to have a vote. Isn’t the main point of a democracy to simply put the decision-making power into the hands of the people?
How disappointing to know that this only happened a century ago even though the United States has been around for more than twice that long. Look at how long it took for people to change their minds about the way things “should” be.
I’m grateful that I live in a time now where I don’t have to fight to cast my vote. I’m glad I was able to go register to vote that day without a second thought or even any trouble. It should be that way for everyone.
On Election Day in 1920, more than 8 million women went to the polls to vote for the first time. And we’ve been voting ever since. Now’s a good time to recognize that victory for equal rights and look to the future to overcome even more barriers to gender equality.
See you at the polls in November!
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.