The 19th Amendment and women’s suffrage

Context

  • Exactly 99 years ago, the United States ratified the 19th Amendment to its Constitution to remove the gender bar on the right to vote, causing the largest-ever peaceful expansion of the country’s voting population in history.
  • The 19th Amendment, ratified on August 18, 1920, and formally proclaimed on August 26, 1920, 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.”
  • Although women from the country’s Black, Native American, and Asian American communities continued to face challenges in exercising their political influence for several years after the Amendment was passed, its adoption is still considered a landmark event in the global woman suffrage movement.

How did women win the right to vote in the US?

  • The Seneca Falls meeting: The nascent United States had restricted the right to vote to men who fulfilled property ownership criteria. Racial bars and the institution of slavery in many parts of the country stopped most non-White men from voting, and women were almost entirely debarred.
  • Female activists resented these restrictions, and in 1848, the nation’s leading suffragists convened a historic women’s rights meeting at Seneca Falls in New York. Landmark resolutions were passed in the meeting, including: “Resolved, That all laws which prevent woman from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate, or which place her in a position inferior to that of man, are contrary to the great precept of Nature, and therefore of no force or authority.”
  • The meeting is seen as the launch of the woman suffrage movement in the United States.

The 14th Amendment- a broken promise for women

  • At the close of the American Civil War (1861–65), the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution was passed in 1868 to grant citizenship to all persons born or naturalised in the country, thus dramatically increasing the number of persons who could enjoy rights such as voting.
  • Since men from hitherto disenfranchised communities (such as the Black community) could now vote, women’s suffragists believed that the Amendment extended to women. However, this elation was short-lived as most states continued to prohibit women from voting. The US Supreme Court, too, decided against women’s suffrage in the 1875 case Minor v. Happersett.

An Amendment specifically for women

  • From then onwards, the woman suffragist movement began advocating for a constitutional amendment specially designed to remove gender bars.
  • At the turn of the 20th century, the movement was led by the moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and the more radical National Woman’s Party (NWP), both hugely popular. Together, they exerted pressure on the US Congress to pass the amendment.
  • Finally, in 1919, by which time the struggle had acquired the form of a mass movement, both houses of the US Congress passed the amendment with a two-thirds majority. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee state legislature approved the amendment, becoming the 36th such state to ratify it, paving the way for it to be formally placed on the statute book.

Women’s suffrage in India

  • The woman suffrage movement in India first gathered momentum due to female participation in the freedom struggle, beginning with the Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (1905-08), as well as support from British suffragists.
  • Different provinces of British India thus extended limited suffrage rights to women in the 1920’s. The Government of India Act 1935 expanded women’s suffrage, and even provided reserved seats for women in central and provincial legislatures.
  • Full voting rights were awarded with the passing of the Indian Constitution in 1950, which provided for universal adult suffrage.

Source:IE