No, this isn’t a Mother’s Day column in September. Or is it?
According to a recent article in Reader’s Digest, we women can thank one specific mother for our right to vote in the United States for the past century. Of course, some men have had that same voting right for well over 200 years.
On June 4, 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment which stated: “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.”
Thereafter, according to the Constitution, it had to be ratified by 36 states. By August 18, 1920, 35 states had ratified this Amendment and as the last state set to vote, the Tennessee State Legislature was expected to vote it down; but the count was close.
The youngest member, Harry Burn, 24, who had publicly expressed his opposition, received a note from his mother. She implored him to “be a good boy” and support the measure. When Burn’s name was called, he voted “aye.” As he defended his vote, he said, “I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify.” Later, he confessed to his mother’s influence on his vote.
But this monumental occasion didn’t happen with just one vote, no matter how good the story. Women, many of them mothers, had been advocating, marching, protesting, writing letters, cornering politicians for almost a century.
And while the future First Lady Abigail Adams, a mother, didn’t wear the label of Suffragette, she advised her husband, future president John Adams, as he helped the Continental Congress to write a constitution in 1789, “Remember the ladies.” In one of her letters to her husband, she says, “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands…If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Unfortunately, the founding fathers did not listen. So, the ladies voices grew louder and stronger until new representatives like Harry Burn, having heard an earful all their lives from their mothers, heeded the plea.
But there were many mothers, in addition to his own, who laid the stepping stones for Burn to stand upon. Suffragette and mother Victoria Woodhull made this prediction in a speech in 1871. “If Congress refuses to listen and to grant what women ask, there is but one course left to pursue. What is there left for women to do but to become the mothers of the future government?”
Men of color were technically afforded the right to vote in 1870 with the passage of the 15th Amendment and women of color, who ran vigorous campaigns parallel with those of the white women’s organizations, were technically covered by the 19th Amendment. However, it was not until 1965, a mere 55 years ago, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that the vast majority of people of color could exercise their right to vote. That act supposedly eliminated all of the Jim Crow efforts created by politicians and citizens to deny minorities the chance to vote. Today even, we still see remnants of that discriminatory mindset in some of the problems occurring at the polls.
A true supporter of the cause, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, the first African American woman to publish a short story, says, “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul…you white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.”
And so, in the midst of this pandemic, how do we celebrate this century old historic event? Most of us these days refrain from hosting celebratory parties. We adhere to the advice to avoid large crowds. The media has paid tribute to the event on the specific dates.
But how do we women, especially, and the men who see us as equals, honor the countless women who fought so hard for this right to vote?
Of course, there is only one answer. VOTE!
Each vote lights another candle on freedom’s cake. Let’s set that cake on fire this year. We owe it to our mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers and our sons, daughters and grandchildren.