SRU history professor discusses 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment
One hundred years ago today, June 4, 1919, the U.S. Congress passed the 19th Amendment, prohibiting states and the federal government from denying women suffrage, or the right to vote.
June 4, 2019
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — One hundred years ago today, June 4, 1919, the U.S. Congress passed the 19th Amendment, prohibiting states and the federal government from denying women suffrage, or the right to vote. The change took effect in 1920 once two-thirds of states ratified the amendment. The 19th Amendment is among the first topics addressed in U.S. History Since 1920, a 200-level class taught at Slippery Rock University.
"I try to start the semester on a positive note with this success," said Melissa Ford, SRU assistant professor of history, who taught a section of the class last year. "But as we look at the progress women have made, it's a longer story and only a moment of success. There was a lot more to be done."
"(The passing of the 19th Amendment) was somewhat anticlimactic," said Ford, noting that only 36% of eligible women voted in the first presidential election after the 19th Amendment was enacted. "It wasn't this huge voting bloc that politicians feared would take over the political landscape with ideas of whatever women wanted becoming the way of the country. But it was symbolic and it took on social significance beyond the 'Oh, we have the right to vote.' At that point, women were at least constitutionally defined as equal and it started what historians define as the first wave of American feminism."
This relatively progressive period included women embracing the Flapper lifestyle, where women expressed their sexuality and it became more socially acceptable for women to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, wear short skirts, cut their hair short and drive automobiles. A second wave of feminism occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. The Equal Rights Amendment, which was written by equal rights activist Alice Paul in 1923, was passed in 1972, but to date remains unratified.
"Once you have an amendment or Supreme Court decision, there's a temptation to say, 'Ah, well that's it, we solved the problem. It's done.' Getting the right to vote didn't solve everything," said Ford, who also acknowledged the plight of minority women who were fighting for civil rights on two fronts. "Women didn't stop working for rights from 1920 to the 1960s. They still have to push for equality. (The 19th Amendment) was just another another chapter in this really big book of the women's rights movement."
The story goes back further than 1919 with suffrage organizations and activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton leading movements dating back to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, considered the first women's rights convention. The passing of the 19th Amendment came to a head in the context of World War I, with women being relied on to support the war effort and entering the labor force, as well as the election of a suffragist U.S. President, Woodrow Wilson. Other movements supporting the working class and social welfare also gained traction in the early 1900s, signifying a cultural and political change in the country.
"It took some time for the country to come around to women's suffrage in the 19th century," Ford said. "People are still adhering to these traditional women's roles that have always been more complicated than just stay-at-home-and-take-care-of-the-kids. (The change) doesn't all go back to the 19th Amendment, but it goes back to this idea of we're finally seeing marked progress for the women's right movement."
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