One hundred years ago today, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. But the real story is that it almost didn’t get ratified, and this right that women have come to see as a foregone conclusion was not obviously so.
In many ways, that is true of the entire women’s movement. Getting to equality not just on paper but in practice does not happen on its own, and when it does, there is always more work to do.
Passing the 19th Amendment took 70 long years. Making a written change to the constitution is, by design, almost impossibly difficult. It takes a ⅔ vote of Congress plus ratification by ¾ of states.
And the quest for codifying women’s right to vote nearly failed. After Congress and 35 states passed the amendment, the process came to a standstill – the requisite 36th state was nowhere to be seen.
Then, the conservative governor of Tennessee called his state legislature into session to affirm opposition to the amendment. It seemed doomed to fail.
But as roll call was taking place on the chamber floor in the Tennessee state house, one young legislator changed his vote. His courage led another to change his vote in turn, and to the shock of the entire nation, the amendment became law. One state legislator in one chamber in one state made the difference for the entire nation.
Since this milestone achievement, women have been tirelessly shaping policy and discourse in this country to ensure our voices are heard. We consistently turn out at the polls at higher rates than men. We are running for office in record numbers. And our participation in civic life has helped the country evolve on issues such as sexism, workplace discrimination, domestic violence, reproductive rights, and sexual harassment.
But while we deeply value the rights we as women are afforded in 2020 as compared to 1920, it is undeniable that we have a long way to go.
After the 2018 midterm elections, 131 women–the most ever–were elected to the House and Senate. But that is still only 24% of Congress.
Our Supreme Court also has the most women ever, a cool 33%. This seems to be enough for this administration, as the most recent two appointments were men (as are 96% of all justices ever appointed).
And of course, we are painfully aware that America has never had a woman president, even as countries around the world from Ethiopia to Nepal have broken this barrier. Kamala Harris as vice president on the Democratic ticket is one of the few times women have gotten close to the still-intact glass ceiling at the White House. So while there is an overwhelming belief that women are theoretically permitted to do what men do, the facts show that we are not.
Passing the 19th amendment was a feat, but at the end of the day, the constitution is just a bunch of words on a piece of paper. It doesn’t mean anything unless we give it meaning.
There have been many victories these 100 years, and they will continue to come. But it has also been 100 years of heartbreak.
100 years of hearing over and over about how “all men are created equal” and waiting patiently for the part where they address that most glaring omission.
100 years of giving 110% effort to the strategy du jour–from burning bras to leaning in to wearing pussy hats, and still being relegated to the waiting room of the halls of power.
100 years of being told it’s not them it’s us, that if we could just be a little more this and a little less that we might do better.
America can be difficult, and the contradictions can drive us mad. But they must not drive us to quit.
Over the next 100 years, let’s commit to electing not just one but many women presidents. Let’s fill our state houses, city government, congress, and courtrooms with women from all backgrounds.
Let’s elect so many women that it is no longer newsworthy when a woman runs or wins, and we have run out of “firsts.” Let’s coalesce behind policies that for the first time in history will put women first, and not give up until we see them enacted.
We can choose to believe that progress is and continues to be possible. We can choose to take the founding documents not for their words but for their spirit. And in fact, that is what we must do in order to keep marching forward.
To the future in the distance, let us give ourselves.