Monday, August 10, 2020

Women Weren't Given the Vote. They Took It.

For a country that prides itself on its democracy, the United States has forced a lot of its citizens to fight for the privilege of voting. August 18th marks the centenary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which declares that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” That milestone is sometimes described as having “given” women the right to vote. It wasn’t a gift; it was a hard-won victory on the part of suffragists who’d been agitating for it for more than seventy years, on the basis of their common humanity with men.
Thank you, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Thank you, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul. Alice Paul especially was a real badass. She organized a march for women's suffrage down Pennsylvania Avenue the day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. Anti-suffrage rioters disrupted the march while police stood idly by, giving no protection to the peaceful marchers. Then Alice Paul organized pickets in front of the White House designed to prod the president into supporting women's suffrage. The civil disobedience campaign lasted months. Paul herself was arrested several times and finally sentenced to jail for seven months. She went on a hunger strike and was force fed raw eggs through a feeding tube. The publicity of the horrible treatment of her in jail kept the cause in the public eye. After passage of the 19th Amendment, Paul said, "It was shocking that a government of men could look with such extreme contempt on a movement that was asking nothing except such a simple little thing as the right to vote."

I strongly recommend "The American Experience" documentary "The Vote" on PBS for more information about these extraordinary women and the movement they led. Instead of erecting statues to racist traitors like Confederate generals, which was a popular civic thing in the country during the whole time that these women were campaigning for the vote, the country ought to have been honoring these women with their own statues. (Not anymore, though. We need term limits for heroes, even these women.)

Thinking about those racist traitors on all those statues across America...they unintentionally advanced voting rights themselves. It was the last thing they wanted, but the Civil War directly led to the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution: "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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

You'd think that would have settled the voting question forever, at least as regards race. You'd be wrong. Do you see the loophole in the amendment, a loophole that racists have been exploiting for a century and a half? The Amendment doesn't guarantee the right to vote to all citizens, or even to all men. It only prohibits denying it for the very narrow reason of race. States could still deny voting rights for other reasons, and states began to get creative almost immediately, adding poll taxes, literacy tests, felony convictions, and other impediments to voting, all meant to obstruct the intent of the Amendment.

They were successful for a century and a half. But thanks to Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and too many other civil rights leaders to name, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson were persuaded to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed many of the discriminatory practices that had sprung up since the Civil War to suppress the Black vote. At the heart of the Voting Rights Act is Section 5, which prohibited states from changing their election laws without advance federal approval. In 2017, the Supreme Court decided, 5-4, that the Act was no longer necessary and struck it down as unconstitutional. "Our country has changed," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. I think Roberts knew this, but the country hasn't changed as much as he wanted us to pretend it has. With Section 5 discarded, states began passing a flurry of laws whose effect is again to make it harder to vote.

In 2020, Republican efforts to suppress the vote continue unabated. Even in the face of an infectious disease pandemic, Republicans fight against allowing vote-by-mail as a public health measure. I won't go into the mind-bending logic of President Trump on this but suffice it to say, he says the quiet part out loud: "If we have vote by mail we'll never elect another Republican." Let's limit our attention to Texas. Texas is one of the minority of states that does not offer vote-by-mail, except under limited circumstances, for example, if you are 65 years or older. This despite the 26th Amendment to the Constitution: "The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age." The 26th Amendment is usually remembered as the amendment that gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. But its plain language outlaws favoring certain voters on the basis of age. Texas's age restriction on vote-by-mail is an abridgment of the right to vote of anyone younger than 65.

The root cause of all this is that the United States Constitution never guaranteed a right to vote in the first place. That's on the Founders. Opposition to voting rights has been a deep and strong current in American politics ever since. That's on us. The history of voting rights is a lesson in how every generation is forced to fight for and win the right all over again.

America has always prided itself on being the world's greatest democracy. But come on. Without a plainly established and honored right to vote, just how much of a democracy can we really claim to be? I'll close with the words I quoted on opening: "For a country that prides itself on its democracy, the United States has forced a lot of its citizens to fight for the privilege of voting."

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