I don’t why it had taken so long for this to sink in.
It finally did, though, while I was watching a recent program on the women’s suffrage movement on PBS and started doing a bit of arithmetic in my head.
My paternal grandmother, who died in 1983, turned 21 in 1915.
Men of that age in South Dakota could vote. She couldn’t.
It wouldn’t be until August of 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by 36 states, that my grandmother, along with all women in the United States, could not be denied the right to vote.
I regret now that I never talked to her about this. Of all the topics of conversation that would come up during our time together, politics, it seems, was way at the bottom of the list.
That could be due, in part, to the environment in which she grew up, fragments of which still exist today.
One lesson that she was repeatedly taught time and again during her youth involved the role of women in American society at the time and how they had “their place” and were given little opportunity to leave it to pursue the educational, occupational and social roles that were automatically granted to men.
In the early 1900s, men who reached the age of 21 could vote. No questions asked.
The 19th Amendment was ratified in time for my grandmother, at age 26, to vote in her first presidential election in November 1920. The top vote-getter was Warren G. Harding (ugh), so maybe it was an experience she wasn’t inclined to brag about.
Or, maybe she didn’t vote that year. Women’s suffrage was hardly a new issue at the time, but women actually having the right to cast ballots was so fresh and new that the simplest form of political activism that’s so easy to take for granted -- the right to cast a ballot -- may have still been an afterthought.
At age 26, my grandmother was expected to cook and sew and help out on the family farm. There’s a good chance, I firmly believe, that she wasn’t expected to have to know or have an opinion about the affairs of the state at the time, so the November election of 1920 very likely could have come and gone without her participating in it.
Someday, I’ll have to see if there is a record of her casting a ballot then.
An article I ran across published by the National Parks Service of all places notes that women first organized and collectively fought for suffrage at the national level in July of 1848. In the following decades, women marched, protested, lobbied, and even went to jail. By the 1870s, women pressured Congress to vote on an amendment that would recognize their suffrage rights. This amendment was sometimes known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and became the 19th Amendment.
The amendment 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."
Although the women’s rights movement was born in New England, women first won suffrage victories in the West. In the Dakota Territory, women were able to vote in school elections beginning in 1883. Legislation that would have provided full suffrage to women lost by one vote in 1875. A similar bill passed the territorial legislature in 1885 but was vetoed by the territorial governor, Gilbert Pierce. If Pierce had not struck down the law, women from the Dakota Territory would have joined those in the Wyoming and Utah territories in winning voting rights on the same terms as men.
When South Dakota became a state in 1889, the new state constitution included the word “male” in the section designating voting eligibility. However, it also called for the new state legislature to send a proposed state constitutional amendment to the voters in 1890 which would extend voting eligibility to women.
Susan B. Anthony embarked on a speaking tour of South Dakota to campaign for the amendment and set up an office in our state. Many other national suffrage leaders like Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt toured the state as well. But the amendment was defeated by the voters. Similar amendments in 1895 and 1898 did not pass the legislature.
The suffrage movement continued during the early 20th century. The 1916 ballot in South Dakota included both prohibition and woman suffrage amendments. The prohibition amendment passed; the woman suffrage amendment did not.
Two years later, another state constitutional amendment passed the legislature and was sent to the voters. This one, called the Citizenship Amendment, revised voting eligibility in the state. It added the requirement of U.S. citizenship (which had not been required before) but removed the word “male.” When the amendment passed in November 1918, women in South Dakota were finally eligible to vote under the same terms as men.
Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919. After Congress approved the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law.
On December 4, 1919, South Dakota voted to ratify the 19th Amendment. By August of 1920, 36 states (including South Dakota) ratified the amendment, ensuring that across the country, the right to vote could not be denied based on sex.
A century later, much attention is rightly being paid to Anthony, Shaw and Catt, women who boldly preserved during some dark times as they emerged as leaders of the suffrage movement.
I’ll think of those women during Tuesday’s general election while reflecting on the time in which my grandmother lived.
It was a time in which an intelligent, talented woman like her could achieve adulthood and still not enjoy all of the rights of American citizenship. I hope all of us can fully realize the true meaning of that time over a century ago and never take our right to vote for granted come Election Day.