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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Well, duh!

Women demonstrate at the White House, Washington, DC, 1917

On August 26, 1920 - eighty-eight years ago today - the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was certified by Bainbridge Colby, Secretary of State in the administration of then President Woodrow Wilson.

The Amendment reads simply enough - in two paragraphs containing thirty-nine words:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the Untied States or any state on account of sex. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

I can hear my daughter's response to that: Well, duh!

They don't realize that their own grandmother, who was a first generation Portuguese-American, was three years old when she was guaranteed the constitutional right to vote.

It does seems perfectly obvious, doesn't it? It is impossible to them that while the activism began earlier, the American suffrage movement officially began in 1848 at the first Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, NY. One of their resolutions was to condemn the application of scripture to keep women on an unequal footing in America.

I'll get back to that in a minute.

If you're doing the math, it took seventy-two (72!!) years from the official initiation of the Suffrage Movement before women were guaranteed the right to vote, a right they already had in that same Constitution.

The preamble of the Federal Constitution reads:

"We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

I don't know. What do you supposed was the stumbling block? I'm thinking it had something to do with the idea of "domestic tranquility."

On May 21, 1919, the amendment passed the House of Representatives; the Senate followed two weeks later.

Wyoming was the first state, in 1869, to allow women the right to vote. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, which was the number required to ensure certification of the ratification.

However, some states, like Maryland, didn't ratify the amendment until 1941 and didn't get around to sending in the paperwork until 1958.

I suppose I should be amazed, but I fear my time in the church has prepared me to look at those facts on paper and simply, sadly, shake my head.

In researching this issue some years ago, I found this "pastoral letter" from the Massachusetts Congregationalist Clergy, dated August 1837. It addressed the issue of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who were anti-slavery activists in New England.

Tell me if any of this sounds familiar:

"We invite your attention to the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character with wide-spread and permanent injury.

The appropriate duties and influence of women are clearly stated in the New Testament. Those duties and that influence are unobstrusive and private, but the souce of mighty power. When the mild, dependent, softening influence of woman upon the sterness of man's opinions is fully exercised, society feels the effects of it in a thousand forms. The power of woman is in her dependence, flowing from the consciousness of that weakness which God has given her for her protection, and which keeps her in those departments of life that form the character of individuals and of the nation.

There are social influences which females use in promoting piety and the great objects of Christian benevolence which we cannot too highly commend. We appreciate the unostentatious prayers and efforts of woman in advancing the cause of religion at home and abroad:--in Sabbath-schools, in leading religious inquirers to the pastors for instruction, and in all such associated effort as becomes the modesty of her sex; and earnestly hope that she may abound more and more in these labors of piety and love.

But when she assumes the place and tone of man as a public reformer, our care and protection of her seem unnecessary; we put ourselves in self-defence against her; she yields the power which God has given her for protection, and her character becomes unnatural. If the vine, whose strength and beauty is to lean upon the trellis-work and half conceal its clusters, thinks to assume the independence and the overshadowing nature of the elm, it will not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonor into the dust.

We cannot, therefore, but regret the mistaken conduct of those who encourage females to bear an obtrusive and ostentatious part in measures of reform, and countenance any of that sex who so far forget themselves as to itinerate in the character of public lecturers and teachers.

We especially deplore the intimate acquaintance and promiscuous conversation of females with regard to the things "which ought not to be named"; by which that modesty and delicacy which is the charm of domestic life, and which constitutes the true influence of woman in society, is consumed, and the way opened, as we apprehend, for degeneracy and ruin. We say these things, not to discourage proper influences against sin, but to secure such reformation as we believe in Scriptural, and will be permanent."

Note: The "things which ought not to be named" was a reference to the women's speeches which detailed the subjection of slave women, who had no right to marry, to the sexual demands of their masters and overseers. The clergy thought such truthful talk was unnatural and against God's ordained purposes for women.

It is no surprise, really, that once the discussion began about women and race, the issue of sex and sexuality, rape and domestic violence surfaced.

It is no surprise, really, that the suffrage and abolitionist movements were led by many of the same people - Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass were together at the Women's Conference in Seneca Falls in 1848.

It's no surprise, really, that the bible was used as the primary weapon to deter both movements.

The Biblical traditions of slavery and misogyny are deeply rooted in the system of patriarchy - also understood by some who read the bible as "natural law." Both the abolition and suffrage movements challenged this with an understanding of "natural rights."

It became clear that God's natural social order, as understood in the Bible, ran contrary to the ethics of liberty as they emerged in the modern world. Morals of liberty and equality clashed with the Bible's social order.

The argument was framed in terms of "natural law" verses "natural rights."

Hmmm . . . wherever have we heard this before?

If you have ever paid attention to the rhetoric of the religious right you know that, in their world view, it's a slippery slope from the disobedience of the "natural law" into the chaos of "social disorder." Start giving "natural rights" to women, and before you know it, you'll have to do that for people of color. And, if you do that, you'll have do to it for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Before you know it, you will find that there are Communists lurking around every corner.

The strategy hasn't changed even though it has been a failed strategy in every rights movement since the middle of the 19th century.

And yet, the strategy persists. Why? Because it is the 'natural default' position of of fear. Get back to "basics". Return - or, "submit" to the natural law of God's will for us. Follow the Ten Commandments closely and everything will return to 'normal'. Develop an "Anglican Covenant" and domestic tranquility will return to the Household of God.

In the presidential election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony cast an illegal vote. She was arrested, tried and then fined $100 but refused to pay. In 1873, she gave a speech which ended with these words:

"The only question left to be settled now is: Are women persons? And I hardly believe any of our opponents will have the hardihood to say they are not. Being persons, then, women are citizens; and no state has a right to make any law, or to enforce any old law, that shall abridge their privileges or immunities. Hence, every discrimination against women in the constitutions and laws of the several states is today null and void, precisely as is every one against Negroes."

Susan B. Anthony died in 1906 after five decades of tireless work and fourteen years before the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Ever since, "domestic tranquility" has never been quite the same.

I suspect Ms. Anthony might give a similar speech today concerning lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. And, I suspect, her answer would be the same as the response my daughters would give:

"Well, duh!"

UPDATE from my friend, Byron Rushing:

Don't forget New Jersey for the first--although it was taken away: New Jersey on ratification of the US Constitution and joining the Union placed only one qualification on adult general suffrage — the possession of at least £50 cash or worth of property. Of course she had to be single or a widow (sort of like the qualifications for sainthood!) 'cause all married women's property belonged to you know who.

See "Reclaiming Lost Ground: The Struggle for Women Suffrage in New Jersey" by Neale McGoldrick and Margaret Crocco :

"Because the New Jersey Constitution did not specifically exclude women (or blacks), many widowed or unmarried women, some black men, and at least one black woman who met the property qualification voted in local elections. Fifty pounds was not a prohibitive sum, and estimates suggest that 95% of the white males could meet the property qualification. Married women could not meet the property qualification for voting because all their property automatically belonged to their husbands, unless they could prove that the had received fifty pounds as a 'gift.' According to some reports, about 5% of the landowners were women, which in not surprising given the number of widows following the Revolutionary War."

"Two Burlington County Women, Iona Curtis and Silveria Lilvey, appeared on the voting lists in 1787."

"Estimates suggest that as many as 10,000 women in New Jersey voted in some years between 1790 and 1807 when they lost the vote as a result of an act of the legislature."

And see


Fran said...

Clap clap clap - can you hear the applause from upstate NY?

What do you mean- duh?


Great post on this topic, thank you Elizabeth.

JimB said...

You know, he mused, the world was so much simpler before then. All a guy had to do was be the king of his household and enjoy legal and religious privileges that mere women could clearly not handle. In short the world that Gaf(fe)Con wants back.

I am so grateful to be living now and not then!


it's margaret said...

Thank you for this --I had quite forgotten to remember this day.

My grandmother walked for voting rights in Los Angeles, suffered for it--and spoke proudly of voting.

And thank you for bringing the "long vision" of the struggle for righteousness into perspective.

Malcolm+ said...

"In the presidential election of 1872, Susan B. Anthony cast an illegal vote. She was arrested, tried and then fined $100 but refused to pay. In 1973, she gave a speech . . ."


"Susan B. Anthony died in 1906 . . ."

So, I presume the 1973 is a typo?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oops! Fixed. Thanks.

Paul Davison said...

Actually, I can see my son saying, "Well, duh!"

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Paul, We have one son and I have no doubt he'd say the same thing.

Margaret, my passion since Lambeth 1998 has been to continue to raise awareness about the interlocking nature of oppression. I hope I did that here - as well as to highlight the long view of the struggle for justice.

Fran and Jim - thanks for your words.

Virginia Harris said...

I'm thrilled that Senator Clinton honored the suffragettes, including Harriet Tubman, who was as ardently involved in the suffrage struggle as she was in the Underground Railroad.

Thanks to the success of Harriet Tubman and other amazing suffragettes, women now have voices and choices!

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