Thursday marks the 91st anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment. We often hear that the amendment gives women the right to vote. But that is not the case. Women were exercising the right to vote long before 1920.
At the time of the Founding, women were voting in New Jersey—a first in recorded history! Wyoming, first as a territory and then as a state, has always granted women suffrage (Wyoming became a state in 1890, 30 years prior to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment). In fact, prior to the ratification of the 19th amendment, 15 states allowed women full suffrage and another 13 states allowed women to vote in presidential elections. By 1920, only seven states entirely denied women the right to vote. Thus, while universal women’s suffrage was not guaranteed until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, women had long since exercised the right to vote.
The U.S. Constitution’s language is gender-neutral. It neither forbids nor requires women to vote. In fact, the Constitution grants the states—not Congress—the power to determine the qualifications of voters for federal elections. Consequently, the question of women’s suffrage was, until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, determined on a state by state basis.
The Nineteenth Amendment did not introduce a revolutionary practice into American politics. The Declaration of Independence did. It articulated the principles of human equality, natural rights, and the consent of the governed, that enabled the citizens of both sexes to select their political leaders. On this anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, then we should commemorate the amendment that codified women’s vote, but, more importantly, celebrate the principles that enabled it.