Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Women's suffrage--very narrow victory, eh, Michelle?

Well courtesy Michelle Obama's speech at the Democratic convention last night, I'm reminded that we recently observed the anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. It takes three-quarters of the states to vote yes on a constitutional amendment to give it effect, and on August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to do so (Keyssar, The Right to Vote, 2000, p. 218).

Before anybody quibbles that Mrs. Obama got it wrong because August 18th was last week, let me quickly point out that she probably meant that the Nineteenth Amendment was formally certified by the federal government the week after Tennessee acted (Keyssar p. 218).

But wow, was this ever a narrow victory. In the first place, as Keyssar notes, the amendment passed the Volunteer State legislature by ONE vote. Furthermore, eight southern states withheld their approval; thus for any state south of the Mason-Dixon Line to vote yes, even by a bare majority, was noteworthy (Amar, America's Constitution: A Biography, 2005, p. 425). If there had been anywhere near that level of opposition to letting the ladies vote anywhere else in the land, the Nineteenth Amendment would have gone down to defeat.

Which doesn't mean that women wouldn't have been able to vote EVERYWHERE. By 1920, seventeen states had acted to allow women to vote--even in presidential elections (Keyssar at 401)! Thus, had the Nineteenth Amendment failed, a woman in Illinois or Wisconsin could still have voted for Warren Harding, but a woman in Georgia or Alabama could not. (I wrote that somewhat tongue in cheek, then realized I had no idea who the Democratic candidate was in 1920. The answer is here; what an amazing rout in a presidential election not featuring an incumbent. Harding received a significantly higher percentage of the popular vote than Reagan got in 1984.)

Well thanks to the Nineteenth Amendment, women here in Georgia can now vote for president. What the heck, a Georgia woman can even make a preposterously futile attempt to RUN for president!

No comments: