It was a textbook Tennessee evening in mid-August, until it wasn’t. The night was steamy and the air was thick (not atypical for that time of year), but on this day in particular, the humidity, the scent of roses, and the fate of women’s suffrage all hung in the balance.
For the majority of the day, protesters for and against the female vote had tirelessly lobbied the Tennessee State Legislature, a frenzy that was later dubbed the War of the Roses because proponents of women’s suffrage pinned yellow roses to their collars while their opponents donned crimson blooms.
With a crisp red blossom tucked into his lapel, tie-breaker Harry Burn, the youngest legislator in the house at 24 years old, stood to deliver his “aye” or “nay” vote. With every expectation that Burn would vote in harmony with the party indicated by his bright corsage, the assembly waited to hear his answer.
But what they didn’t know was that Burn had a change of heart. With a newly received letter from his mother instructing him to “be a good boy” tucked into his breast pocket, he stood and gave his verbal vote — a resounding “aye” in favor of women’s suffrage.
With that, a 70-year struggle came to an end. The 19th amendment passed on August 18th, 1920.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the first time women had been permitted to cast a ballot. Between 1700 and 1807, women in select states had voted freely in local and regional elections. But slowly and surely, that power had been stripped away as various groups (including Prohibitionists) feared the power and slant of the female vote.
In the wake of the legendary Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, suffragist groups formed across the nation, some (like the National Woman Suffrage Association, the American Woman Suffrage Association, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association) gaining national attention with the help of charismatic figureheads like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony. Many allied themselves with abolitionist movements, and prominent Black figures like Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth joined the cause — though fractions occurred over the 15th amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote and excluded women entirely.
Gradually, individual states began granting women the constitutional right to vote. By 1920, it was nationally ratified as the 36th state — Tennessee — voted to pass the amendment.
Ninety-eight years later, August 26th has been designated an official U.S. holiday to commemorate the day women were granted their constitutional right.
But that’s not to say that the fight is over. After all, if the last couple of years have proven anything, it’s that we have a long way to go in providing all women with equity in political and social spheres.
Traditionally, women have been largely excluded from male-dominated governments, occupying only 22 percent of parliamentary seats globally, even though societies with women in power tend to have higher levels of literacy, gender equity, and wealth distribution.
Around the globe, women’s reproductive health is in jeopardy at the hands of primarily male-controlled governments. Last week, in Argentina, a bill that would legalize first-trimester abortion was struck down by the Argentine Senate, despite statistics that indicate that Argentines have nearly 500,000 illegal abortions a year and that death by a botched abortion is the single highest cause of maternal mortality. And Argentina is no outlier.
In June, women in Saudi Arabia were finally permitted to drive after being historically restricted from travel (without explicit permission from a husband or male relative) for much of the country’s history.
It’s worthwhile to note as well that women are not equally disenfranchised. Especially in Western countries, women of color face obstacles that white women do not. For example, in the U.S., Black women make 63 cents for every dollar a white woman makes, while Hispanic women earn only 54 cents for every dollar. In the U.S. Congress, 105 members are women but only 38 identify as women of color.
While there are myriad problems that women face related to gender equity, reproductive health rights, political representation, access to education, and the fight for basic human rights, there is also a global women’s reckoning concerning closing wage gaps, narrowing gender margins, and committing to the fight for equal rights.
Susan B. Anthony died in 1906, 14 years before women would see the progress she and many others had worked so hard for. Before her passing, she acknowledged that the struggle wasn’t over, lamenting:
“Oh, if I could but live another century and see the fruition of all the work for women! There is so much yet to be done.”
Header image by Alexa Mazzarello