August 18 is the 92nd birthday of the 19th amendment to the Constitution that gave voting rights to women. American women worked for at least 72 years – from 1848 to 1920–to expand the franchise to include women. And as late at the 1960s, men and women such as Fannie Lou Hamer took beatings for the right to vote. Many religious traditions teach the importance of memory and the importance of ancestor respect. In traditional African cosmology, the ancestors remain a part of the living community. We remember and rely on their wisdom and their work to inform, inspire and strengthen our own efforts. Memory is at once moral and holy.
Our foremothers and some forefathers worked to gain the right to vote for women because they understood it as an inalienable human right. They considered it sacred. In the Declaration of Sentiments presented at the First Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the first item on a list of grievance of woman against man is the denial of voting rights. It says: “He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
At that time, there was opposition to voting rights for women even at the convention. Of the 12 resolutions, the only one that was not approved unanimously was the resolution calling for women’s voting rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass strongly argued in favor of this resolution reasoning that the ability to secure any other rights depended on voting rights. The resolution finally carried by a small majority.
It read: “Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
The vote was considered sacred because it was a means of self defense, of attaining full legal personhood. At the Second Women’s Rights Convention at Worcester, Massachusetts in 1851, the first resolution read: “Resolved: that while we would not undervalue other methods, the Right of Suffrage for Women is, in our opinion, the corner-stone of this enterprise, since we do not seek to protect woman, but rather to place her in a position to protect herself.”
Today, some 161 years later, much of what the women and men at both these conventions wanted for woman has been achieved. She is now teachers of theology, medicine and law. She has access to higher education and to employment outside the home. She sits in Congress, on the US Supreme Court, holds high cabinet posts inside the executive branch and advisory positions inside the White House. Woman is no longer the property of her husband, divorce laws are less restrictive, and she is sovereign over her own reproductive choices with access to contraception and to legal abortion.
At the same time, there is much yet to achieve. No woman has yet been elected as president or vice president of the United States. While women are more than half the population of the United States, the number of women in Congress and other deliberative bodies is nowhere near half. In many jobs, women still earn less than men for doing the same work. Some religious traditions still bar women from their highest positions.
Now, hard-won rights regarding women’s health are under attack. More than one state has passed laws requiring women to undergo an ultra-sound before they are allowed to have an abortion. Further, there are efforts underway to grant legal personhood to a fertilized human egg, a zygote, which would render some forms of birth control and abortion under any circumstance illegal. There are efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, a provider of many reproductive health services for both men and women. Legal personhood for zygotes and defunding Planned Parenthood are positions held by both Mitt Romney and by Paul Ryan.
These efforts sponsored by Republican lawmakers have been called a Republican Part war on women. When we talk about such a war, we continue to reduce woman to an object being acted upon by another entity. The larger question is: how will women exercise their subjectivity and respond to this threat? How will women use the franchise in their own self- defense?
Susan B. Anthony thought the right to vote was an inherent right of citizenship of the United States. Thus, national law ought to supersede state law. Writing in her book” Woman Suffrage &Women’s Rights”, Ellen Carol DuBois quotes Anthony: “if we once establish the false principle, that United States citizenship does not carry with it the right to vote in every state in this Union, there is no end to the petty freaks and cunning devices that will be resorted to, to exclude one and another class of citizens from the right of suffrage (105).
We see such “petty freaks and cunning devices” in state laws that require state issued picture identification to vote. This is designed to make it more difficult for some classes of citizen – those without such identification – to vote. We see states limiting early voting and purging voter rolls, all in an attempt to suppress the vote. The good news is each election provides an opportunity to elect new lawmakers who can repeal these “petty freaks.”
The second resolution at the 1851 convention reads in part: “Resolved, that it will be woman’s fault if, the ballot once in her hand, all the barbarous, demoralizing and unequal laws, relating to marriage and property, do not speedily vanish from the statute book. . .” This could also refer to attacks upon women’s health and voting rights. In a speech before this same convention, Abby Kelly Foster challenged women to take responsibility. She said: “and when woman shall feel her duty, she will get her rights.” This wisdom is as true today as it was then.