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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


Even better than sharing it with Robert Redford

I think all children like to know with whom they share their birthday. If it’s someone notable, it gives you bragging rights, as if you had anything to do with the day you said hello to the world. With an internet search, it’s easy to find this information but as a kid in the olden days, it took some digging. At some point, though, I heard that Robert Redford was born on August 18. I thought that sharing the day with a handsome movie star reflected well on me.

Years later, in 2020, I learned that my birth date was more notable than I thought: On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote. I was very surprised to have learned this so far into adulthood. I guess we don’t memorize dates like this until a big anniversary – like a centennial – comes along and then we take note. And to be honest, once you reach a certain age, you’re not necessarily focused on searching for other birth twins or momentous events. Case in point: I just discovered that Roman Polanski also shares my birthday. I would definitely NOT brag about that. But the adoption of the 19th Amendment? This was worthy news.

The women’s rights movement in the United States is said to have officially begun at the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. Indignant over women being barred from speaking at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott brought some 300 people together and drafted The Declaration of Sentiments, calling for women’s equality in every area of life, including suffrage.

It wasn’t until 1878 that the amendment to give women the right to vote was first introduced in Congress, and it took 42 years for it to be ratified. During that time, champions of voting rights used different strategies to achieve their goals.

Some supporters worked to pass suffrage acts in each state. Lucy Stone, her husband Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the more radical National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) to challenge in court male-only voting laws. Still others picketed, held silent vigils and conducted hunger strikes, sometimes enduring heckling, jail time and physical abuse. In 1890, the two organizations reconciled and became the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

By 1919, the suffrage movement had finally gained enough support, and Congress, grateful for women’s help during the war, passed the 19th Amendment on June 5, sending it to the states for ratification. By the middle of 1920, 35 states had voted to ratify the amendment. Just one more state was needed, and Tennessee decided to tackle the vote.

Supporters from both sides camped out at a Nashville hotel to lobby in earnest. Those in favor of suffrage wore yellow roses while the anti-suffragists wore red roses. Their efforts became known as the War of the Roses.

When it was time to vote, Representative Banks Turner switched sides during the roll call, thus deadlocking the vote. To win, the suffragists needed one more vote. They got it from Harry Burns, the youngest member of the statehouse at 24 years old, despite the red rose on his lapel. With that, the 19th Amendment became the law of the land, passing the final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states and ending the 70-year-old battle for suffrage.

No one knows for sure why Burns switched his vote, but a letter in his suit pocket from his mother asked him to “be a good boy” and vote for the amendment.

Despite the lengthy road to ratification, Black women and other minorities were denied the right to vote long into the 20th century due to discriminatory state voting laws. And our country is still reckoning with modernizing the system to ensure broader voting access.

As August 18 comes upon us, it makes sense to reflect on the importance of voting, a basic right and one of the key freedoms of American life. And since it’s also my birthday I’ll take your good wishes as well.

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