How Can the 19th Amendment Help Us Today?
Marlene DeMaio, RJOS Immediate Past President
August is a noteworthy month in the voting rights history of our country. June 4, 2019 marked the 100th year anniversary of passing the 19th Amendment. Congress finally ratified it the following year on Aug.18, 1920 after decades of debate and divisiveness. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), requiring equal legal rights for all citizens regardless of sex, has yet to be ratified. Its first version followed the 19th Amendment and was introduced in Congress in 1923 by suffragettes Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman. This amendment did not really get a footing until the Women’s Movement and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. The US House of Representatives approved the modern version of the ERA on October 12, 1971 with the Senate doing the same on March 22, 1972. However, only 35 of the required 38 states supported the amendment in 1978 so it was never enacted into law. It has recently gained some interest with the #metoo movement.
Like all great social causes whose concepts are based in common sense, decency, and merit, the idea of giving women and people of color the right to vote was deemed disruptive, unfounded, and even anti-American. The early supporters of the women’s right to vote held their first meeting in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. It was not until 1878 that the amendment was first introduced in Congress. A variety of tactics and strategies characterized the movement. Some challenged the existing Constitution and Amendments excluding women. Others mounted a massive publicity and public awareness campaigns with rallies, parades, and speeches. Some champions of the cause were more assertive, staging sit ins, vigils, and hunger strikes. Most of the early “suffragettes” from the 19th century did not live to see 19th Amendment passed or to cast a vote. This includes Susan B. Anthony who died in 1906.
The suffrage movement included women of color in most cases but not all. Marry Church Terrel and Ida B. Wells are just two of the better known. Terrell was one of the first black women to earn a law degree in America. She was a charter member of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 as well as a founding member of the National Association of College Women in 1910. Ida B. Wells was born a slave and focused her entire life on equality and non-violently fought for equality for women and blacks. She was a founder of the NAACP and a vocal highly widely recognized suffragette, speaking nationally and internationally. Her journalistic pieces on lynching brought these horrors to national attention for which she was awarded posthumously a Pulitzer Prize this year. These two women and many others believed in working together to enact social changes.
It would take about 50 more years for women of color to be assured equal access to the vote. An extraordinary piece of legislation was required to ensure the right to vote for all US citizens, regardless of color. On August 6, 1965, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. This law bolsters the voting rights of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. I believe that the law also reinforces the 19th Amendment. Congress subsequently amended the Voting Rights act no fewer than five time to ensure clarity and justice: race cannot be a factor in the right to vote. The US Justice Department considers the law the most effective civil rights legislation ever signed into law.
The fight for the right to vote by women and people of color have commonalities. The decades when both these laws were enacted had major societal upheaval and physical violence, social ostracizing, defamation, being arrested, prolonged imprisonment without reasonable cause, and death threats were the cost of supporting these two social movements. While suffragettes such as Alice Paul were force fed during hunger strikes and others were assaulted and brutalized, to my knowledge none were assassinated. Major civil rights activists, including those that strongly espousing non-violence, were assassinated. The most prominent is Martin Luther King, Jr. Further, children and non-activists were targeted as part of fear and hate campaigns. History does not record this for the suffragette movement.
An act of violence may catalyze a movement. On March 25, 1965 John Lewis, the son of sharecroppers crossed a bridge in Selma, AL named after KKK Grand Wizard, Edmund Pettus. As he and other civil rights activists peacefully walked together, he sustained a life-threatening skull fracture from the night stick of a law an Alabama State Trooper during this demonstration supporting voting right regardless of color. The 1965 video of the event as at the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma is infamous. This day of injustice and physical assault was called “Bloody Sunday.” Shortly after, President Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress and the Voting Rights Act passed.
Two years earlier John Lewis attended and spoke at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963. This massive event advocated for civil and economic rights for all African Americans. Most people know this historic day for Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” Dr. King is often quoted and remains respected for his life’s dedication to civil rights, a life taken by an assassin. He was unfaltering in his approach to unify people and promote civil rights by non-violent means: “Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.”
And yet, there is still civil strife, inequality, and unfairness for the right to vote and many of our liberties. There is still violence surrounding injustice and civil rights. The recent deaths of citizens by law enforcement officers has catalyzed and unified many over the past several months. RJOS joined with the Diversity Advisory Board (DAB) of the AAOS, the J. Robert Gladden Orthopaedic Society (JRGOS), and the American Association of Latino Orthopaedic Surgeons (AALOS). We issued a “Unified Statement” that was published in the July issue of AAOS Now (https://www.aaos.org/aaosnow/2020/jul/diversity/diversity-statement/) in response; not as a reaction but as a statement of solidarity and call for peaceful action working together for change. The very mission of DAB, JRGS, and ALOS is to support orthopaedic surgeons and their roles in patient care regardless of demographic characteristics. Why? Because our rights under law protect us from discrimination and promote fairness. Diversity and inclusion show that merit means something; it means everything to achieving goals and fairness under the law.
There is a new fight for voting rights. The recent death of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and reflections on his life of humility and activism gave America new insight into making a difference. Recognizing Lewis’ lifelong commitment to activism and ethics, most members from the Hill want to name it after Rep. Lewis (D-GA) who stressed, “The right to vote is precious and almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy. We must be vigilant in protecting that blessing.”
This is the part in this essay where you may expect a reminder of my Navy career and those military and civilians who died protecting our country and our freedoms. I’m not going to do that. You already know about them. If you ever want a somber sight as a reminder, look at photos of the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. We need to remember the nameless, the people we do not know, people who died in support of our civil freedoms, who lived promoting social justice, who broke racial and gender barriers. There are still people doing the same. Please do not forget them. While violence is an option, its results are unpredictable and destructive. Consider the lives of Dr. King and Rep. Lewis who accomplished so much with non-violence. We all agree there is still much to be accomplished; we are marching forward, together. Let us reflect on these women and the men who literally locked arms to achieve the vote. They made a difference and so can we. Being active in RJOS, JRGOS, AALOS, the DAB and the more recent LGBTQ orthopaedic group will help all orthopaedic surgeons and our patients. Your vote counts; be counted. We are counting on you.
For more information, please access the websites below:
John Lewis, PBS Movie “Get in the Way”
Martin Luther King, Jr Philosophy on the King Center website
The 19th Amendment
The National Archives Museum is marking the 19th Amendment anniversary with a special exhibition which you can see on line: https://www.archivesfoundation.org/women/
Additional information can be accessed at www.archives.gov/education/lessons/woman-suffrage
The Voting Rights Act: