Nearly a century has passed since American women were granted the right to vote.
On Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Joan Heminway, Dr. Emily Schilling, Stephanie Slater and Dr. John Scheb hosted a discussion in the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy to reflect on the landmark 19th Amendment.
The event was purposely held on Constitution Day; the government mandates that all public institutions in the U.S. celebrate the holiday, although, as Dr. Scheb explained at the event’s commencement, UT has been celebrating Constitution Day for much longer than the governmental rule has been in place.
At the beginning of the event, Slater gave a history of women’s suffrage in the United States. She began by addressing the true meaning of the U.S. Constitution.
“The U.S. Constitution, as was originally written, was gender neutral, but the ‘We the People’ in the document really meant we the white, wealthy men. All men were not created equal, and women didn’t count at all. No female had the right to vote. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood,” Slater said.
She outlined the long and drawn-out series of events that led to the passing of the 19th Amendment. Slater explained that at the beginning of the 1800’s, women across the U.S. began to draw attention to the issue of women’s suffrage. However, after the 14th and 15th Amendments were passed, granting voting and citizenship rights to African Americans, the suffrage movement was greatly divided. Suffragettes split into two groups, with one sector of the movement supporting the 14th and 15th Amendments and another opposing the amendments.
Although the split did delay improvement on the issue of women’s suffrage, the two branches eventually combined forces once more to achieve their common goal. By 1919, many states had granted women the right to vote, and, finally, a bill proposing a constitutional amendment to permit women’s suffrage passed in Congress’s House of Representatives and Senate.
It was required that 36 states approve of the amendment for it to pass, and by the summer of 1919, 35 states had granted their approval. At that time, suffragettes from Tennessee pushed Tenn. Gov. Albert Roberts to work towards passing the bill. Although he was opposed to women’s suffrage, he eventually obliged, and when the amendment was approved in the Tenn. House of Representatives, the Volunteer State passed the amendment and became the state that finally made women’s suffrage a reality across the United States.
Slater discussed this monumental event.
“With that roll call in the Tennessee house, the 72 year struggle for women’s suffrage concluded. The 19th amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26th, 1920,” Slater said.
Next, business lawyer Dr. Joan Heminway spoke. She explained that with her portion of the presentation, she wanted to demonstrate the role that the judicial system played in the fight for women’s suffrage.
“There are changes that happen through the courts and certainly part of the social mystery around [suffrage] is the judicial mystery, so we decided that that would be a great role for me to play to move this story further forward,” Heminway said.
Dr. Heminway discussed Susan B. Anthony’s criminal trial in 1873 as an example. Anthony, one of the most famous and influential suffragettes, was arrested in 1873 for illegally voting; she and several other women falsely convinced the voting clerk that they were permitted to vote legally, and he had allowed them to vote. However, when this was discovered by law enforcement, Anthony was subsequently arrested.
Anthony was not permitted to take the stand during her trial because at the time women were not allowed to testify in a court of law, and her male lawyer had to take the stand on her behalf. The trial was very unfair by today’s standards, Dr. Heminway explained.
“The jury of her peers called for under the Constitution was a jury that included no women because women were not permitted to serve on juries,” Heminway said.
Dr. Heminway also discussed an 1875 court case which determined that under the Constitution, women were not granted the right to vote.
Next, Dr. Schilling discussed the form that women’s suffrage takes in modern day society, as well as the role that women play in modern day politics.
She explained that in 2016, the largest gender gap in history was present in the number of men who supported Donald Trump versus the number of women who supported him; significantly more men than women supported Trump.
Dr. Schilling discussed the way that having a female democratic candidate influenced this gap.
“Obviously, the expectation in 2016 was that women were gonna rally behind Hillary Clinton and lead her to victory in defeating Donald Trump and kind of breaking that glass ceiling that’s existed since the inception of the American presidency,” Schilling said. “All of the predictions about her victory were not seen to fruition. The expectations that women would come overwhelmingly in support of Hillary Clinton were.“
Dr. Schilling also spent a great deal of her presentation examining the women who currently hold political positions in America. She explained that while women who run for office are usually just as successful as men in winning their positions, female politicians are often held to a higher standard in that their likability is more imperative than that of their male counterparts. Americans will vote for a man they find unlikeable but are less likely to vote for a woman they find unlikeable, Dr. Schilling explained.
She also examined the stereotypes that women politicians face as a whole and explained that certain characteristics that may be considered traditionally masculine, such as aggressiveness, are viewed more negatively when attributed to a female candidate rather than a male candidate.
“Female candidates confront a wide array of stereotypes that male candidates do not have to confront at the same time,” Schilling said.
Women are currently very underrepresented in Congress; just under 24% of that legislative body consists of women despite the fact that women make up over half of the U.S. population. However, despite this disparity, the future is looking up; the first majority female legislative body currently exists in Nevada, and several women are running for president in 2020.
The presentation was followed by a Q&A session from the crowd.