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Seeds of women’s suffrage were sown in Seneca Falls

SENECA FALLS — One of the seeds for what eventually blossomed into the 19th Amendment was planted more than 170 years ago in a Fall Street church.

The Wesleyan Chapel is where 300 men and women gathered for the first women’s rights convention on July 19-20, 1848. It was organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others who were unhappy with the social and legal status of women.

The focus of the convention was a document called the Declaration of Sentiments, which was patterned after the 1776 Declaration of Independence. The document outlined a list of grievances and rights wrongly denied more than half the population, including the inability to own property or to keep money that was earned, having limited rights in the court system, and unfair divorce laws. It also decried the inability of women to vote.

During the ensuing debate about the declaration and 12 resolutions that followed, there was a division over women’s suffrage, the ninth resolution. Historical accounts of the event say the Declaration of Sentiments almost didn’t demand voting rights for women.

Ultimately, the resolution was adopted, but not unanimously — the only one of the 12 resolutions that did not receive full support. The exact vote is not known.

Historical accounts also say it was only after impassioned speeches by former slave Frederick Douglass and Stanton that it passed, giving the document its “most incendiary” demand.

The idea of women’s suffrage was not popular in some circles, and it was often ridiculed. However, what happened in the summer of 1848 set the wheels in motion for the women’s suffrage movement that culminated with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The 19th Amendment was ratified 72 years after the 1848 convention,” explained Kate Bennett, President of the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls. “While the movement probably started years before the convention in different areas of the country, the convention was the first time that the suffrage movement received national notice.

“While the Declaration of Sentiments demanded the right to vote for women, it wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that black women and men secured the right to vote,” she added.

The wording of the suffrage resolutions was that it be “resolved that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”

Those who were part of the 1848 debate feared that stumping for a woman’s right to vote would affect other demands they deemed more rational negatively — “and made the whole movement ridiculous.” However, Douglass and Stanton were persistent.

Adding an amendment to the Constitution requires passage by two-thirds of each chamber of Congress, followed by ratification in three-fourths of the country’s state legislatures. In 1919, when the push really began, ratification was needed by 36 of the 48 states in the union (Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959).

The ball got rolling on Jan. 10, 1918 when House of Representatives passed the language by a 274-136 vote.

Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress (by the vote of men only), framed the amendment in terms of the democracy that Americans were fighting for in World War I.

“How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen: How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?” she asked.

Known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, it was defeated in the U.S. Senate.

The process started all over in 1919. On May 21 of that year, after more than three hours of debate, the proposed amendment passed the House by a vote of 304-90.

The wording of the 19th Amendment was simple: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United State or any state on account of sex.” In the Senate, a heated debate took place June 4, 1919. Some Senators voiced concerns that were rooted in sexism and racism in the language of state’s rights, arguing that it fundamentally violated the Constitution and threatened American democracy. But supporters prevailed, and it passed the Senate 56-25. The fight then shifted to the daunting task of getting 36 state legislatures to ratify the amendment.

Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin gave their approval a mere six days later on June 10, 1919. On June 16, state legislatures in Kansas, Ohio and New York met in special session to vote on the amendment. All three gave their approval. In Ohio, the legislature not only voted to ratify the amendment, but also approved a measure granting Ohio women the right to vote in the November 1920 Presidential election “in case the amendment was not in effect by then.”

It passed in New York without a dissenting vote.

Resistance to women’s suffrage was particularly strong in the South. Georgia became the first state to vote against the amendment, doing so on July 24, 1919. Later that year Alabama rejected it, and South Carolina followed suit in January 1920. Virginia and Maryland also voted against it, and it passed in West Virginia by one vote. Mississippi and Delaware also said no. However, Tennessee became the 36th state to say yes, putting it over the top.

Interestingly, Georgia did not ratify the 19th Amendment until 1970, and another 14 years passed before Mississippi did. And, while the 19th Amendment’s ratification became official in August 1920, Georgia women still could not vote in that year’s elections because state lawmakers refused to waive a requirement that all voters be registered six months in advance.

Geneva had an active campaign in support of women’s suffrage, spearheaded by the Geneva Political Equality Club, a group led by Anne E. Miller. The GPEC hosted a fiery speech by famous English suffragist Emmeline Parkhurst at the Smith Opera House on Nov. 22, 1909. Parkhurst often was jailed, unafraid of using violent actions to make her case. She was beaten in jail and constant watched by police and jailers.

She was portrayed by Meryl Streep in the 2015 movie “Suffragette.” The 19th Amendment became reality 100 years ago today, Aug. 18, 1920, after Tennessee gave its approval. Its adoption was certified eight days later.

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