Opinion: Women’s Rights are Voting Rights

Leslie Danks Burke
N.Y. Senate Candidate

Since our country’s founding Declaration that all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, we, the people, have stood up to face the challenge over and over of bringing our actions closer into line with this ideal.

N.Y. Senate candidate Leslie Danks Burke

We had to, because in the Declaration of Independence, it didn’t actually say “all people” are created equal, it said “all men,” and even that standard was limited to white men. Looking back, we’ve corrected many of the ways we’ve fallen short of our ideal over the centuries, overcoming the cultural, implicit and explicit biases that make it hard for some to recognize inequality in the moment. Yet hindsight also lets us celebrate the times when we stepped forward together, closer to the vision of the Declaration. One such moment to applaud is the ratification of the 19th amendment, 100 years ago this week. 

Back on August 26, 1920, when Secretary of State Colby signed the Proclamation of the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, we didn’t get all the way to equality—and we still haven’t. There wasn’t a single woman at the signing, and no photographers recorded the event. Secretary Colby’s male secretary was the sole witness.

But the lack of recognition at the time of the 19th Amendment’s passage cannot detract from its profound importance. Women were not “given” the vote. Rather, women fought for it, they were mocked, jailed, forced-fed, and beaten as they marched and agitated, and the news of the day didn’t trumpet the capitulation of the status quo. And today, celebrations of that 1920 achievement sometimes still gloss over the racism that permeated the suffragists’ struggle. We sometimes avoid acknowledging ways that our democratic republic still falls short of our ideal, even when we can see those gaps clearly in the rearview mirror.

Yet there’s a silver lining here. Just like the Declaration of Independence set forth an ideal that didn’t -- yet -- bear out in reality, the 19th Amendment put universal voting rights on paper as a standard for future practice. Progress has been painfully slow. Native Americans were recognized as citizens in 1924 and the last state-erected barriers against Native American voting rights fell in 1947. Legal barriers that prevented Asian Americans from becoming citizens were repealed in 1952. And in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, to render illegal Jim Crow laws that prevented almost all Black women and Black men in the former anti-American states from actually voting, even though the right had been there on paper for nearly 100 years. 

When we reflect on our history, we can readily see old rules on the books that fell short of the founding principle that all are equal, and we can be proud of the leaders who followed our founders’ footsteps, fighting through the centuries to bring our country closer to that ideal. And today, we still can find opportunities to challenge ongoing voter suppression that denies our founding ideal and threatens our most cherished principles of our democratic republic. 

Voter suppression often comes from ignorance as much as malice, but it is always wrong. Shuttering select polling places to “save money” might be argued to be prudently frugal, but is steeped in the age-old anti-American practice of allowing politicians to choose their voters, rather than the other way around. Limiting voting hours is not conservative, it wastes our most precious asset as Americans—the valuable participation of those who may not have the same access to transportation, may work longer hours, or may not have child care to allow them time to get to the polls. Barriers to voter registration are barriers to citizens being able to exercise their right to vote and it leaves resources on the table. Eliminating that polling place won’t erase systemic inequality, it will create new costs. We know from lessons our founders taught us, that cutting off opportunities for dissent is bound to backfire. 

In 1773—two years before the Revolutionary War started—revolutionaries challenged monarchists’ power by voting to stop paying tea taxes without representation. It was a fight only a few generations removed from the politicians in the early 1900s opposing the 19th Amendment. The anti-suffragists knew from history that suffrage could lead to further demands, like laws against child labor, safer workplaces, and a minimum wage. 

Just like the short-sighted monarchists of the 1770s who tried to hold onto rule by taxing the revolutionaries without representation, and just like those anti-suffragists in 1920, some politicians today are afraid of changes that could come if voting barriers are removed for minorities, young people, and people without the money to buy into political conversation. 

Yet Americans relentlessly push toward the equality that our founders idealized centuries ago. The ballot remains the bedrock of our democracy. New York State once had some of the toughest restrictions on voting but this week, Governor Cuomo just signed legislation to guarantee that New Yorkers can vote safely and that every vote counts. We can be proud of New York.

Get in there—fill out an absentee ballot application, take advantage of early voting in person, or vote on Election Day itself. Honor the memory of Americans like Alexander Hamilton who fought the Revolutionary War on the passionate belief that suffrage is a fundamental article of republican government or Ida B. Wells who refused to march at the back of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage parade merely because she was Black, or John Lewis who faced vicious mobs in 1965 to secure the vote for Black Americans and then became one of this country’s most beloved elected leaders. As of this very moment, every eligible voter in New York can apply for an absentee ballot. What are you waiting for? Go vote.