|Does the Declaration of Independence Prevent Women’s Suffrage?|
Did you know that the first female member of the Congress was elected prior to the ratification of the 19th amendment? It is true that today, August 18, 2010, marks the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, ensuring the right to vote regardless of sex. But that does not mean women weren’t exercising this right prior to 1920.
The anniversary of the 19th amendment is an occasion to praise the women whose efforts in the suffrage movement secured this amendment. Too often, though, this praise becomes an invective against the Founding Fathers (who supposedly created a political order for the wealthy, propertied, and male), and injustice that was rectified by the 19th amendment.
This usual narrative about the Founding reduces the Founders to sexists, while both forgetting that women voted throughout the founding period and mischaracterizing the principles of the American Founding.
First, American women began casting their ballots long before 1920. As Vindicating the Founders: Race Sex Class and Justice in the Origins of the America shows, women voted in large numbers as early as the late 1700s and early 1800s. New Jersey’s state constitution of 1776 stated that “all inhabitants” who met the state’s age, property, and residence requirement were entitled to the right to vote. Records also show that women voted in New York and Massachusetts before and after the Revolutionary War. In her essay on the 19th Amendment from the Heritage Guide to the Constitution, Tiffany Jones Miller notes that both the territory and state of Wyoming allowed women to vote. Wyoming became a state in 1890, 30 years before the 19th amendment was ratified.
But more significantly, women’s suffrage was not antithetical to the Founding Principles. Its passage was not some kind of victory over the Founders, but something compatible with the Founding principles.
The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document, as it set forth a completely new grounding for government in human equality, natural rights, and consent of the governed. The famous words of the Declaration of Independence apply to men and women alike: when proclaiming that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” “all men” does not mean “all males.” Instead, “all men” is synonymous with “mankind” or “humanity.” The Founders recognized that women share in the common humanity, and therefore share those natural inalienable rights according to the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution’s language is, likewise, gender neutral. In fact, the 14th amendment (ratified July 9, 1868) was the first usage of the word “male” in the Constitution. The 14th amendment, then, became an impetuous for the 19th amendment, which would clarify that the principles of the American Founding and the Constitution did not prevent women’s suffrage.
When thinking back to those 17th century New Jersey ladies, we can understand the significance of the principles of the American Founding that enabled “for the first time in history, women of a political community shared with men the right, stated in public law, to select their rulers.”
The 19th amendment did not introduce a revolutionary concept into American political thought. The Declaration of Independence did. It articulated the principles of human equality, natural rights, and the consent of the governed, that enabled the citizens to select their political leaders. So, on this anniversary of the 19th amendment, we should not simply commemorate the amendment that codified women’s vote, but, more importantly, celebrate the principles that enabled it.