Wyoming Passes First Law Granting Women the Right to Vote On This Day in 1869

The Wyoming territorial legislature passed the first woman’s suffrage law on December 10, 1869, and women voted in the state for the first time in 1870. The legislation extended suffrage to “every woman of the age of twenty-one years, residing in this Territory.”

At the time, there was no organized suffrage movement in the Wyoming territory. William Bright, who was persuaded by his wife that all citizens should have the right to vote, sponsored a bill to extend the franchise to women.

Bright’s colleagues in the territorial legislature had a variety of reasons for voting in favor his bill – some were motivated by a sense of fairness, others, unfortunately, viewed it as an opportunity to counteract the voting rights of newly enfranchised African American men, and for still others it was a way to gain publicity and persuade more pioneers to settle in the western territory.

Regardless of the motivation of the various territorial legislators, once Wyoming women got the right to vote, the state kept up its tradition of being a first for women. Wyoming went on to become the first state or territory with female jurors, female justices of the peace, and, in 1924, it became the first state to elect a female governor (Nellie Tayloe Ross).

Before Wyoming entered the union in 1890, it passed a new state constitution in 1889, guaranteeing women the right to vote. When the U.S. Congress threatened to withhold statehood over the issue, Wyoming officials responded that the territory would rather remain a territory for 100 years than join the union without women’s suffrage. Congress ultimately relented.

Note: Although, Wyoming is the first state with a law and then state constitution explicitly guaranteeing women the right to vote, women first voted in the New Jersey under its 1776 Constitution, which vaguely stated that “all inhabitants” of the state could vote. Women voted in New Jersey until 1807 when the state legislature passed a law limiting suffrage to free white males.

 

100 Years Ago Today, Jeannette Rankin Was Elected as First U.S. Congresswoman

On November 7, 1916, Jeannette Rankin, a suffragist from Montana, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first woman in the history of this nation to win a seat in the United States Congress. When she was elected, she said:“I may be the first woman member of Congress . . . But I won’t be the last.” Today, 104 women hold seats in the United States Congress. 20 women serve in the U.S. Senate and 84 serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

 

Who Was Jeannette Rankin?

Jeannette Rankin, the eldest daughter of a rancher and a schoolteacher, was born near Missoula, Montana, on June 11, 1880. She graduated from Montana State University (now the University of Montana) in 1902 and attended the New York School of Philanthropy (later the Columbia University School of Social Work). After a brief period as a social worker in Spokane, Washington, Rankin entered the University of Washington in Seattle. It was there that she joined the woman suffrage movement, a campaign that achieved its goal in Washington State in 1910. Rankin became a professional lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Her speaking and organizing efforts helped Montana women gain the vote in 1914.

When Rankin decided in 1916 to run for a House seat from Montana, she had two key advantages: her reputation as a suffragist and her politically well-connected brother, Wellington, who financed her campaign. Some national woman suffrage leaders feared she would lose and hurt the cause. The novelty of a woman running for Congress, however, helped Rankin secure a GOP nomination for one of Montana’s two At-Large House seats on August 29, 1916. Rankin ran as a progressive, pledging to work for a constitutional woman suffrage amendment and emphasizing social welfare issues. Long a committed pacifist, she did not shy away from letting voters know how she felt about possible U.S. participation in the European war that had been raging for two years: “If they are going to have war, they ought to take the old men and leave the young to propagate the race.” Rankin came in second, winning one of Montana’s seats. She trailed the frontrunner, Democratic Representative John M. Evans, by 7,600 votes, but she topped the next candidate— another Democrat–by 6,000 votes. Rankin ran a nonpartisan campaign in a Democratic state during a period of national hostility toward parties in general. And this was the first opportunity for Montana women to vote in a federal election. “I am deeply conscious of the responsibility resting upon me,” read her public victory statement.

Rankin and the Fight for Women’s Suffrage

As the first woman Member, Rankin was on the front lines of the national suffrage fight. During the fall of 1917 she advocated the creation of a Committee on Woman Suffrage and, when it was created, she was appointed to it. When the special committee reported out a constitutional amendment on woman suffrage in January 1918, Rankin opened the very first House Floor debate on this subject. “How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen,” she asked. “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?” The resolution narrowly passed the House amid the cheers of women in the galleries, but it died in the Senate.

Belva Ann Lockwood: A Supreme Court Trailblazer

This week the Supreme Court opened its October Term 2016. As I reflect on this Court, with three sitting woman justices, I was reminded of the extraordinary efforts of Belva Ann Lockwood to open the Court to women. It is those efforts I’d like to spotlight here. Lockwood, a true Supreme Court trailblazer, who successfully lobbied Congress to pass legislation opening the U.S. Supreme Court bar to qualified women lawyers. She became the first woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, and would go on to twice run for president as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party.

Lockwood’s Difficult Pathway to the Bar

Lockwood applied to the Columbian Law School in Washington, DC, in 1870. The school’s trustees denied her admission, citing their belief that she would prove a distraction to the male students. She was later accepted to the new National University Law School (now part of the George Washington University). While she completed her legal studies in 1873, the school was unwilling to grant her a diploma on the basis of her gender. Without a diploma, Lockwood was unable to gain admittance to the bar.

In September 1873, Lockwood wrote a letter to President Ulysses S. Grant, who also served as president of National University, appealing to him to intervene on her behalf. She explained that she had passed all her courses and deserved to be awarded a diploma. A week after sending the letter, Lockwood received her diploma. She was 43.

Legal Career

After her admission to the District of Columbia bar, Lockwood became one of the first female lawyers in the United States. She started with a modest legal practice, but then began to build a reputation as a competent lawyer – one who even gained respect from her male colleagues.

In 1876, she sought to gain admission to the U.S. Supreme Court Bar. The justices refused to admit her saying “none but men are permitted to practice before [us] as attorneys and counselors.” Lockwood, never one to accept the status quo, drafted a bill that would require women to have the same access as male lawyers to the Supreme Court Bar. She vigorously lobbied Congress from 1874 to 1879. In 1879, Congress passed the legislation and President Rutherford B. Hayes signed it into law. The law required that all qualified women lawyers be admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Lockwood would go on to become the first woman member of the U.S. Supreme Court Bar, and would become the first woman to argue before the Court in the case of Kaiser v. Stickney.

Interestingly, women were able to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court 41 years before they were allowed to vote after the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

 

 

In Honor of National Voter Registration Day: A Brief History of Voting Rights in America

In honor of National Voter Registration Day, and in an effort to encourage citizens to not only register to vote ahead of state deadlines but also to vote in this year’s election on Tuesday, November 8, I thought I’d provide some general information here about the history of voting rights in this country.

Let’s begin at the beginning. . .

Voting in Colonial America

The 13 colonies imposed land/property or tax-paying requirements on voters. In their view, only these people were sufficiently committed to their communities to vote.

Many colonies also imposed religious tests on voting, barring Catholics and Jews, for example, from participating in elections. These religious tests would later be repealed.

The American Revolution

The American Revolution was fought, in part, over the issues of voting and representation in Parliament. American colonists rejected the notion of “virtual representation” – the idea that English members of Parliament could represent the interests of the colonists in North America, even though the colonists had no say in electing those representatives. Hence the language in the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed[.]” (emphasis added).

The Abolition of Property Requirements in the 19th Century

The 19th century saw the abolition of property requirements for voting and thus began a new era of universal white manhood suffrage.

Note that during this time, only a few states (like Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, and others) allowed African Americans to vote without significant restrictions. In most other places, African Americans – whether slave or free –  could not vote.

Also during this period, women property holders in New Jersey, who had once had the right to vote, now lost it.

The Fifteenth Amendment

The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted African American men the right to vote. It declared the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Although ratified on February 3, 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, violence, and other Jim Crow-era means, Southern states effectively disenfranchised African Americans during this period. It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that a majority of African Americans in the South would be registered to vote.

 

The Nineteenth Amendment

In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John Adams: “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

John Adams responded to his wife’s letter (in a similarly teasing tone) and declared that men were not really the “masters” of women but were “subject to the despotism of the petticoat.” Adams and his contemporaries, like those who preceded them, failed to make codifying women’s rights a priority.

Although the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention of 1848 adopted a specific call for women’s suffrage, it would take an additional 72 years of lobbying and protesting for most women to gain the right to vote.  The amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878, but was not ratified until August 18, 1920.

The Nineteenth Amendment reads:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was an act to enforce the 15th amendment to the United States Constitution, and was signed into law 95 years after that amendment was ratified. In that 95 year period, African Americans in the South faced near insurmountable obstacles to voting, including, literacy tests, poll taxes, a variety of bureaucratic restrictions, intimidation, physical violence and economic reprisal. As a result, there were few registered black voters in the South.

Political protests and reactionary violence in 1964 brought renewed attention to the issue of voting rights for African Americans. In particular, the murder of voting-rights activists in Mississippi and attacks on peaceful marchers in Selma, Alabama, allowed President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Congress to pass the voting rights bill on August 5, 1965.

The legislation outlawed literacy tests and provided for the appointment of federal examiners to help register qualified citizens to vote. By the end of 1965, 250,000 new black voters had been registered, one-third by Federal examiners. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the 13 southern states had fewer than 50 percent of African Americans registered to vote.

The 24th Amendment and the Abolition of the Poll Tax

At the time of the passage of the 24th Amendment by Congress in 1962, five states (Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Texas) maintained poll taxes. which disproportionately impacted poor African American voters. The Amendment was ratified in 1964 and reads:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The 26th Amendment: Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Vote

The debate over lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 began during World War II and intensified during the Vietnam War, when young men who could not vote and therefore influence war policy were being conscripted to fight in the Vietnam War.

In 1970, Congress passed the Voting Rights Acts Amendments, which sought to lower the minimum age of voters in both state and federal elections from 21 to 18. In response, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Oregon v. Mitchell (1970) that Congress had the right to regulate the minimum voting age in federal, but not state and local, elections.

In response to this case and mounting political pressure, Congress passed the 26th Amendment in March 1971. The states quickly ratified the Amendment, which went into effect in July of that year. The 26th Amendment reads:

“The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The fight over voting rights continues

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was amended and reauthorized in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992 and 2006. In 2013, the United States Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder

ruled 5-4 that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional. Section 4 lays out the formulas for how the Justice Department enforces Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires that the states identified with a history of discrimination  obtain approval from the federal government before they can make changes to their election law. Section 4 formulas as of 2013 mandated that “Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia in their entirety; and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota” ask for preclearance for electoral law changes. After Shelby County v. Holder, these states are free to make changes to election law or district maps without approval from the Justice Department.

Without Section 4, the Justice Department has fewer legal resources for challenging election law it finds discriminatory.

The Supreme Court found Section 4 unconstitutional because of the age of the coverage formulas. The Supreme Court’s opinion notes: “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements. As we put it a short time ago, ‘the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.’”

In other words, the Supreme Court is telling Congress, “if you want to keep Section 5, you better make new rules.”

Since the Supreme Court’s decision, Congress has yet to amend the Voting Rights Act in light of the Court’s concerns. Furthermore, many states have enacted laws that shift early voting and voter registration times or impose new voter-ID requirements. Conservatives argue that these laws are designed to counter voter fraud or help shrink stage budgets. Liberals argue that the laws are designed to disenfranchise college students and African Americans, who typically vote in favor of Democratic candidates. There is active litigation over these statutes across the country.

Similarly, there is an ongoing debate over whether convicted felons who have served their time in prison should be allowed to vote. A handful of states bar felons from voting unless they successfully petition to have their voting rights restored.