Why the Nineteenth Amendment Matters Today: A Citizen's Guide for the Centennial
30 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2019 Last revised: 7 Oct 2019
Date Written: September 30, 2019
This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, a radically pro-democratic amendment that empowered roughly ten million women to vote in a general election for the first time. Given the practical and expressive significance of the Amendment, it is appropriate that the United States is honoring the occasion. But Americans might do more than honor their shared past. They might be encouraged to think about why the story of the Nineteenth Amendment matters to Americans living today. That story includes a half-century of social movement contestation over whether permitting women to vote would destroy or democratize the American family and the American constitutional structure. This Essay revisits the story of the Nineteenth Amendment—an unfinished narrative of both disappointment and hope—in the service of identifying reasons why that story relates to the lives of contemporary Americans. Its overarching objective is to suggest that the full story of the Amendment has always involved much more than a narrow debate over a determinate decision rule regarding women’s access to the franchise. To accomplish that objective, the Essay makes four points in four parts. The first two explain when and how voting rights for all women slowly became a reality, and the final two identify some implications of that history for American constitutional law and contemporary constitutional politics.
Part I considers which women were enfranchised when and why it matters. Part II considers some of the groups (men) and structures (federalism) that both impeded and facilitated woman suffrage. Part III explains the link between restrictions on woman suffrage and the social subordination of women to men, showing how the anti-subordination rationale of the Nineteenth Amendment bears on both its own interpretation and the interpretation of the Equal Protection Clause by the courts. Part IV turns to the contemporary implications of the story of the Nineteenth Amendment for American constitutional politics, including debates over the Equal Rights Amendment, unequal pay for equal work, paid family and self-care leave, and restrictions on access to contraception and abortion.
Keywords: Nineteenth Amendment, women's rights, woman suffrage, voting rights
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