-Stacey Murphy, 1/7/2020
In the weeks before the 2016 election, there was a day that a Twitter-burst went around, musing that if women didn’t have the right to vote, Trump would be elected. The shocking part for me, at that moment, was that several women responded, saying they would gladly give up enfranchisement. They were kidding, I figured, but still, it was October 2016, and something felt very wrong with the world. I couldn’t sleep that night; why would anyone make a joke about giving up a fundamental right? I supposed it was just a matter of taking things for granted; American women (white ones, anyway) had been guaranteed suffrage almost 100 years before that. It seemed safe enough, after so much time, to be able to joke.
Did you know that, in America, women have lost the right to vote before? During our earliest days as colonies and then a fledgling country, women who had the right to vote had it taken away.
The colonies and early states set their own voting laws, but in all cases, voting rights went with property ownership. “…the right to vote for the lower house of colonial legislatures had been defined in traditional British terms: Only people who had freehold landed property sufficient to ensure that they were personally independent and had a vested interest in the welfare of their communities could vote”(Ratcliffe, PDF). British law and customs dictated that women ceased to be legal entities of their own upon marriage, meaning that women who were single or widowed could vote. Mainly it was widows who exercised this right because younger women generally did not have the property of their own to qualify. There’s a great set of stories by Jocelyn Sears, early accounts of women voting in four colonies and early states, here, including the details around each of their circumstances and more of the pertinent history of the time.
Women legally voting began to change in the 1770s, when New York clarified its law to remove voting rights for all women. So went Massachusetts, and then New Hampshire in the 1880s. In 1787 the U.S. Constitutional Convention placed voting rights in the hands of all states. All of the states in existence then, except New Jersey, removed the voting rights of women. Jersey actually AFFIRMED the rights of “all free inhabitants,” including white and black women to vote in 1790 – but then revoked women’s suffrage in 1807.
Later in the 1800s, as territories became states, a number of them carried the rights of women to vote forward into statehood. But as we know, it wasn’t until 1919 that the 20th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed suffrage.
Perhaps it is this piece of early American history that informed my sadness that evening in October 2016. I didn’t know any of this, then, but what if we carry knowledge in our DNA? I believe, with certainty, we hold it in our subconscious. Or perhaps the foreboding of that night, the sense that all was not right in our country, was a harbinger of the next few years, where we are now. Our voices are stronger now than in the 1780s, of course. Women of all races CAN vote, but suppression efforts that target non-white and lower income communities seem to be a bigger problem than ever.
We have returned to fighting for so much, even things that those who fought for equal rights in the 1960’s and 70’s thought would be safe in perpetuity. In matters of equality, health care, body autonomy, and more, women have to make sure our voices count. We have to use them to push equality forward so we don’t slide further backward.