On this day in 1920, the 19th amendment goes into effect, guaranteeing that women cannot be denied the right to vote based on their gender.
The battle for women’s suffrage was long and hard-fought.
Suffragettes began their battle as early as the mid-1800s, but an amendment protecting women’s voting rights was not approved by Congress until 1919. The states completed ratification on August 18, 1920, and the U.S. Secretary of State declared the amendment effective on August 26.
Our country was then just over 140 years old. What took so long?
Our founding generation is often criticized for this delay, as you know—and it is similarly castigated for allowing slavery to persist. Yet such a perspective fails to understand the world as it was experienced by our Founders in the late 1700s.
The Founders lived in a world where the King could boss his subjects around in all sorts of ways that we find unimaginable today. Religious freedom was a novelty. Women weren’t just treated unequally in America—they were treated badly everywhere. Likewise, slavery was a global problem, not a specifically American one.
In the face of all these injustices, our founding generation made an unbelievably bold decision. The first step towards change is always the hardest, but our Founders did it: They stood up to the British King. They sought respect for the inherent, unalienable rights of “We the People,” which had gone ignored for so long. They took that monumental first step towards liberty.
The struggle for liberty is not a sprint. It’s more like an endless marathon. Modern Americans too often forget this important point—but the Founders would have understood it.
We do our Founders a grave injustice when we castigate them because they couldn’t run every leg of a long marathon in just their own short lifetimes, at least in this author’s opinion. The Founders did what they could: The ran the first leg of the race, then they passed the baton to the next generation.
The first leg of this particular marathon was no joke. Our Founders broke free from England. They lost husbands, sons, wives, and mothers. They sacrificed their livelihoods and property. They took risks that could get them hanged for treason.
Indeed, some were hanged for treason.
In the end, they won an impossible victory. But they weren’t done yet.
During the long, hot summer of 1787, fifty-five men gathered in Philadelphia. They were learned men, students of history. They had studied various political systems, and they sought to create something better than any of the failed democracies of the past.
They created our Constitution, and they understood it to be one big experiment in the preservation of liberty.
“[T]he preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government,” George Washington said, “are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Liberty has flourished under the American experiment in self-governance because each generation of Americans completes its own leg of the marathon, then passes the baton to the next generation.
The task before this generation of Americans isn’t to criticize the Founders endlessly. Instead, we should ask ourselves: Are we living up to our heritage? Are we carrying the baton of liberty forward? The answer to these questions must always be “yes.”
It’s our turn. We have the watch.
God bless this great country of ours!