Unfinished Business: The Right to Vote Before and Since the 19th Amendment

Friday, March 1, 2019

On September 9, 1919 NH Governor John H. Bartlett called a special session of the Legislature to vote on the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment would ensure that “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.” The Legislature passed it that day, and the Governor signed it the next, making NH the 16th state of the 36 necessary to add the amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The 19th Amendment had first been introduced in Congress in 1871. But Congress’ unwillingness to pass it meant women could only vote in states that had passed woman’s suffrage laws. By 1919 that had come to include 27 states, but not New Hampshire. Granite state women would have to wait for the state of Tennessee to become the 36th state to pass the 19th Amendment before they could vote for President in 1920.

Over the next two years (2019 and 2020), New Hampshire Humanities, the New Hampshire Historical Society, New Hampshire Public Radio, educational institutions, and many other organizations around the state will be commemorating the 19th Amendment and discussing its legacy. We will coordinate efforts though a common logo, website and hashtag. We want you to join in an exploration of the power and meaning of the vote, of how social change happens, and the unfinished business that getting the vote did not fully solve for diverse groups of women.

Saint Anselm College began its exploration in January with a discussion of black women’s fight for suffrage and how issues of race and class made a unified fight for women’s rights more complicated. Next up at Saint Anselm, on March 20 at 7:30 pm, Carnegie Mellon University Professor of History Lisa Tetrault will give a talk on how our memory of the suffrage movement was carefully created by one group of suffragists after the Civil War (from her book The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898). By giving the movement a common origin point, one faction in the suffrage movement could claim to be its founding mothers and control the narrative moving forward, eking out an advantage among competing suffrage factions.

Throughout March, which is Women’s History month, Saint Anselm College will be encouraging students and the broader community to explore the impact of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, often seen (as Dr. Tetrault will explore) as the origin of the suffrage movement. Signed by 100 black and white women and men at Seneca Falls, NY, (including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglass), the Declaration argued that all men and women were created equal. It laid out a series of complaints against women’s rulers (men), mirroring those charges the founding fathers laid against the British king.

Readers today would recognize issues that have changed, including women’s exclusion from higher education, law and medical schools, and most professions, and many that have not, including women’s exclusion from the ministry in some traditions, a sexual double standard, and what we would now call sexual harassment.

We forget that the suffrage movement was incredibly contentious. Different groups pursued varied strategies from state-level referendums to a federal amendment. Some suffragists argued women were equal to men and thus should have equal rights. Others argued women were fundamentally different from men and both aspects of humanity – male and female, public and private, war-mongering and peace-loving – had to be represented in national votes. A few suffragists claimed the vote primarily to provide a white bulwark against the votes of Catholic immigrant or African-American men whom they thought would undermine a white, Protestant nation. And of course, millions of women (and more men) were anti-suffragists, arguing that female voting would undermine women’s essential femininity and their key roles as apolitical arbiters of America’s morals. New Hampshire Humanities and its partner organizations will be exploring many of these issues over the next two years, and invite you to participate as an attendee, or by applying for a grant to discuss these issues in ways relevant to your community.

For more information on Saint Anselm’s initiative and Dr. Tetrault’s talk, visit www.anselm.edu/women100events.


Dr. Beth Salerno is Professor & History Department Chair at Saint Anselm College. She earned her Ph.D. in U.S. and Comparative Women’s History at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Salerno previously served on New Hampshire Humanities Board of Directors and as Chair of its Program Committee.