Paula F. Casey

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Prize Your Right to Vote

by Paula F. Casey

A dynamic speaker on voting rights, particularly the 72-year struggle for women to be included in the U.S. Constitution, Paula F. Casey has also produced a videotape/DVD on woman suffrage and helped publish a book, The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage. She has spoken extensively around the country at junior colleges and universities.

Since presidential elections occur every four years, they tend to receive the most attention; however, elections are al- ways being held somewhere – in cities, towns, counties, and states. While the U.S. Constitution grants citizens the right to vote, it is the states that implement voting procedures. And the states can vary widely in their requirements.

When I speak around the country on college campuses, I always point out that not everyone came over on the May- flower and had the right to vote. Only white men with property could vote during our country’s beginning. It would take 72 years of nonviolent struggle for women to be included in the U.S. Constitution. Thanks to the genius of our country’s founders, the Constitution has been amended and voting rights have been expanded to all women in 1920 and to 18-year-olds in 1971.

The quest to secure universal suffrage did not happen quickly or easily. Margaret Brent of Maryland, an extremely competent lawyer who served as executor of Gov. Calvert’s estate, addressed the Maryland Assembly of 1646-47, which consisted of white males who owned property, and demanded the right to vote. Of course, she was rebuffed, but she was the earliest American woman to seek the right to vote.

The American Revolution imbued women with the ideas of liberty, equality, and justice for all. In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” No one paid any attention because citizens were presumed to be male.

In 1838, Angelina Grimke, an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, addressed the Massachusetts Legislature – a highly unusual activity for women of that day – and stated: “This domination of women must be resigned – the sooner the better; in the age which is approaching she should be some- thing more – she should be a citizen.”

In 1840, Lucretia Mott, a devout Quaker, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Seneca Falls, NY, traveled to London as delegates to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention. They were re- fused a seat because they were women, so they resolved to come back home and form a society to advocate for the rights of women.

At that time, women were not allowed the right to vote, to hold elective office, attend college, or earn a living. If married, they could not make legal contracts, divorce an abusive husband, or gain custody of their children.

When Stanton sat down with a small group of Quaker and abolitionist women, they decided that these wrongs should be made into rights. Thus, on July 19-20, 1848 in Seneca Falls, a small village in upstate New York, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held. They met at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, which over 300 people attended, to write the Declaration of
Sentiments. It was based on the Declaration of Independence and stated that “all men AND women are created equal.” They demanded equal rights and the “radical notion” of suffrage for women. It was signed by 68 women and 32 men.

In 1851, Susan B. Anthony was introduced to Stanton who helped Anthony develop her speaking skills so she could travel and speak on behalf of woman suffrage. Stanton, married with seven children, was a prolific writer and strategist who guided Anthony, a devout Quaker and abolitionist. Anthony, who spent 50 years fighting for woman suffrage, has become the recognized icon. She died in 1906 and is remembered for exhorting the suffragists that “Failure is impossible.”

But, ratification was obtained only after hundreds of campaigns in state after state as the suffragists met with defeat. (Incidentally, the correct term is “suffragist,” not suffragette. The British were the suffragettes and were considered more “radical,” so the Americans wanted to distinguish themselves and were referred to as “suffragists.”)

Few know that it was women seeking the vote who first picketed the White House for a political cause, that these courageous women faced jail, hunger strikes, and forced feedings, years of organizing, ridicule, and great disappointment after the Civil War when the 14th and 15th Amendments excluded women from voting. Yet they persevered until victory was achieved in Nashville on August 18, 1920.

When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 in my home state of Tennessee, this country achieved universal suffrage. The complete story is told in The Perfect 36: Tennessee Delivers Woman Suffrage which details this 72-year struggle – the greatest bloodless revolution in American history. It’s available at

Imagine being told it would take you 72 years to achieve something you really believed in. Would you persevere? The suffragists did.
As Carrie Chapman Catt, the great suffrage leader from Iowa, said in her book, Woman Suffrage and Politics: “To get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign . . . During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

“Millions of dollars were raised, mainly in small sums, and expended with economic care. Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could. It was a continuous, seemingly endless, chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended

“It is doubtful if any man, even among suffrage men, ever realized what the suffrage struggle came to mean to women before the end was allowed in America. How much time and patience, how much work, energy, and aspiration, how much faith, how much hope, how much despair went into it. It leaves its mark on one, such a struggle . . . .”

The suffragists believed that democracy is not a spectator sport. The lessons we learn are that ordinary people can do extraordinary things and change the course of history. When the movement began to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, the struggle wasn’t nearly as difficult. The turmoil created by the Vietnam War paved the way for ratification of the 26th Amendment. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” was a common slogan used by proponents of lowering the voting age.

On March 10, 1971, the Senate voted 94–0 in favor of proposing a Constitutional amendment to guarantee that the voting age could not be higher than 18. On March 23, 1971, the House of Representatives voted 401–19 in favor of the proposed amendment. Within four months after Congress submitted it to the states, the amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures, the shortest time in which any proposed amendment has received the number of ratifications need-
ed. It became law on July 5, 1971.

If you are not yet registered to vote, check with your Student Government Association or political science department. Or go online to find out the voting requirements for your state. Your vote does make a difference!

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