Madness Monday: Ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920

Edith Roberts, center front, with her sorority sisters at Iowa state University, circa 1920.
Edith Roberts, center front, with her sorority sisters at Iowa State University, circa 1920. (Click to enlarge.)

August 18, 1920, was actually not the day of madness- it was all those years before that date that were the madness. How could one half of the population of the United States of America not be allowed to vote? In a country based on freedom, women had no freedom to choose those who would make the laws nor use them to judge. Taxation without representation? It continued long after 1776 for every woman and every black person who was not allowed to vote, despite many of them having taxable income.

The 15th Amendment, passed in 1870, (theoretically) gave men of any “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” the right to vote. Women had worked to help gain suffrage for black men, hoping that it would be realized that women should also have the right to vote. That was not to be, especially because men and those with interest in taverns and the liquor industry thought that if women had the right to vote, alcoholic beverages would be banned. So black men were allowed to vote in 1870 (although discrimination made that difficult in some areas of the country). It took fifty more years of toil, suffering, discrimination, even torture (yes, in the USA!) for passage of the 19th Amendment ‘allowing’ women the right to vote.

I worked to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed back in the 1970s, but sadly, ratification fell short and women still do not have full protection under the law in this country. Back then, when I realized that Edith Roberts had been in college, studying biology in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified, I could not wait to hear her stories. She loved debate- had won a number of contest when young- and in her later years followed politics and international news, mostly through the PBS station in her hometown of Newton, Iowa. I naturally thought she would have been the same as a young woman (without the television, of course), especially since she was studying a ‘man’s’ subject, rather than womanly arts like teaching or music (which was her first major when she went off to college). Her father had been active politically in Jasper County, Iowa- she adored him, so I assumed she followed his political leanings and maybe they even discussed such issues at home. Iowa was such a progressive state- I could only imagine that in an Iowa college, they would have discussed and debated the issue of women’s suffrage. I wanted to know what it felt like to be a part of such a momentous event for women- had she joined protesters marching against President Wilson’s policies? Was she ever arrested due to her vocal call for women getting the right to vote? How did her college classmates react when women got the right to vote? What were her feelings the first time she exercised her hard-won suffrage? I could feel a connection between my conviction and what I imagined was hers, because she had always been a woman of her own mind, independent politically, financially, and mentally.

As I blurted out my many questions, probably not waiting for an answer between, she had a pensive look on her face, and one could see she was traveling back in time 50 years, back to when she was my age. Then there was a slight frown. And a pursing of her lips, the way she did when she was not happy. Her brows scrunched together, and she shook her head in disbelief and almost shame. “I hate to say this, but I don’t remember anything about women getting the right to vote. I was in a sorority, and went to dances and recitals and…” She was more interested in her social life than politics back then, she admitted. Rising from the green ‘divan’ in her 1920s Craftsman bungalow, she climbed the steep stairs to the attic. I followed to that place of family treasures, and she opened an old trunk, way in the back of the attic. Edith pulled out an old scrapbook filled with dance cards, programs, poems, and memorabilia of a joyous part of her life, that time away at college when young and anything was possible. No politics here. For a few moments, she was again a beautiful young woman with friends and pretty clothes and no responsibilities in life. “I was spoiled,” she said. “My father put up with so much from me, probably because I was the baby.” She admitted to not handling her money well and having to write her father to send more- I was shocked, as she had been such a frugal, hardworking woman all the time I had known her. She did talk about how scandalous it was for her to be studying biology, when they had to go catch their specimens for dissection and she was one of only a few women in the classes.

She did seem to regret not realizing those important issues and moments, like August 18, 1920, when women in all the United States were granted the right to vote. (Some states allowed women voting rights before then, but only a few, mostly western states.) Mostly, however, it seemed that she enjoyed the sweet reverie of being 20 years old and being in love with her world, something she had long forgotten.


Proposed Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of america. NARA.
Proposed Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. NARA.


Notes, Sources, and References:

1) Family photos and memories.

2) When I think about not going to vote because the choices are awful, it is cold and rainy, or the lines too long, I think about those who worked so hard to get all Americans the right to vote. And then I go exercise it.


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