Today is the 100th anniversary of a significant day in our country’s history, the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which removed gender as a qualification to vote. “The rights 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 amendment says.
The 19th Amendment is often cited as giving women the right to vote, but that is not exactly true. More precisely, it gave white women the right to vote. Black women were not included. Native American and Asian women also were often excluded.
But even getting the vote for white women was no easy feat. It took more than 70 years of struggle. Women protesting and picketing outside the White House were clubbed, beaten, and taken to jail and tortured. Suffragists were called anarchists and accused of being “low class and unladylike.” Dire predictions on the downfall of the country and the morals of women were predicted if women were allowed to cast ballots.
On August 18, 1920, the ratification of the 19th Amendment came before the Tennessee legislature. It had already passed the state Senate, but the vote in the House was tied, 48-48. Harry T Burn, at 24 the youngest man in the legislature, was opposed to the amendment and had voted to table it twice. Twice the vote had tied. The speaker of the House decided to hold a vote one more time. The morning of the vote Burn received a letter from his mother, Febb Burn, an educated woman who read three newspapers a day and considered herself the intellectual equal of any man. “Hurrah and vote for sufferage,” she wrote to her son. Harry followed his mother’s instructions, and Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, the number needed for it to become law.
Expanding rights and privileges to new groups never happens easily. White men had to agree for white women to get the right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave African Americans the right to vote, had to be approved by white (mostly) men. Women’s ordination had to have the approval of male priests and bishops. The rights of gays and lesbians to marry came from largely heterosexual legislatures and ultimately the Supreme Court.
Today I give thanks for all those willing to fight, often at great risk, for their rights as citizens and human beings. And I give thanks for those who are willing to extend rights to those previously excluded. The right to vote is still under assault in many places, including our own state. It is not a right that can ever be taken for granted.
Voting is a civic responsibility, but I also think it is a sacred responsibility for Christians and other people of faith. Scripture is very clear about the role and responsibility of governments. First and foremost they are to protect their citizens, particularly those who are most vulnerable. In Biblical terms that is “women, children, and resident aliens.” Through the Old Testament prophets God makes clear that the divine is not impressed by the wealth of the most powerful, or the size and power of a nation’s military. God is interested in whether everyone has enough to eat, a safe place to sleep, access to health care and other basic human rights.
Voting is a way to exercise our faith. Who I vote for is not a matter of party, but which candidates will try to move us closer to the kingdom of God, to make our country a place of justice and equal rights for all. No candidate, party, or elected official is perfect. We will always fall short. But who is at least pointing us in the right direction?
Steven Charleston, the retired Episcopal bishop of Alaska, puts it this way:
“So who would you vote for if the election were held today? That’s what someone asked me the other day. Maybe you have been asked it, too. Anyway, here is my answer: I will be voting for the poor. I will be voting for the homeless, for the hungry, for the elder who can’t afford their health care. I will be voting for the single moms, for the day laborers, and for the kids in school. I am voting for the wetlands, the rivers and the sea, the forests and all the creatures who live there. When I go in to check off someone’s name, I will be voting for all of the above. It doesn’t matter if the election is held today or tomorrow; I know who I am supporting.”
See you this evening for Compline.
It is nice to have an AP American History teacher in the congregation who can point out the mistake I made in my earlier message, a distinction I should have made.
African American (men) were given the right to vote by the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870. The amendment declared 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
As we all know, that right was blatantly ignored in the South, where African American men and women who tried to register to vote were met with poll taxes, literacy tests, civics tests, and violence. Those barriers were not removed until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, 55 years ago this month. The bipartisan passage of that act is a prime example of legislation that moved us closer to the kingdom of God.
Thanks for the important clarification, Jessy Hamilton!