Nearly 100 years ago men decided, by the slimmest of margins in Tennessee, to ratify the 19th Amendment. This amendment gave women the right to vote. This statement sounds strange today as many women, especially young women, have not experienced a culture or environment where they feel like they do not have the right to be politically active and for their voice to be relevant.

The day after the presidential inauguration of 2017, at the Women’s March in Washington, a massive number of women showed up to support their rights. This march was not met with the same hostility as the march of the suffragists in 1913, a day before a presidential inauguration, when women demanded the right to vote. These suffragists continued their protests in a climate in which President Woodrow Wilson was championing democracy on an international stage, yet women in the U.S. were formally excluded. Yet 2019 has been a year of women in powerful movements across the country demanding and achieving significant changes. These contemporary movements are motivated by an effort to allow women to compete in the labor market on equal footing with men, to live in security in their relationships in the same way as men and to control their bodies in the same way as men. So what does the 19th Amendment have to do with any of this?

The 19th Amendment provided the first formal recognition that women were part of our aspiring democracy, which at that point and to this day still falls short of providing political equality for many groups. This formal recognition allowed women to be part of the selection of representatives, a fundamental part of the democratic process in the United States. The ability to select representatives is a key feature necessary to ensure that these representatives have something to lose if they choose to make policy that is fundamentally different from those who voted for them. A march or protest communicates positions and strength yet a vote provides a way to remove those in power. This process is by no means perfect, but has become increasingly better as groups have continued to fight for formal and informal political recognition, as the early suffragists did.

Like many of the rights that are embodied in our Constitution, this right to vote for women was not fully realized until much later in our history and arguably could be considered today as a work in progress. Southern states, as they did with African American men, quickly found ways to strip African American women of their right to vote using alternative mechanisms including poll taxes, violence and refusal on no legal grounds at all.

Today we reflect on the changing position of women, where women vote at higher rates than men and women have gained immensely in their income and their level of social equality. Women have the highest representation in the U.S. Congress in our history, yet they still make up slightly less than a quarter of the members of Congress. This trajectory toward political equality has not ended, this struggle for equality did not end with the 19th Amendment, rather its passage was an important but incomplete step on the road to equality. On Aug. 22, we observed Equal Pay Day for African American women. This indicates the additional portion of the year that African American women need to work to have the same pay as white men. The Equal Pay Day for Latina women does not occur until Nov. 20. We are far from achieving equality in many parts of our society.

As we celebrate this upcoming centennial of the passage of a fundamentally important extension of rights, we must continue to fight for the fulfillment of equality. With the upcoming 2020 election, many states are finding alternative ways to reduce voting much as they did following the 15th and the 19th Amendments. Our democracy is a work in progress, and the 19th Amendment provided an important step of inclusion toward this goal to achieve a democracy where all can have a say in the structure of government and the laws that govern their lives.

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Elizabeth Wemlinger is an assistant professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Salem College.

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