It’s hard to believe, but 100 years ago, American women didn’t have the right to vote. That right didn’t come until Aug. 26, 1920, when Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed a proclamation that formally recognized the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Many historians write about women “earning” the right to vote that momentous day 98 years ago, as if up, until that point, women were unworthy or unqualified. In truth? They did earn it.
They organized. They marched. They fought for it.
They earned it.
In Indiana, women had been fighting for the right to vote since the middle of the 19th century. Amanda Way, the “mother of women’s rights in Indiana,” helped organize the Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. In 1859, Dr. Mary Thomas became the first woman to address the Indiana General Assembly by presenting a petition to extend voting and property rights to women.
Legislators did not take Thomas seriously. But the fight continued. More formal efforts came with the establishment of the Women’s Franchise League of Indiana in 1911.
The league’s efforts helped lead to the passage of the Maston-McKinley Partial Suffrage Act of 1917, granting women the right to vote in municipal, school and certain special elections. Approximately 40,000 women in Indianapolis registered to vote that year. But the victory was short-lived. A lawsuit challenging the law claimed taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear the costs associated with the act, and the Indiana Supreme Court agreed. The law was repealed.
Recognizing the challenges at the state level, the Women’s Franchise League turned their attention to winning the right to vote at the federal level. They combined their efforts with the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and on June 4, 1919, Congress proposed the 19th Amendment.
The fight was not over. Before the amendment could officially become part of the Constitution, it had to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Indiana was among the 36 states that allowed the amendment to become law. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it on Aug. 18, 1920, and, eight days later, women were officially given the right to vote.
That fall, more than 8 million women across the country voted for the first time.
Today, women make up more than half the electorate. In fact, more women have voted than men in every presidential election since 1964. In 2016, 63 percent of eligible adult women reported voting. Women went from having no voice 98 years ago to becoming the deciding voice in crucial elections and even running for office.
Hoosier women continue to knock on the glass ceiling, with some Hoosier women even being able to shatter and achieve what once was impossible. In 1921, Julia D. Nelson was elected to the Indiana House of Representatives, becoming the first woman to serve in the Indiana General Assembly. In 1933, Virginia E. Jenckes became the first woman from Indiana to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1942, Arcada Stark Balz became the first woman elected to the Indiana Senate. In 2003, Kathy Davis became the first woman appointed to Indiana lieutenant governor, and a year later, Becky Skillman became the first woman elected to that position.
These women helped pave the way for this year’s ballot, which has more women than ever before running for office, including three for statewide offices. Now more than ever, women need to exercise that earned right to vote and let their voices be heard.•
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Hathaway is president and CEO of Hathaway Strategies, chairwoman of the Julian Center board and former chief of staff of the Republican National Committee. Send comments to [email protected]