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  • Does the Declaration of Independence Prevent Women’s Suffrage?

    Did you know that the first female member of the Congress was elected prior to the ratification of the 19th amendment? It is true that today, August 18, 2010, marks the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, ensuring the right to vote regardless of sex. But that does not mean women weren’t exercising this right prior to 1920.

    The anniversary of the 19th amendment is an occasion to praise the women whose efforts in the suffrage movement secured this amendment. Too often, though, this praise becomes an invective against the Founding Fathers (who supposedly created a political order for the wealthy, propertied, and male), and injustice that was rectified by the 19th amendment.

    This usual narrative about the Founding reduces the Founders to sexists, while both forgetting that women voted throughout the founding period and mischaracterizing the principles of the American Founding.

    First, American women began casting their ballots long before 1920. As Vindicating the Founders: Race Sex Class and Justice in the Origins of the America shows, women voted in large numbers as early as the late 1700s and early 1800s. New Jersey’s state constitution of 1776 stated that “all inhabitants” who met the state’s age, property, and residence requirement were entitled to the right to vote. Records also show that women voted in New York and Massachusetts before and after the Revolutionary War. In her essay on the 19th Amendment from the Heritage Guide to the Constitution, Tiffany Jones Miller notes that both the territory and state of Wyoming allowed women to vote. Wyoming became a state in 1890, 30 years before the 19th amendment was ratified.

    But more significantly, women’s suffrage was not antithetical to the Founding Principles. Its passage was not some kind of victory over the Founders, but something compatible with the Founding principles.

    The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary document, as it set forth a completely new grounding for government in human equality, natural rights, and consent of the governed. The famous words of the Declaration of Independence apply to men and women alike: when proclaiming that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” “all men” does not mean “all males.” Instead, “all men” is synonymous with “mankind” or “humanity.” The Founders recognized that women share in the common humanity, and therefore share those natural inalienable rights according to the Declaration of Independence. The U.S. Constitution’s language is, likewise, gender neutral. In fact, the 14th amendment (ratified July 9, 1868) was the first usage of the word “male” in the Constitution. The 14th amendment, then, became an impetuous for the 19th amendment, which would clarify that the principles of the American Founding and the Constitution did not prevent women’s suffrage.

    When thinking back to those 17th century New Jersey ladies, we can understand the significance of the principles of the American Founding that enabled “for the first time in history, women of a political community shared with men the right, stated in public law, to select their rulers.”

    The 19th amendment did not introduce a revolutionary concept into American political thought. The Declaration of Independence did. It articulated the principles of human equality, natural rights, and the consent of the governed, that enabled the citizens to select their political leaders. So, on this anniversary of the 19th amendment, we should not simply commemorate the amendment that codified women’s vote, but, more importantly, celebrate the principles that enabled it.

    Posted in First Principles [slideshow_deploy]

    7 Responses to Does the Declaration of Independence Prevent Women’s Suffrage?

    1. Bill Baltimore says:

      Bull……Instead of the pedantic discourse on the meaning of the word "men".

      though you need some work on semiology..because I feel men is not so

      unintentional in socio economic terms….The FACT is…outside of Wyoming.

      Where my guess is 50 boys to one girl was the ratio….Women COULD NOT VOTE.

      BOY..That is some powerful founding father "principle"??..at work there boys.

      I am sure that the word BULL..might violate founding father civilty codes.

      But I am sure the good ole boy language history will be my guide..It took what?

      over a hundred years to make the change..Along with the gun control rap..I have

      my right to my bazooka..The constitution is far from a set in stone document.

      Something you non organic types like to drum on about. Explain the true reason

      that women and for that matter blacks had no voice for a Long Long time.

      Think hard now…Hmmm..Men..power..land..money.control..hmmmm

      Let's examine a little more thoroughly next time shall we..

      PS sorry about using a few "caps"..You constitutional gun nut apologists

      might dig the weapons style..LOL…You know..Caps…pop a cap….

    2. Billie says:

      Totally awesome! Nice write! Thank you Julie! The founding documents are truly remarkable!

    3. Jim says:

      Sounds right to me. I have always felt that Free is Free, and NOT free is NOT FREE.

      I live for the day when partisan party politics becomes a thing of the past, and all Americans join together to see what good they can find in their opponents’ points of view, thus automatically canceling out all negativity.

      Look for the Good, and Praise it. Look for what’s working well, and do more of that.

      Quit focusing on the problems, and focus on the solutions. Whatever you look for, you find more of that. Seems to be a natural law.

      Thanks for the article.

    4. Pingback: Logos kai Apokalupsis » Women’s Suffrage Before the 19th Amendment

    5. Bill, Bath, ME says:

      @ Bill in Baltimore – you need only read John & Abigail Adams' letters to get a feel for how women were perceived by the founders. Abigail was a critical partner to John, not some adjunct. She helped him forge his philosophy and views. In part, the biggest mistake of his Presidency came when he took her advice over his own opinions and signed the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798.

      Note that this article in no way denigrates the importance of the 19th Amendment, quite the contrary, but it also points out that the Founders were truly men of uncommon vision with a firm grasp of the meaning of freedom that has been lacking in much of our country since their time.

    6. susan myers in Alaba says:

      Another go topic about woman's right: a widow was not considered to be a person – her children were put in an orphanage and all property was taken away. The widow was kicked into the street.

      19th amendment enactment had to wait for the Supreme Court to rule on the challege. Court upheld the 19th amendment in 1922.

    7. john, raleigh, nc says:

      The fact that only 27 amendments to the Constitution (and if you take away the two related to alcohol, 25)….you can see what an amazing job the Founders did.

      Men of true genius, their work, The Constitution, has been widely copied and adopted throughout the world as a whole. We should take pride in their legacy !

      We should take pride in our nation….the best EVER !

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