Today, August 26th we celebrate Women’s Equality Day, the day the 19th Amendment granting all women in the United States the right to vote was finally made part of the US Constitution. The designation of August 26th as Women’s Equality Day was proposed in 1971 by Bella Abzug, representative from the 19th Congressional District in Manhattan, and has particular significance in this historic election year.
After seventy-two years of seemingly endless marches, petitions, speeches, and writings the 19th Amendment was finally ratified by the 36th state, which happened to be Tennessee. Thanks to a last minute change of heart by a young Representative, Harry Burn, the Amendment was ratified and sent by Governor Roberts of Tennessee to US Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, whose task it was to sign the Proclamation and declare the 19th Amendment to be part of the United States Constitution.
Such declaration and signing, however, were not without controversy. The New York Times reported that Secretary Colby received the packet from the Governor of Tennessee stating that state had ratified the amendment, but refused to allow any suffrage leaders to witness the signing.
“The signing of the proclamation took place…without any ceremony of any kind, and the issuance of the proclamation was unaccompanied by the taking of movies or other pictures, despite the fact that the National Woman’s Party… of the general suffrage movement had been anxious to be represented by a delegation of women and to have the historic event filmed for …permanent record.”
Was Colby personally against woman suffrage, and so used this opportunity to deny the suffrage leaders their moment of triumph? Or was he simply afraid that the differing factions of the movement would quarrel and make a scene? He was later gracious in his congratulations of “their efforts in the face of discouragement,” but when he was asked to recreate the ceremony in the presence of movie cameras he again refused, stating that “the proclamation of the ratification…was more important than feeding the movie cameras.”
And when a woman suffrage delegation led by Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, was received and congratulated by President and Mrs. Wilson later that day, Alice Paul and members of the National Woman’s Party were not invited, despite the fact that their valiant efforts, including picketing the White House, had spurred the President to change his stance and advocate for their cause.
Still, both factions had much to celebrate. Carrie Chapman Catt proclaimed: “This is a glorious and wonderful day. Now that we have the vote let us remember we are no longer petitioners…but free and equal citizens. Let us do our part to keep it a true and triumphant democracy.”
And immediately after learning that Secretary Colby had signed the proclamation Alice Paul proclaimed:
“August 26th will be remembered as one of the great days in the history of the women of the world and in the history of this republic.”
And so it is.
Image: Property of the National Women’s History Project