There’s nothing magical about 100 years. It does not match the span of one generation nor, until very recently, did it plausibly correspond to a human lifetime. Within the realm of base-2—where our civilization’s digital data now resides—it wields no special power. Nor does the concept of a “century” serve an essential historical purpose; for college students, accurately naming one is often a challenge. But this month America will observe a significant 100th anniversary. On August 18, 1920, the United States witnessed a potentially world-changing event: the Nineteenth Amendment, which had passed Congress over a year earlier, achieved final ratification when the Tennessee House of Representatives narrowly approved it. Females of minimum age set by state law (and now by a subsequent amendment) secured the ballot in elections at every level.
The passage of 100 years might be just a convention, but it is a thought-provoking one nonetheless—as it happens, a lot of other notable developments were making news about a century ago: a global pandemic, a new post-war international order, race riots in cities from Tulsa to D.C., the first transatlantic flight. If none of these gives you pause for reflection, let me recommend the centenary of Votes for Women as an opportunity to take a breath before dashing into a presidential election that has already been labelled “the most important in our time.”
The successful campaign to achieve equal suffrage for women demonstrated the power of shared experience to overcome division. Women in the western U.S. had the vote in municipal and state elections in the 19th century, while in the Northeast, referendums regularly went down to defeat. In the South, some supporters were willing to promote female suffrage as a counterweight to the newly enfranchised Black men; a few actually opposed a constitutional amendment in the name of state’s rights. In the early 1900s, the national movement was split between radical disciples of the British suffragettes–Alice Paul endured force-feeding and eventually pioneered direct picketing outside the White House–and more conservative leaders who favored tactics that Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins would have approved. Yet women from all regions, even if they already had a voice in local affairs, recognized that only the national franchise would confer genuine equality–the right to participate personally in decisions they cared about. Full citizenship meant the ability to argue publicly and even, as detractors warned, to sully their reputations in the seedy world of politics. With a genius for organization and mobilization, suffragists kept attention focused on their claims. Even before the amendment was ratified, they had already formed the League of Women Voters (1920), signifying their unity.
But the other lesson of the long struggle lay precisely in the diversity that it revealed among women as individuals. Just as it proved absurd to insist that women as a group had no interest in political matters, once they had the vote, it proved equally impossible to think they would all exercise it in the same way. The most recent reminder of this fact came in 2016. Having identified the phenomenon of the “gender gap,” –the apparent preference women voters showed for the Democrat as compared with men–most pollsters and observers confidently predicted that it would spell defeat for Donald Trump. They were right about the gap–it reached historical proportions–but wrong about the outcome. Women surveyed put more confidence in Hillary Clinton’s ’empathy’ and ‘judgment’ than did men. But despite the fact that female voter turnout in past elections had been consistently higher than male, that did not translate into victory for Clinton. She failed to gain the votes of white women; 53% of them chose Trump in spite of his demonstrable lack of empathy and judgment with regard to women in particular. As one more cautious commentator had forecast, in the end the contest was “very close…a margin of just less than a percentage point, maybe close enough to put the all-important Electoral College tally in play.”
This time around, in the midst of what might be seen as the centennial homing of roosting chickens–racial strife, diplomatic isolationism, neglect of public welfare in pursuit of private advantage–attention has fixed on another crucial ‘bloc’ of voters: African-American women. Their electoral preference seems utterly predictable– provided they cast a ballot–although just to be sure, Democrats are touting their vice- presidential candidate mostly on the basis of color. By all means, progressives should celebrate the long-overdue admission of women, and Black women especially, to their rightful role as citizens. But before counting on them to “save us” at the polls, we would do well to consider what women of all sorts are already doing for us. If women voters decide the country has had enough of Trump, it will be in order to get back to the tasks that society has traditionally assigned them–nursing the sick, teaching the young, making a home, and yes, defending life–without the distraction of political chaos. Almost miraculously, women embrace these jobs, the stuff that matters. But let’s never make the mistake of thinking they will all be of one mind.