“How the Right to Vote Became Fundamental”

David Gans:

A century ago, the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution, prohibiting state-sponsored voting discrimination on account of sex, and women’s status as equal citizens was formally etched in the Constitution’s text.  What is less well known is that the Nineteenth Amendment also helped cement the idea that the right to vote is a fundamental right inherent in citizenship.   

For America’s first 150 years, the exclusion of half the population from participation in the electorate stood firmly in the way of viewing the right to vote as a fundamental right.  When, in the wake of Civil War, the Constitution was first amended to protect the right to vote, it drew a sharp line between men and women.  All citizens did not have a fundamental right to vote.  After all, women were citizens and, as Reconstruction congressmen repeatedly argued, [w]omen do not vote.”  Although a “woman is as much a citizen as a man,” when it came to the right to vote, the Reconstruction Framers took the view that states “may still discriminate.”  In short, instead of being a fundamental right, voting was viewed as a privilege that could be given to men and denied to women, who were deemed to be represented by men “at the polls and in the affairs of Government.” 

Indeed, in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment explicitly wrote this cramped view of democracy into the Constitution by imposing a penalty of reduced congressional representation on states that denied or abridged the right to vote to any of its “male” citizens.  In 1870, at the very moment when the Fifteenth Amendment first recognized that the right to vote was necessary to make real the promise of freedom and equal citizenship for Black men, our national charter underscored that women had no claim to the ballot and could be relegated to second-class status.  The Reconstruction Framers, time and again, took it as a given that women would be indirectly represented by their “fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons to whom the right of suffrage is given.”   

Women’s rights activists of the 1860s and 1870s, however, rejected the idea that our foundational promises of democracy, freedom, and equality were real if half the population could be excluded from voting…

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