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The 19th Amendment

The 19th Amendement

Today (August 18, 2020) marks the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote in America, via ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.  In commemoration of this historic advancement in equal rights, I wanted to share some of the lessons that we might be able to take away from this successful struggle, as best I understand from my reading.

  • Meaningful advancements take time.  Women won the right to vote in 1920, one-hundred forty-four years after the founding of our nation.  Most of us learned about Susan B. Anthony in school, the person who founded the organized movement to gain women the vote.  It was her Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, that launched the women’s suffrage movement.  It happened in 1848.  That was 72 years prior to women finally getting the right to vote.  That is a ridiculously long time.  Sometimes we’re led to believe a big problem, a difficult issue, can be easily and quickly solved.  Rarely is that true. Breakthrough changes – in advocacy, in business, in life - almost always take a long time.  Stamina, resilience and perseverance are requirements of major progress.
  • There isn’t “one way” to do it.  Enacting change usually requires multiple different and sometime conflicting approaches.  In the final push to win the vote, Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, was a highly respected and networked diplomat coordinating a lobbying pressure campaign that extended from the White House, to every state capital, and even pulled in help from allied capitals.  Catt, by the way, grew up in my hometown of Charles City, Iowa.  Alice Paul led the National Women’s Party, and took a much more militant, aggressive approach to demanding the right to vote.  Both were extremely effective advocates and leaders.  It is unlikely the 19th Amendment would have passed had it not been for both approaches.  There is not one right way to have influence, to make a monumental impact, to solve a problem.  Endeavor to overcome obstacles on multiple fronts, with a variety of methods, you’ll be more likely to find success.
  • Progress on heavy lifts requires compromise.  The 19th Amendment didn’t grant the right to vote to women of color.  That was clearly wrong.  In the norms of that era, the leaders of the suffrage movement made a calculation that they could not win passage in the South if their amendment extended the right to all women.  We can differ with the calculation they made in that day, especially with the context of all that we know today. But we’re naïve, and highly ineffective, to believe that everyone looks at things through the same lens.  The fact is that virtually no progress is made, on any issue, without compromise.  In our modern era of rigidity, of us-versus-them, compromise has fallen out of favor.   Unwillingness to compromise leaves us in disfunction.  Nothing meaningful – and lasting – can be accomplished without compromise.  Find a pathway to win-win, and then look for other ways forward after gaining that win.
  • Individual people make all the difference.  I mentioned Susan B. Anthony’s critical role, as well as that of Carrie Catt and Alice Paul.  Hundreds of other women, and men, were also central to winning the vote.  Success comes down to individual people committing to make a difference and then persevering through difficulties until the goal is achieved.  At VGM we call it the Power of One.  One person can make a huge difference – choose to be a difference maker in whatever it is that you do. 
  • Community is powerful too.  Across the nation, groups were organized to advocate for the cause of women’s suffrage.  The movement included people of all walks of life.  They often had not known one another prior.  But they came together in support of a cause for which they were passionate.  Community is all about bringing people together under the flag of a cause, a belief, a set of values.  Community can be built around a religion, a favorite team or a common purpose and struggle.  Building the bonds of community requires personal relationships, common experiences, leadership and embracing the good of the cause.  We’re always stronger as part of a community.
  • A Mother’s advice can make all the difference.  Legend has it that the Tennessee legislator who cast the deciding vote for passage of the 19th Amendment did so only after his Mother wrote him a note extolling him to do the right thing and give women the vote.  Moms, and Dads, can and must do all we can to teach our children and develop their values and judgement so they too can go out into the world and make a difference.

It’s a great day to celebrate women, progress and the power of the vote. 


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