In 1920, a 24-year-old legislator in Tennessee entered the General Assembly with the intention of opposing the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment. Tennessee would be the 36th state to pass the amendment, the final step to ratification. He was part of a razor-thin majority intent on defeating the measure. At the last minute, he changed his vote and the measure passed.

The story of ratification is much like many other American stories, fraught with a diverse group of actors with few clear-cut heroes or villains, featuring some events that fill us with pride and some that bring shame. The movement has at times been regarded as quaint — think of Mrs. Banks in “Mary Poppins,” singing “well done, sister suffragette” – but it was a generations-long, violent battle.

The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 is largely credited as being the opening salvo in the fight for equal rights for women. The aim of the meeting was to draft a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence, to outline the “social, civil and religious rights of women.” In attendance were suffragists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton as well as Frederick Douglass, who spoke forcefully in favor of including universal suffrage in the Declaration.

The Civil War temporarily derailed the push for women’s voting rights. After the war, constitutional amendments were adopted stating that all males over the age of 21 had the right to vote, and that this right could not be denied on account of race.

In response, many white suffragists, including Stanton, adopted a racist message that claimed white women would be dishonored if they won the right to vote after Black men did. This shift alienated many Black suffragists, including Frederick Douglass and activist Ida B. Wells. Douglass pointed out that, while universal suffrage was a just cause, it was a matter of life and death for African Americans.

By the time the 19th Amendment was adopted in 1920, white supremacy had a firm hold in the U.S. Because of this, most Black women were denied the right to vote until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the long meantime, poll taxes, literacy tests, state-sponsored violence and other acts of discrimination kept African American women from voting.

Gov. Carl Milliken of Maine signs Maine’s ratification of the Federal Suffrage Amendment on Nov. 5 1919. Image courtesy of the Photographic Records of the National Woman’s Party-Action

All Americans stand on the shoulders of those who made sacrifices and endured brutality so we could enjoy a more perfect Union: Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and many more. Their work inspired me to introduce a Joint Resolution on the floor of the Maine Senate last year, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Maine’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1919. The Joint Resolution honors “the suffragists who struggled for decades to fulfill the promise that all Americans are equal under the law and urges everyone to recommit themselves to ensuring that all Maine citizens have their voices heard through the election process.”

I was proud to read this resolution while introducing Maine’s first female attorney general and first female governor, Janet Mills, at the opening of the Maine State Museum’s suffrage exhibit. The exhibit and its opening was one of many events planned led by the Maine Suffrage Centennial Collaboration. As a legislator who has consistently pushed for gender equality, it was a significant moment for me.

In the end, that Tennessee lawmaker who cast the deciding vote in 1920 changed his mind after receiving pressure from the ultimate lobbyist: his mother, who sent him a note urging him to reconsider. As I look back on the great strides we’ve made because of the 19th Amendment, I think of my own children and hope I have helped to contribute to a world in which we don’t have to fight as hard for equal treatment under the law. Until we all feel this security, in the words of Dorothy Day, who was among the suffragists who were jailed and beaten: “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”


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