August kicks off the yearlong centennial celebration of women winning the right to vote in America. It is an opportunity for the nation to unite to honor the heroic women (and men) who fought for equality, but also a somber reminder of what still needs to be done to fulfill the 19th Amendment’s spirit.
With the 2020 presidential election looming, there is a great risk this historic milestone will be politicized, with the anniversary’s true meaning lost in the process.
While women voting is not controversial today, it took 72 years of organized effort for women to win the right. In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, at which attendees signed a Declaration of Sentiments modeled on the Declaration of Independence. This document outlined specific grievances, including the lack of voting rights.
In 1919, after much campaigning, the United States Congress passed an amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote. In August 1920, after ratification by the states, this legislation became the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Suffragists would be proud to know that 100 years later, female voters are critically important in each election. In fact, in the last presidential election, more women voted than men. More women have voted in every presidential election since 1964. There are nearly 10 million more registered female voters than male (81.3 million women compared to 71.7 million men reported they are registered voters as of 2018).
It’s worth celebrating not just that women can vote, but that women legitimately can make up their own mind about candidates and vote for different candidates. Sometimes that even means not voting for a woman candidate.
Unfortunately, the message women receive today is often that women have an obligation to vote for female candidates, particularly Democratic female candidates. That was a sad and ironic aspect of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign for the Presidency. Certainly it was a tremendous achievement that Clinton was the first woman to win a major party nomination for president. Clinton’s supporters, however, promoted a fundamentally sexist message, that women had a duty to vote for her because she is a woman. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made the case for Clinton at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in these terms, “Hillary Clinton will always be there for you. And just remember there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
In spite of this, exit polls showed 54% of women voted for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and 41% voted for now President Donald Trump. Women were not a monolithic voting bloc.
After the election, liberal women promoted an even more nefarious idea — that women didn’t vote for Clinton only because they were uneducated or influenced by a man. In this worldview, certain women, conservative women, no longer have any agency. Clinton attributed her election loss in part because she said white women face an “ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.” Former first Lady Michelle Obama said, “Any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice.” And Barbra Streisand said, “A lot of women vote the way their husbands vote; they don’t believe enough in their own thoughts.”
It is as if women who didn’t vote a certain way no longer are considered fully formed human beings, capable of making their own decisions. But instead are infantilized.
This treatment is unfair. Society doesn’t expect men to vote the same way, so why would we expect women to do so? Our culture shouldn’t make assumptions about female voters or create a narrative designed to pressure women into accepting one political perspective. Voting differently isn’t a sign that some women lack intellectual capabilities or agency.
To honor the centennial of women gaining the right to vote, take a moment and thank a female friend who you know votes differently than you. Or at least don’t assume the worst of her.