If you’ve been on Facebook today you’ve probably noticed the graphic promoting “Women’s Equality Day” which claims “On Aug 26, 1920, women achieved the right to vote in the US.”
President Obama also issued a proclamation today which begins, “On August 26, 1920, after years of agitating to break down the barriers that stood between them and the ballot box, American women won the right to vote.”
The problem with these claims is that they imply American women had no right to vote prior to the certification of the 19th Amendment. But as Joshua Treviño explains,
This is false: as of 1920, women enjoyed unrestricted suffrage in 15 states, Presidential suffrage in 28 (that is to say, the majority), and varying degrees of local suffrage though most of the others. Only seven states — the swath from Pennsylvania to South Carolina plus Alabama — had no female suffrage at all. The extension of women’s suffrage was in fact a function of competitive federalism, with newer and more dynamic states leading the way — which is why the full-suffrage states were clustered out west, and led by the likes of Wyoming. The Nineteenth Amendment properly understood was not the overturning of historical oppression nearly so much as it was the culmination of an organic competitive process among lower- and mid-tier polities: exactly how federalism is supposed to work.
(Trevino also points out that all women in the U.S. received the right to vote several days before August 26, 1920 on the day of the final state ratification.)
Why does it matter? Partially because historical accuracy is important. But mainly because, as Trevino says, it shows how the process of federalism worked in the past—a time before the federal government was considered the first resort for solving all political problems. By ignoring that history, we lose sight of how we too can and should introduce political change at lower levels of government.
So as we celebrate women’s suffrage let’s not forget to celebrate the role the individual states played in this expansion of voting rights.