This August, American women entered a second century in which their right to vote has been ensured by the Constitution. Not all will take note of the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment. Compared with attitudes of the early 20th century, a woman’s right to vote seems as natural today as her ability to reason and to lead. That alone is worth celebrating. Much of humanity now expects steady progress in people claiming their inherent rights.
At times, such progress has been unnecessarily slow. While some women in the United States could vote as early as 1776, it took the force of conviction by the women’s suffrage movement and men gaining a wider understanding of unalienable rights to bring more political equality nationwide. The U.S. was behind some countries, such as New Zealand. Yet it was far ahead of many others. Women in Saudi Arabia won the right to vote only in 2015.
In 1872, when American activist Susan B. Anthony cast a vote in the presidential election and was convicted of a crime, she reminded a judge that a government derives its power from the consent of the governed. The right to vote, she stated, is as sacred as “rights to life, liberty, and property.” Government’s role is to secure such rights, not take or give them. She might have added that civic equality is also a route to happiness. Finland, with its history of gender balance, is often ranked as the world’s happiest country, a result in no small part from women bringing their full talents to shaping society. A focus on what women have to offer has often led to the fastest progress.
Like many activists, Anthony was acting on what she understood as universal. Unalienable rights are neither created nor lost. “The right [to vote] is ours. Have it, we must. Use it, we will,” she stated at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.
The world’s achievements in claiming rights have relied on an acceptance of spiritual equality across gender, class, and race. The concept of “equal liberty” was a key message of Paul in the first century, based on Christ’s teachings. By the year 316, Roman emperor Constantine I declared that criminals could not be branded on the face because all people are “made in God’s image.” Many early Christians, as scholar Larry Siedentop writes in the book “Inventing the Individual,” understood “that only when women are free can men also be truly free – that the reciprocity which belief in human equality entails is only possible when their shared nature is fully acknowledged.”
The 19th Amendment helped shatter the excuses used to subordinate women. It was a prime moment of the world proclaiming the inherent equality of all.