The Fight For Ratification - History

The Fight For Ratification - History

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The fight for the ratification of the Constitution was fought in each state separately. While in some states, such as Delaware, which was the first to ratify the Constitution, there was little opposition; in others, opposition ran high and the votes were often close. In three states; Massachusetts, Virginia and New York; the fight was particularly difficult.

What Were the Five Issues Involved in the Ratification Debate?

The ratification debate involved the following five issues: centralization of power, the powers granted to the executive branch, the Bill of Rights, the issue of slavery and whether the formation of the constitution was legal. The ratification of the United States Constitution triggered lively debates between Federalists and Anti-Federalists.

The ratification debate took place between 1787 and 1788. Most people who contributed to this debate questioned the legality of the Constitution and termed its production as an illegal act. Anti-Federalists were of the view that the men who had been tasked with assembling this document had acted outside the powers accorded to them, which was to amend and improve the Articles of Confederation. On the other hand, Federalists insisted that the Articles be abolished rather than amended.

Another key issue in the ratification debate was the centralization of power. Anti-Federalists were against the new Constitution centralizing the power of the federal government. The Articles of Confederation respected state sovereignty, and the national government had to make requests to state governments when it came to crucial matters. Federalists argued that centralization was needed to help the government respond adequately to any challenges the nation faced.

Anti-Federalists were also against the powers that were granted to the executive, which never existed in the Articles of Confederation. They argued that the president would be too powerful because of the veto power granted to him and his role as commander-in-chief. On the other hand, Federalists claimed that the checks and balances that were inherent in the three branches of government would not allow the president to misuse his power.

The issue of slavery was also debated. Slaveholders demanded that each slave be regarded as one whole person, granting slave states electoral powers that exceeded the population of actual voters. The makers of the Constitution had to compromise, for election purposes, and give recognition to each slave as three-fifths of a person. Those who opposed slavery did not, however, agree with this compromise.

The Anti-Federalists pointed out that the constitution did not provide the rights that were to be retained by states. The Federalists noted this and agreed to attach the Bill of Rights to the Constitution after ratification.

The 15th Amendment Was Ratified More Than 150 Years Ago, but the Fight to Protect Black Voters Continues

On February 3, 1870 African American men were given the right to vote with the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which declared that the “right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." This major milestone would appear to have empowered Black men by implying their voices mattered in this American democracy.

Instead, this date was just one major milestone in an ongoing fight for equality at the polls. Today, the Black vote remains a serious topic of discussion. To help understand our modern battle of voting, it’s helpful to look back at this breakthrough amendment.

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, during the 12-year period referred to as the Reconstruction Era, a series of amendments were ratified to provide constitutional protections for the formerly enslaved Black population. There was the 13th Amendment, in 1865, which outlawed slavery. Three years later, in 1868, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States (prior to this amendment, a Supreme Court decision stated that descendants of enslaved people could not be citizens). Then there was the 15th Amendment, which enfranchised some of these newly freed citizens — but not for long.

For a brief time after the 15th Amendment’s ratification, Black men’s voices were being heard. Thomas Mundy Peterson cast the first known ballot by an African American on March 31, 1870. Hiram Revels was appointed in 1870 to be the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate, but his qualifications came under dispute.

As remembered by the Senate itself on its website, members of Congress were able to disguise racist backlash to working with a Black colleague by claiming Revels hadn’t been a citizen for the nine years required to be a senator because, as a Black man, he’d only been technically legally considered a citizen for four years since the Civil Rights Act of 1866. These changes weren’t embraced by many white Americans, who had been beneficiaries of the country’s deeply ingrained racist roots.

As a result, Reconstruction was followed by a period of time that was referred to as "Redemption" — a time in which violence, terror, and the legal system were used by white Southerners to dismantle the gains made for African Americans during Reconstruction and to reinforce white supremacy.

In the recent book Stony the Road, historian and literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., described this period of Redemption as a time "when the gains of Reconstruction were systematically erased and the country witnessed the rise of a white supremacist ideology that, we might say, went rogue, an ideology that would long outlast the circumstances of its origin.”

During this decades-long time period, which began in 1873, political pressure to go back to a pre-Reconstruction society was enforced by violence as pro-Reconstruction politicians and Black Americans were attacked and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, the White League, and the Red Shirts. Famous historian and activist W.E.B. DuBois put it poetically when he wrote, “The slave went free stood a brief moment in the sun then moved back again toward slavery.”

In addition to the violence that was inflicted upon Black Americans to keep them from voting, state laws were put into place to effectively institutionalize new forms of discrimination at the polls. Black men were subject to impossible literacy tests, poll taxes, and other legal hurdles.

As a result, in Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered to vote after 1890, according to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. By 1904, in Louisiana there were only 1,342 registered Black voters — a drastic reduction from the more than 130,000 Black voters that had been registered in 1896.

Seemingly providing further clarification and proof that these laws were established specifically to prevent Black men from voting, a half dozen states passed laws in the early 1890s to protect poor Southern whites who may have lost their voting rights due to the barriers put in place. These laws declared that men who had been able to vote prior to the 15th Amendment (i.e., white men) and their lineal descendants (children, grandchildren, and so on) wouldn’t be subject to onerous requirements in order to vote — a measure that has been referred to as the grandfather clause, which spawned the phrase “grandfathering in.”

In response, the NAACP convinced a U.S. attorney to challenge Oklahoma's grandfather clause passed in 1910 in a case summarized by NPR. According to Harvard Law professor Michael Klarman's book From Jim Crow to Civil Rights, in 1900, only 57 of Oklahoma’s more than 55,000 Black citizens came from states that had permitted African-Americans to vote before the 15th Amendment’s ratification, meaning tens of thousands of potential Black voters would still face tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests. In 1915, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Guinn v. United States* that the grandfather clause was unconstitutional. Despite that, a variation of the grandfather clause remained legal in Oklahoma until a Supreme Court ruling in 1939.

These tactics were very effective at keeping Black people out of the government. From 1870 to 1901, there were 20 Black U.S. representatives and two Black senators, but from 1901 to 1929, there were no Black representatives or senators, as noted by The Atlantic.

The 15th Amendment also faced opposition from suffragists who had been known abolitionists — specifically, white women who refused to support the amendment due to its exclusion of women. The famous activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared that “virtuous white women are more worthy of the vote.” While at a meeting with fellow American Equal Rights Association (AERA) member Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.”

Frederick Douglass agreed that women should have the right to vote but supported the 15th Amendment and felt the right to vote was more urgent for Black men than it was for women. “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads when their children are not allowed to enter schools then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own,” he said about the issue.

“Reports of the ERA’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” (Part 2)

Back in the early 1970s, when there were only 15 women in Congress&mdashtwo in the Senate and 13 in the House&mdashpowerful male leaders of key House and Senate committees blocked votes on the Equal Rights Amendment.

The most powerful opposition&mdashsays Feminist Majority Foundation president Eleanor Smeal, who for part of the 1970s and &rsquo80s was president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), which led the ERA fight&mdashwere business interests, especially the insurance industry, which opposed equality because sex discrimination is highly profitable.

&ldquo&lsquoWomen&rsquos equality&rsquo is not just words,&rdquo Smeal says. &ldquoIt means real things, especially in the area of money. It means you have to stop discriminating against women in employment and in annuities, life insurance and health insurance. It involves billions and billions of dollars.

&ldquoIt was one hell of a fight,&rdquo Smeal continues. &ldquoWe marched, we picketed, we demonstrated. We had sit-ins. People were arrested. Some women went on hunger strikes. Every nonviolent protest that could be done was done. NOW had a silent vigil on the steps of the Senate, around the clock.&rdquo

Women&rsquos protests finally got the ERA out of committee in 1971, but with a seven-year ratification time line in the preamble to the amendment. So the women&rsquos movement fought tooth and nail to quickly win state ratifications.

Hawaii ratified within hours of Congress approving the ERA, and other states soon followed. In many states, however, business interests and elected state legislators&mdashoverwhelmingly men&mdashblocked the ERA from a vote.

By the end of the seven-year time line, the amendment fell three states short of ratification. Feminists battled in Congress to pass an extension of the time line, which they did until 1982, but no additional states voted to ratify the ERA&mdashuntil 2017.

After Trump became president, the fight for the ERA became more urgent. The massive rollback of women&rsquos rights and Trump&rsquos appointment of archconservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court made it clearer than ever that women need explicit protection for their equal rights in the U.S. Constitution.

Feminists turned with laser focus to a three-state strategy&mdashseeking three more states to ratify the amendment and then a congressional joint resolution to remove the time line. The strategy was inspired by the ratification of the 27th Amendment (relating to salaries for members of Congress), which Congress had originally approved in 1789.

After Michigan became the 38th state to ratify the 27th Amendment in 1992, Congress passed a joint resolution agreeing that the amendment was validly ratified.

But as feminists sought three more state ratifications, mostly male conservative leaders in state legislatures once again refused to allow the ERA out of committee. So feminists focused on electing more women into office and flipping legislatures from red to blue, most recently succeeding in Virginia.

In Nevada, with the election of a record number of women and people of color in 2016, Democrats took control of the legislature. Under the leadership of state Sen. Pat Spearman, the new Democratic majority ratified the ERA in 2017.

In spring 2018, Illinois ratified the ERA after a strong pro-ERA movement succeeded in pressuring the Democratic speaker to finally allow a vote on the amendment.

Weeks after Virginia&rsquos ratification this year, state Attorneys General Herring, Kwame Raoul (Ill.) and Aaron Ford (Nev.) filed suit to ensure that the Equal Rights Amendment would be added to the Constitution. These three AGs argue that under Article 5, which sets out the process to amend the Constitution, a proposed constitutional amendment automatically becomes part of the U.S. Constitution as soon as it is ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states. Many constitutional law scholars agree.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Berkeley School of Law, told Ms., &ldquoCongress set the time limit, Congress can modify the time line.

&ldquoIt&rsquos really important that the time limit was not in the text of the ERA itself,&rdquo he continues. &ldquoThe time limit was part of a preamble before the text of the amendment. The amendment itself is ratified by the states. The preamble is not ratified by the states. If Congress can set the deadline in something other than the text of the amendment, why can&rsquot Congress change the deadline it set?&rdquo

Constitutional law scholar and former dean of Stanford Law School Kathleen Sullivan agrees that the time line is not binding.

&ldquoArticle 5 provides no barrier to Congress changing its mind, either eliminating or extending the deadline,&rdquo Sullivan says. &ldquoAnd that&rsquos not a judicially reviewable decision. That&rsquos a political question, and not something that a court can come in and second-guess. So if Congress were to pass a bill to remove the deadline, then that decision would be final and not reviewable by the courts. Nothing in the Constitution says that ratification must be synchronous, contemporaneous or bounded within any particular time frame.&rdquo

In February, 20 state attorneys general wrote an open letter in agreement they called on Congress to remove the arbitrary time line on the ERA and affirm that the amendment is now part of the Constitution. Conservative state AGs, on the other hand, are arguing it has been too long since Congress passed the ERA.

&ldquoThat is decisively refuted by the history of the 27th Amendment,&rdquo Sullivan says. &ldquoIt was proposed by the first Congress and ratified two centuries later. There&rsquos no Article 5 requirement that the states ratify in a particular period of time. The amendment should become effective upon the ratification of the 38th state.&rdquo

Opponents also argue that four states&mdashIdaho, Kentucky, Nebraska and Tennessee&mdashhave voted to rescind their ratification of the ERA. And South Dakota stated its ratification would simply lapse after 1979. But historical precedent suggests that states cannot do so. After the Civil War, two states rescinded their ratification of the 14th Amendment, but Congress refused to recognize these rescissions.

&ldquoStates that rescinded their ratification were counted toward the three-quarters of states necessary for ratification of the 14th Amendment,&rdquo Chemerinsky notes. &ldquoThat indicates that states that have rescinded can still be counted.&rdquo

Sullivan agrees: &ldquoArticle 5 speaks to ratification but not rescission. Article 5 describes a one-way ratchet. It does not provide for a two-way ratchet for going in and out of the process.&rdquo

&ldquoUltimately, the Constitution and Supreme Court precedent leave to Congress the question of when an amendment is properly ratified,&rdquo Chemerinsky adds. &ldquoIf Congress by joint resolution says the ERA is part of the Constitution, then it is.&rdquo

Feminists are now focusing their efforts on the U.S. Congress. The huge electoral victories for women and Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018 paved the way for advancing the ERA in Congress. Women were elected to a record 23 percent of House seats, and Democrats gained 41 seats.

This year, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) introduced a joint resolution to remove the arbitrary time line for the ERA.

&ldquoThis is very simple,&rdquo Speier said during the House floor debate. &ldquoWomen want to be equal, and we want it in the Constitution. &hellip Women of America are done being second-class citizens. We are done being paid less for our work. Done being violated with impunity. Done being discriminated against for our pregnancies. Done being discriminated against simply because we are women.&rdquo

Under the leadership of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the House voted on Feb. 13 to pass the joint resolution with a bipartisan 232&ndash183 vote (five Republicans voted with Democrats in favor of the legislation).

&ldquoWith this resolution, we take a giant step toward equality for women, progress for families and a stronger America&mdashbecause we know when women succeed, America succeeds,&rdquo Pelosi said at a press conference ahead of the vote.

&ldquoOur message here today is quite simple,&rdquo added Speier, holding up a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution. &ldquoWe want in.&rdquo

Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a similar resolution in the Senate. In response to the Justice Department&rsquos opinion letter, they released a joint statement arguing that Congress certainly has the authority under Article 5 of the Constitution to set and change deadlines for the ratification of constitutional amendments, and has done so on numerous occasions.

&ldquoThere is no reason to put a time limit on achieving equality under the law,&rdquo they wrote.

Because Sen. McConnell has indicated he would block the resolution&mdash he says he&rsquos &ldquopersonally not a supporter&rdquo of the ERA&mdashDemocrats must flip the Senate in the November election in order to secure passage of the resolution.

This piece is excerpted from the Spring 2020 issue of Ms.

Become a Ms. member to read the rest&mdashand get even more of our feminist reporting and analysis delivered to your door, or to your mobile device, each time we release a new issue!

Wisconsin and the 19th Amendment

State of Wisconsin depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating Wisconsin was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. CC0

Women first organized and collectively fought for suffrage at the national level in July of 1848. Suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened a meeting of over 300 people in Seneca Falls, New York . In the following decades, women marched, protested, lobbied, and even went to jail. By the 1870s, women pressured Congress to vote on an amendment that would recognize their suffrage rights. This amendment was sometimes known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and became the 19th Amendment.

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Although progress on the federal amendment stalled, women also campaigned for changes to state suffrage requirements to win the vote. An 1869 Wisconsin law allowed women to run for school board positions. The Wisconsin Woman Suffrage Association (WWSA) successfully lobbied for legislation that allowed women to vote in elections related to school issues in 1884. By 1887, court decisions had effectively nullified the school suffrage law. Wisconsin suffragists, including Bella Case LaFollette, wife of Governor Robert LaFollette, convinced the legislature to restore school suffrage by 1901. Despite the dedicated efforts of the WWSA, successive attempts to expand women's right to vote for other elective offices failed. Even more disappointing, the legislature eliminated an elected board of education in 1913, disfranching Wisconsin women completely and taking away the positions many women had held in school governance.

That same year, a new push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution enfranchising women began with the 1913 Suffrage Procession on the day before Woodrow Wilson's presidential inauguration. Wisconsin women joined the fight for passage of the amendment. WWSA leader Jessie Jack Hooper was among the thousands of women who marched on the Republican National Convention in Chicago in June 1916 through a terrible rainstorm to petition the Republican Party to support the women's suffrage amendment.

After decades of arguments for and against women's suffrage, Congress finally voted in favor of the 19th Amendment in 1919. After Congress passed the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of it for it to become law. This process is called ratification.

On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin became one of the first states to vote in favor of ratifying the 19th Amendment. By August of 1920, 36 states had ratified the amendment, recognizing women's suffrage rights.

While women were not always united in their goals, and the fight for women’s suffrage was complex and interwoven with issues of civil and political rights for all Americans, the efforts of women like Jessie J. Hooper led to the passage of the 19th Amendment. It went into effect on August 26, 1920, but most women of color continued to be denied the vote for years and even generations.

State flag of Wisconsin. CC0

Wisconsin Places of Women's Suffrage: The Jesse J. Hooper House

The work of Wisconsin women like Jesse J. Hooper was responsible for winning support for the national suffrage amendment in the state. Born in 1865 in Iowa, she relocated to Wisconsin after marrying Ben Hooper. She became active in the fight for women’s suffrage rights and became a member of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). After passage of the 19th Amendment, NAWSA became the League of Women Voters and Hooper was the first president of the Wisconsin branch. In 1922, Hooper ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate but lost to Robert LaFollette. Her house is a private residence and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Discover More Places of Ratification

The Jesse J. Hooper House is an important place in the story of ratification. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Pennsylvania and the 19th Amendment

State of Pennsylvania depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating Pennsylvania was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Women first organized and collectively fought for suffrage at the national level in July of 1848. Suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened a meeting of over 300 people in Seneca Falls, New York. In the following decades, women marched, protested, lobbied, and even went to jail. By the 1870s, women pressured Congress to vote on an amendment that would recognize their suffrage rights. This amendment was sometimes known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and became the 19th Amendment.

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Pennsylvania was a center of women's rights activism even before the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Women involved in the robust abolitionist movement in the state found themselves criticized by male reformers for speaking in public and participating in other activities considered unwomanly. Lucretia Mott and an interracial group of Pennsylvania women organized the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. The Society sent Lucretia Mott as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 to challenge the organizers' exclusion of women delegates. Pennsylvanians Angelina and Sarah Grimke were among the first to write and speak on the cause of women's equality as early as 1838. The sisters moved to Pennsylvania after leaving their home state of South Carolina because of their opposition to slavery.

After the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Pennsylvanians continued their involvement in the movement for women's rights, including the right to vote. The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society held one of the early women's rights conventions in 1854. A number of woman suffrage groups organized in the state and focused their attention on raising awareness of the suffrage cause. Carrie Burnham attempted to vote in 1871. After she was denied, she took her case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing that voting was a right of citizenship. She lost the case, and the Pennsylvania constitution was subsequently amended to limit voting rights to "male citizens."

After the Pennsylvania legislature passed a suffrage referendum in 1915, the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association organized a campaign to canvass for passage of the referendum that took them to every county in the state.

Girl standing with Justice Bell, 1915. Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Amending the state constitution again to include woman suffrage required the passage of a resolution through two sessions of the legislature and then ratification by the state's voters in the next election, a multi-year process. Beginning in 1911, woman suffrage groups lobbied for such an amendment vigorously. The amendment passed the legislature in 1913 and went to the voters for ratification in 1915. Katharine Wentworth Ruschenberger, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association, funded the creation of a replica of the Liberty Bell in support of this effort. Christened the Justice Bell, its clapper was secured with chains so that it could not ring until women won the vote. The Justice Bell toured the state in 1915 to win support of ratification of the state amendment. It was expected that it would ring out in victory in Philadelphia once the election results came in. But the Justice Bell stayed silent the referendum went down in defeat.

In 1913, the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C. reinvigorated the push for a national amendment enfranchising women. Many Pennsylvania women joined the efforts to lobby for this amendment. A number participated in the more confrontational tactics of the National Woman's Party, including picketing the White House and going on hunger strikes.

After decades of effort on the local and national level by woman suffragists, Congress finally passed the federal woman suffrage amendment in June 1919. After Congress approved it, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of the amendment for it to become part of the U.S. Constitution. This process is called ratification.

On June 24, 1919, the Pennsylvania legislature voted to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. By August of 1920, 36 states (including Pennsylvania) approved the Amendment, making women’s suffrage legal all across the country.

State flag of Pennsylvania. CC0

Pennsylvania Places of Women's Suffrage: Rittenhouse Square

Rittenhouse Square, a public park in Philadelphia, was the site of one of the state’s first suffrage marches. Inspired by Alice Paul’s newly formed organization, the Congressional Union (CU), suffragists in Philadelphia protested in Rittenhouse Square in 1914. They then marched down Market Street to Washington Square where they concluded the demonstration. Rittenhouse Square is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. An earlier Pennsylvania suffrage march took place during the Perry Centennial celebration on July 8, 1913 in Erie, Pennsylvania. A plaster replica of the Justice Bell was featured in the march. [1]

Discover More Places of Ratification

Rittenhouse Square is an important place in the story of ratification. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sources used to make these state pages include: Tamara Gaskill, " Woman Suffrage ," in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia Ida Husted Harper's History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920 , Volume 6 (1922), the National American Woman Suffrage Association papers (Library of Congress), Jennie Bradley Roessing, "The Equal Suffrage Campaign in Pennsylvania," The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 56, Women in Public Life (Nov., 1914), pp. 153-160 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science and National Register nominations from the National Park Service.

[1] Grabski, Sarah and Valerie Myers. 2019. "Erie Women Fight to Vote: A Look at Suffrage Movement." Erie Times-News , March 9, 2019 Erie Daily Times. 1913. "Mothers, Children and Suffragists in Great Perry Week Parade." Erie Daily Times, July 10, 1913.

The 19th Amendment Timeline

The Seneca Falls Convention

Our story starts with two key players: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The two women met in London in 1840 after they were denied entry to an anti-slavery convention, based solely on their sex. The event served as the final straw for both women, and they came together to create our nation’s first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY, on July 19 and 20, 1848.

Over two days, nearly 300 people gathered to hear 32-year-old Elizabeth discuss the rights (or lack thereof) of women. It was here that she read aloud her carefully drafted Declaration of Sentiments. The document outlined 19 “abuses and usurpations” endured by women, such as their inability to sign contracts, attend college, or keep their paychecks if they worked outside the home.

Following these injustices, Elizabeth also included 11 “resolutions,” insisting men and women be treated as equals. But it was Elizabeth’s ninth resolution that was by far the most controversial. She called women to “secure themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise,” or in other words, she was demanding the right for women to vote. It was this idea that eventually became the foundation of the women’s suffrage movement.

It’s of note that Frederick Douglass, a former slave, outspoken abolitionist, and proponent of women’s suffrage, was also a speaker at Seneca Falls. He wrote the following passage after attending the convention:

“In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman and if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is, that ‘Right is of no sex.’”

At the end of the Seneca Falls convention, the Declaration of Sentiments was signed by 100 people (68 women and 32 men). Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Civil War

Soon after that first convention, suffragists were hit with their first major challenge: the Civil War. It was also around this time that Susan B. Anthony joined the frontlines of the movement. Women quickly refocused their efforts on the war and those who had been enslaved. Suffragists believed that when the war ended, every eligible American citizen would obtain the right to vote. The desire was universal suffrage.

Despite this brief refocus on equal rights for all, suffragists quickly learned that the sentiment in the country was not universal suffrage. Women and Black men, both having been denied the vote would not be granted the right simultaneously. Allegiances were severed as women were asked to step aside in favor of Black men. Once united, this split caused deep rifts in the suffrage movement. Both Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were outspoken in their desire to see white women vote before Black men. Black women were left with no side that included them. The united front that started in the abolition movement turned into a battle pitting all sides against one another.

Black suffragist Sojourner Truth is quoted, “I feel that I have the right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women and if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”

Sojourner Truth, pictured here circa 1870 | Image: Wikimedia Commons

The 14th Amendment (1868) is often referenced for its guarantee of citizenship, which would then include former slaves. However, the 14th Amendment also set up the insertion of gender for eligibility to vote. Previously, the denial of women’s suffrage had been on a state level. The 14th Amendment goes on to define voting as open to male citizens of 21 years old. This insertion of gender, for the first time in the Constitution, is what set up the bigger fight to extend voting rights to women.

The 15th Amendment (1870) was passed to ensure that race could not be used to deny voting eligibility set up in the 14th Amendment. It did not protect gender, and this served to be a huge division in the suffrage movement. While Frederick Douglass, who had been fighting for universal suffrage, supported the 15th Amendment as a compromise to ensure Black men could vote, he lived up to his promise to continue to work for women’s suffrage over the following decades and until his death.

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“We can see African American women and white women having different views of what motivated them to vote after the Civil War, particularly in the South,” says Andrea Blackman, who serves as the Director of Special Collections for the Nashville Public Library’s Civil Rights Center, Special Collections Center, and the soon-to-open Votes for Women Center. “That question is still being asked today of what is motivating one to go to the ballot, and sometimes those motivations aren’t the same,”

After the passage of the 15th Amendment, mainstream suffragists split into two groups: The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). The AWSA worked toward change within state constitutions, believing voter eligibility would be better determined on a state by state basis. Others followed suit of NWSA formed by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, believing the voting rights of women was a national issue. It wasn’t until 1890 that the two organizations joined together again as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and combined both techniques, believing a federal amendment could be passed through state campaigns.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (left) and Susan B. Anthony (right) founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Image: Wikimedia Commons

A Standstill

Despite the two sides coming together again, society’s views toward women did not change. At the time, women were viewed as too emotional to have a say in political affairs. Their only concerns were to be related to the home and maintaining its upkeep. Suffragists knew before they could make any change, they had to alter this image of women.

“The 19th Amendment didn’t solve anything as far as what society says are women’s roles — domestically, publicly, in power,” explains Rebecca Price, founder and president of Chick History, a non-profit that works to rebuild women’s history and bring light to key moments. “They were facing the same things that we are. Whenever you have a voice and you stand up and speak out, that’s going to be a challenge. You’re going to have to overcome that, and [suffragists] certainly faced those challenges.”

Despite the creation of NAWSA and this new focus on how women were viewed, the suffragist movement gained popularity in only a few areas of the United States. Western parts of the country were still new and their populations were scarce, so women’s votes were seen as essential. Wyoming was the first state to completely enfranchise women. Over the next six years, other western states such as Colorado, Idaho and Utah followed suit.

Despite this small victory out west, progress within the movement slowed down once again, as there was still the issue of race. As mentioned, many Southern states passed grandfather clauses and laws that required voters to pay poll taxes or take literacy and constitutional tests before casting a ballot. White men sidestepped these laws as they were written to exempt them, excluding those who had a relative who was eligible to vote before 1866 or 1867.

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With these racist laws in place, white women suffragists took note. Susan B. Anthony watched these events unfold and the mission of NAWSA was once again altered.

Chapters of the organization began refusing Black members, fearing their presence would defer potential supporters. NAWSA believed if white women were given the right to vote first, they would help enfranchise Black women — which further encouraged discrimination and segregation. By the late 19th century, the organization was primarily made up of white, upper-middle-class women.

“Many African American women supported votes for women and worked for this goal within their own organizations,” says Miranda Fraley-Rhodes, Ph.D., curator of the Tennessee State Museum’s soon-to-open Ratified! Tennessee Women and the Right to Vote exhibit. “However, during this time of segregation, white suffragists often sought to marginalize them within the movement and refused to accept them as full partners.”

Despite this change in membership and mission, the movement proved to be no more effective than before. Between 1896 and 1909, over 160 legislative measures were proposed by suffragists. Women’s suffrage was put to a vote only six times — being defeated each and every time. This period would soon be referred to as “the doldrum,” or depression, of the suffrage movement.

A New Wave of Suffragists

Little did women know, however, there was a new wave of suffragists just over the horizon. Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton) made history in New York City in 1909. After researching state law and learning it was not illegal for non-voters to be poll watchers, Harriot stepped foot in the voting polls.

Her action proved to be the spark the suffrage movement so desperately needed. At the beginning of the 20th century, women began to work outside of the home, and Harriot wanted to involve them in the suffrage movement. She brought together working-class women and middle-class professionals to create The Equality League of Self-Supporting Women. As a result, the suffrage movement started gaining attention from a broader audience — women who knew how to strike and picket. Before long, women were spending hours on soapboxes, bringing the suffrage movement to the forefront so it would not be forgotten or ignored.

The introduction of Harriot Stanton Blatch (pictured) to the suffrage movement brought a new wave of women who knew how to picket and protest. Image: Wikimedia Commons

“While these are women who are working 100 years ago, they are doing the tactics that we would recognize today,” says Rebecca. “They are letter writing and protesting. They are politicking with their elected officials. They’re organizing fundraisers. They’re going out and giving lectures.”

In 1910 this hard work paid off as Washington amended its state constitution to grant women the right to vote. As hope was renewed, many women started wearing white and the famous suffrage sashes, while others headed to rallies and parades.

The “First” Protest

Despite this victory, at the end of 1912, 39 states still had not granted women the right to vote. That same year, Alice Paul (another prominent suffragist at the time) was named chairman of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee in Washington D.C. Her first task? To plan one of the first national protests in 19 years.

She organized the protest to take place in the nation’s capital on the night before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Alice knew this would be an event the nation couldn’t ignore. Press from around the U.S., important leaders, and thousands of spectators would be in attendance, giving this event the spotlight it deserved.

Pictured here is the official program for the Washington, D.C., suffrage protest organized by Alice Paul. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Although Alice initially welcomed the inclusion of Black women, there were objections from Western and Southern suffragists. The organizers stopped encouraging Black suffragists from attending and then asked them to march at the back of the parade, including nationally recognized suffragist, journalist and anti-lynching advocate, Ida B. Wells. It is reported that close to 50 Black women did march, some integrated with their professional or state delegations, and some at the back of the parade. Wells ended up joining the Illinois delegation along the parade route while Mary Church Terrell, another well known Black suffragist, marched at the back.

“It can never be stressed enough the amount of segregation that was around that time. We are taught it, we understand that, and we certainly still have our forms of segregation today,” says Rebecca. “[People] were kept in different places either by gender or by race, so this was a physical challenge of how you were going to move about and get to the place you needed to be to get something done. How do you work around that? How do you form your own clubs? How do you form your own initiatives so you can express your political agenda?”

Later that afternoon, when President Woodrow Wilson stepped off his train, he was surprised to see no one in attendance to congratulate him on his recent presidential win. Instead, everyone was watching the parade begin on Pennsylvania Avenue. Nearly 5,000 women were marching down the street behind a float that stated the “great demand.” It read, “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.”

Mary Church Terrell was a prominent Black woman within the suffrage movement, serving as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and often being the only Black woman to speak at white suffrage meetings. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Ida B Wells was an American journalist and civil rights activist. Born into slavery in Mississippi, she moved to Memphis and then to Chicago. She was outspoken about the tyranny of lynching and her support of women’s suffrage. The New York Times says she was the most famous Black woman of her time.

At the front of the Washington, D.C., parade in March of 1913 was a float displaying the “great demand.” It read, “We demand an amendment to the Constitution of the United States enfranchising the women of this country.” Image: The National Archives and Records Administration

The parade went according to plan for about four blocks, but it didn’t take long for the roughly 10,000 spectators (mostly intoxicated men) to intervene. They started to assault marchers, and police officers turned their backs on the uproar. Protesters were forced to march single file down the street, and it was only the arrival of cavalry that put an end to the violence and allowed the protesters to complete their march.

The parade ended up overshadowing the presidential inauguration the following morning, and suffragists realized they had a media frenzy on their hands. The suffragist movement finally received the momentum and attention women were hoping for.

New York’s Vote

New York suffragists — particularly Harriot Stanton Blatch — soon followed in the footsteps of Alice Paul. On February 7, 1915, New Yorkers learned a referendum would be put to vote by the New York electoral college for the first time.

While many suffragists were still focused on a federal amendment, Harriot believed in the power of New York. With a large population and electoral college, Harriot believed if New York passed the amendment, other states would have no choice but to follow. Soon, women in New York started standing in shop windows to give “voiceless speeches,” participating in marches and again doing everything they could to make people pay attention.

On the night of the vote, suffragists were optimistic, believing they had gotten through to their state and its citizens. In the end, the vote lost, serving as yet another blow to the suffrage movement. Other states with large populations soon followed, such as New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. Once again, the movement was at a crossroads as suffragists tried to decide whether they should fight on a state or national level.

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The Envoys

Nearly 67 years since the beginning of the fight for women’s rights, four suffragists piled into one vehicle to begin another new wave in the movement. As they headed east to Washington, D.C., from San Francisco, the women planned to stop for rallies, press interviews and receptions across the country.

The trip was again the work of Alice Paul, who now called upon Western enfranchised women for help. She hoped to grab the attention of the Democratic party — who occupied both the presidency and Congress houses at the time. By the time the envoy reached Washington, four Eastern states had voted to keep women disenfranchised, and even President Wilson voiced his concern to a friend, questioning who would take care of the home if women were granted the right to vote.

The Impacts of World War I

Despite another roadblock, the suffrage movement saw an opportunity for advancement when the United States entered World War I in 1917. With Carrie Chapman Catt as the new president of NAWSA, she began working to alter the perception of women. She wanted society to view suffragists as patriotic and hard-working (as many women had to fulfill the jobs of men when they went off to war). To further show her support for the U.S., Carrie sent a letter to President Wilson stating NAWSA and its millions of members would support him in the war.

As the new president of NAWSA, Carrie Chapman Catt worked to change the perception of women, wanting them to be viewed as patriotic and hard-working. Image: Library of Congress

Throughout 1917, this relationship between Carrie and President Wilson continued as they exchanged over 30 letters. Although the president remained against a federal amendment for many years, he eventually changed his stance, urging the Senate to pass the amendment for women’s suffrage on September 30, 1918.

Once again, however, the amendment failed to pass as many Southern leaders believed it would be the end of white supremacy if Black women received the right to vote. The amendment continued to sit in the Senate as Southern opponents proposed changes to limit voting rights to white women. And at the beginning of 1919, many suffragists were prepared to compromise.

Around the same time, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) applied to be a part of NAWSA. In response, Carrie Chapman Catt asked the organization to withdraw its application to help with the amendment’s passing. The NAACP agreed, but on one condition: that NAWSA pushed for the amendment as it was originally written, without modification. There would be no deal to compromise in favor of the white woman’s vote above others.

A Long-Awaited Victory

On June 14, 1919, the amendment finally passed through a new Republican-controlled Congress with just two votes more than the needed for a two-thirds majority. Suffragists immediately began lobbying for the amendment’s ratification — which required 36 of the 48 states to vote in its favor.

After nearly a year, 35 states had ratified the amendment, leaving only North Carolina and Tennessee to have the final say. In August 1920, suffragists moved to Nashville, TN, to begin lobbying. Staying in the same hotel (the Hermitage Hotel) as anti-suffragists, Carrie Chapman Catt and other suffragists felt a sense of anxiety and dread. Although the vote passed the Senate, it was delayed nine days in the House.

Tallies showed the amendment was unlikely to pass, as suffragists waited anxiously outside of the courtroom. It was 24-year-old Harry Burn who cast the deciding vote thanks to a persuasive letter from his mother.

During the summer of 1920, ratification remained uncertain. Thirty-five states had voted in favor, but one more was needed for the amendment to become law,” says Miranda. “The Tennessee General Assembly provided the critical final approval needed to ratify the 19th Amendment and secure women’s right to vote throughout the nation.”

Anti-ratification headquarters was also located at the Hermitage Hotel. Image: Nashville Public Library

This photograph was featured in the “Ratification Issue” of the Nashville Tennessean. It shows the Senate chamber as the vote for the ratification of the 19th Amendment was being counted. Image: Tennessee State Library and Archives

The ratification of the 19th Amendment came down to a vote cast by Harry Burn, who is pictured shaking hands with suffragists outside the courthouse. Image: The National Woman’s Party

Nearly 27 million Americans voted in the presidential election of November 1920. Of that, it is estimated that over 8 million women cast their ballot. The battle, however, was far from over. The 19th Amendment, “… expanded voting rights to more people than any other single measure in American history. And yet, the legacy of the Nineteenth Amendment, in the short term and over the next century, turned out to be complicated. It advanced equality between the sexes but left intersecting inequalities of class, race, and ethnicity intact … It helped women, above all white women, find new footings in government agencies, political parties, and elected offices—and, in time, even run for president—and yet left most outside the halls of power. Hardly the end of the struggle for diverse women’s equality, the Nineteenth Amendment became a crucial step, but only a step, in the continuing quest for more representative democracy.” (source) It wasn’t until 45 years later that Black men and women officially found protection for their right to vote through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which enforced their rights guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments, which also applied to women because of the 19th Amendment.

While we cannot erase our nation’s acts of oppression, we can work to understand a more accurate historical narrative — one that includes women of all backgrounds and races. Today’s article just skims the surface, but hopefully shows that there is much more to history than what we may have been taught. By acknowledging this truth, we can work to create a society where justice and equality are extended to everyone. And, we can more fully appreciate the fight for women’s suffrage and what it set up, what it did not set up, and the political activism sparked that can still be seen today.

The Nashville Public Library’s Votes for Women exhibit opens on August 18, 2020, which is the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The virtual grand opening celebration takes place on August 18, 2020, at 11:30 a.m. CST. To learn more, visit

If you are intrigued to learn more about the fight for the 19th Amendment, and the political activism that it set in place, we suggest the following articles:

Women Making History, The 19th Amendment (National Park Service, this is the PDF of their official handbook.)

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Lesson Overview

This past August, the United States celebrated 100 years of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which established American women’s right to vote. But we’re discovering that the traditional telling of the women’s suffrage movement — that it began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, was led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and ended with all women getting the right to vote in 1920 — is not the whole story.

Three museum exhibits seek to broaden that narrative. Though this article was written in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic had canceled the many yearlong exhibitions, parades and conferences planned to celebrate the centennial of suffrage, reading about these exhibits can offer a fuller picture of the fight for the 19th Amendment and teach us about the “messiness, complexities and compromises involved in any movement for social change.”

In this lesson, you’ll learn the lesser-known history of the struggle for women’s voting rights, including that of important activists, strategies and divisions in the movement.

To further explore the themes and ideas raised in this article, teachers can use our resource “19 Ways to Teach the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment,” which includes activities to help students learn a more complete history of the women’s suffrage movement, make connections to current events and find ways to “finish the fight.”

Netflix’s ‘Amend: The Fight For America’ Is Must Watch Anti-Racism Education For Corporate America

Will Smith co-executive produces and hosts the Netflix six-part docuseries Amend: The Fight for . [+] America.

Question: When did slavery end?

In January 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation or maybe December 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment?

Actually, the Thirteenth Amendment did abolish slavery—except as punishment for a crime. That latter part unfortunately provided a convenient loophole that the South exploited for nearly 80 years in order to continue to use Blacks as slave labor. By some estimates more than 800,000 Blacks found themselves “re-enslaved” under the convict leasing system that became a convenient revenue source for many southern state economies. Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery By Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II provides an excruciating account of the South’s refusal to accept the end of slavery and the extremes they would successfully use to continue to enslave Blacks for many decades after so called “emancipation.”

Question: When did Blacks secure legal protection from discrimination in places of public accommodation?

With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act which most historians credit with laregly ending Jim Crow laws?

Actually, not really. Ratified in 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment specifically included “formerly enslaved people” in the citizenship definition and included an equal protection clause that provided all citizens “equal protection under the law.” Furthermore, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 (subsequently declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883) protected all citizens from discrimination in public accommodations and facilities.

Question: What about Presidents John F. Kennedy (JFK) and Abraham Lincoln? Weren’t they fierce, ardent supporters of civil rights and racial equity—determined to bring about racial harmony?

Well….not quite. Driven by his desperation to reunite the country at all costs, Lincoln famously said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.” In the case of the beloved JFK, history shows that it was actually quite difficult to persuade President Kennedy to take action on civil rights issues. Many scholars contend that the combination of the civil rights protest induced media spectacle and growing embarrassment on the international stage amid the Cold War were much more influential in persuading him to take action on civil rights than any deep-seated moral conviction.

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But why does any of this matter? Ultimately, we as a country did the right thing (eventually) and extended these rights to all persons so why do we need to address these widely-misunderstood historical events anyway? The truth is that these long-standing historical misconceptions strike at the heart of the disconnect undergirding the current workplace anti-racism dialogue about how much action or aggression is needed—whether the “ask politely and wait” or “demand progress now” approach is best.

Executive produced by Will Smith and Larry Wilmore, Netflix’s new six-part docuseries Amend: The Fight for America artfully and unapologetically eviscerates the popular mythology that the deep moral conscience of this country forced sweeping civil rights advancements over the past four centuries. With a level of candor both refreshing and rare, the series reveals the inconvenient truth that those advances were actually realized as a result of painstaking, tireless resistance, not the result of some mythological natural inertia towards equality.

For many corporate workplaces with racial literacy levels so anemic that they can’t even have healthy, productive discussions on the topic of anti-racism, this series is must-see television.

Accompanied by a dizzying array of A-level artists, activists and scholars including Bryan Stevenson, Larry Wilmore, Samuel L. Jackson, Helen Hunt, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Laverne Cox, Mahershala Ali, Lena Waithe, Sherrilyn Ifill, Diane Lane, Pedro Pascal and Yara Shahidi, host Will Smith reminds viewers why they’ve loved and appreciated his deft talent for decades. Artfully combining the feel of both a documentary and a high-end theatrical production with soulful monologues, revealing interviews and stirring visual montages, Amend: The Fight for America feels almost like a new artform—one that commits to a radical level of both education and entertainment. The unique and compelling approach encourages the viewer to confront and accept ugly realities about our beloved America with the same profound love and affection with which one might acknowledge the very real and damaging dysfunction in their own family. Smith explains, “Our hope with this series is to illuminate the beauty that is the promise of America and to share a message of connection and shared humanity so that we will be able to better understand and celebrate our different experiences as Americans and promote progress toward the true equality promised to all persons under the 14th Amendment.”

Directors Kenny Leon and Reinaldo Marcus Green masterfully present the inconveniently unflattering yet stubbornly accurate portrayal of the country’s consistent willful divergence from the grand promise of the fourteenth amendment of the U.S. Constitution—liberty and equal protection for all persons. While the first half of the series focuses on racism against Black Americans, the latter half explores gender and LGBTQ equality along with racism against immigrants, concluding with the thought-provoking question “Who is America For?”. The genius of the series lay not just with its ability to recount this history with impressive entertainment value—from the soul stirring oratorical renditions of civil rights heroes like Frederick Douglass, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis to the hilarious comedic commentary of Larry Wilmore—but possibly more so with its stubborn insistence on digging deeper and making the real case that needs to be heard.

Racism won’t magically fix itself over time. It never has, and it never will.

Indeed, the series does what most aren’t willing to do—tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear. Clearly, rejecting the simplistic approach of retelling predictable overtold, misconstrued historical accounts—Lincoln freed the slaves, Rosa sat down and Martin stood up—the series instead leans into the truth of America’s hypocrisy on its most sacred ideals of liberty and equality. Boldly painting activist resistors as patriots instead of simplistically demonizing them, it provides space for them to tell their story offering viewers a richer, more informed and nuanced interpretation of controversial events. One such poignant example was that of Bree Newsome Bass, the North Carolina activist who scaled the South Carolina state capitol flagpole to physically remove the confederate flag ten days after a white supremacist killed eight Black parishioners and their pastor at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The New York Times article “The Woman Who Took Down a Confederate Flag on What Came Next” cites founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture Lonnie G. Bunch’s refutation of the argument that confederate flags are harmless monuments to southern heritage. “They first appeared in large numbers in the 1890s as symbols of white resistance to racial justice and as concrete manifestations of the ascendancy of racial segregation as justified by the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that legalized the concept of separate but equal, which was inherently unequal,” the article explains.

The series also introduces viewers to lesser-known but critical racial justice warriors like Bayard Rustin, close advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and arguably one of the most influential organizers of the civil rights movement. The fourth installment highlights civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray—the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest and first Black person to earn a JSD degree from Yale Law School—recounting how her legal arguments were instrumental in the fight for school desegregation and women’s and LGBTQ rights.

In a corporate ecosystem that often prefers to equate professionalism with “anti-racism” passivity and moderation, Amend: The Fight for America challenges that conventional thinking and insists that waiting for progress is in fact an oxymoron. While it’s hard for anyone to deny the inexcusable atrocity of 246 years of human bondage in the form of chattel slavery, many white Americans (in particular) perpetuate the fairy tale that while it may have been slow, there’s been a straight line of progress over the past 400 years that will ultimately result in full equality if we just wait patiently…and ask politely. In response, the series echoes the impatient spirit of Dr. King’s famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “For years now I have heard the word ‘wait,’” wrote King. “It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’”

The truth that no one wants to admit is that when it comes to America’s legacy on anti-racism and civil rights, white America rarely does the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. They too often do it only when they’re forced to as a last resort to rescue their image or protect some other obvious self-interest. As Dr. King put it, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

And that responsibility to demand progress lay not just with individuals but with corporations as well. In fact, President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Sherrilyn Ifill explains, “In the 70 years following its ratification, the 14 th amendment was more often successfully used to protect the rights of corporations than Black people. This history should be the context in which corporations see their obligations to advance diversity and inclusion measures, to adopt investment, advertising and procurement practices that support Black economic empowerment, and use their influence and investments to support Black advancement.” Ifill implores companies to take direct action. “Corporations have benefitted tremendously from the 14 th amendment. They should regard it as their duty to ensure that the Amendment’s intended beneficiaries – Black people – are positioned to receive its protections.”

Clearly, no docuseries will be a panacea for advancing anti-racism—indeed, there’s no silver bullet. But this one provides a healthy first step towards the real historical education that Corporate America so desperately needs to lay the groundwork for real progress.


On the flag of the United States, each state in the union is represented by a star. In 1919, the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul began sewing stars on a giant purple, white, and gold flag. Each time a state ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, a new star would be sewn on the flag. There was room on the National Woman’s Party flag for 36 stars, symbolizing the number of state ratifications required for the amendment to become law.

[1] National Museum of American History. "Woman Suffrage Bluebird Sign." National Museum of American History: Collections

[2] National Park Service. “Women’s Suffrage and the Cat.” National Park Service.

[3] From The Suffragist, December 6, 1913.

[5] National Museum of American History. “Treasures of American History: Woman Suffrage.” National Museum of American History

[6] Blake, Debbie. “The Colours of the Suffragettes.” Women’s History Bites, November 25, 2014.

[7] Bomboy, Scott. “The Vote that Led to the 19th Amendment.” Constitution Daily (National Constitution Center), August 18, 2019.

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