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100 Years Ago This Week, House Passes Bill Advancing 19th Amendment


This week marks the 100th anniversary of a big moment in voting rights. The House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: No, no, no, no, no granting - no granting. We had the right to vote as American citizens. We didn't have to be granted it by some bunch of guys.

INSKEEP: OK. That, we should mention, is NPR's own Cokie Roberts correcting the introduction to this story. OK - acknowledging women's right to vote, which was affirmed a little more than a year later after enough states had approved it - big milestone for women's rights and the subject of this week's Ask Cokie, our weekly chat with commentator Cokie Roberts about how politics and the government work.

Hello, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. Now that we've cleared that up...

ROBERTS: We've got it straight. OK.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) Here's our first question.

ERIN BUTLER: My name is Erin Butler and I'm - live in McMinnville, Ore. It's so hard for me to understand why women weren't allowed to vote in the first place. Can you give us context for the evolution of the perception of women in the United States? What was their reasoning a hundred years ago?

ROBERTS: Well, how nice that a modern woman can't understand it. But of course, it was the whole gamut. Women weren't capable of making decisions about voting. Virtuous women would be sullied by participating in politics. The National Association Opposed to Women's Suffrage, which was a female organization, argued that the amendment's adoption would be, quote, "an official endorsement of nagging as national policy." At the end, to overcome opposition from President Wilson on down, women had to put what was seen as unladylike pressure on the politicians, including picketing the White House.

INSKEEP: Is that what got this measure over the edge?

ROBERTS: Well, there were lots of reasons the amendment finally passed in 1919 after failing by one vote in the Senate the year before. First of all, women could vote in a handful of western states, and they were mobilized. Then the big eastern state of New York approved suffrage in 1917 and increased pressure.

But those women picketers got a great deal of attention, Steve, because the government reacted by throwing them in jail on the trumped-up charge of blocking the sidewalk. And they got longer and longer sentences. They were horribly treated, including force-feeding when they staged hunger strikes. It's not a history that most Americans know, and it's not a pretty history.

INSKEEP: Wow. Here is another listener asking about history.

BECKY MCCRAY: I'm Becky McCray from Alva, Okla. How were women of color involved in the movement? And how were they affected by the passage, especially thinking of Native American and black women?

ROBERTS: Well, that's not a pretty history either. There were African American women fighting for suffrage from the beginning. You know Sojourner Truth in the time of the Civil War. And they're famous women, like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell. But the white women running the national organizations didn't want to alienate Southern congressmen, so they shut black women out and they engaged in some blatantly racist behavior. And the story, Steve, is even grimmer for Native Americans, who weren't recognized as citizens until 1924.

INSKEEP: Here's a listener who's wondering about the effects of the passage of the 19th Amendment.

CARMEN NOVOA: Carmen Novoa, Omaha, Neb. Since the passage of the 19th Amendment and since tracking of voting began, what has been the percentage of women voting? Did women come out in droves to vote when it first passed? Has turnout for women gone up, down, plateaued?

ROBERTS: Women did not come out in droves. And those who voted did not vote any differently from men. It took until 1980 for women to vote in equal numbers to men and vote differently. But that's a subject for another day, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Cokie.

ROBERTS: Good to talk to you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Commentator and voter Cokie Roberts.

ROBERTS: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: You can ask Cokie your questions about how politics and the government work by tweeting us with the hashtag #AskCokie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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