19th Amendment Passed (1919):
Religion and Women’s Rights
It was on this date, June 4, 1648, that Margery Jones, a Quaker of Charlestown, became the first woman in Massachusetts to be executed explicitly for being a witch – that is, for dispensing healing herbs. Bay Colony Governor John Winthrop wrote in his diary: “Her behavior at the trial was very intemperate, lying notoriously, and railing upon the jury and witnesses, etc. and in like distemper she died. The same day and hour she was executed there was a very great tempest at Connecticut, which blew down many trees, etc.”
That was nothing like the tempest over woman suffrage that took 70 years to subside: On this date, June 4, 1919, the words, “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” were written into the Constitution. The so-called “Susan Anthony Amendment” passed the Senate 56 to 25, or two votes more than the two-thirds majority necessary for the Senate to adopt an alteration to the Constitution. The Amendment was then sent to the states for ratification by a three-fourths majority. Tennessee took the honor of becoming the final state to ratify the 19th Amendment — by a one-vote majority – on 19 August 1920.
Although the agitation for woman suffrage reached fever pitch in the 50 years before final victory, and the first meeting of women to discuss getting the right to vote occurred as early as 1848, the struggle really dated from the nation’s founding. “If women are not represented in this new republic,” Abigail Adams wrote her husband, John Adams, “there will be another revolution.” The United States was in fact bringing up the rear in the civilized world on women’s rights. By this date in 1919, the following countries already allowed women to vote: New Zealand, 1893; Australia, 1902; Finland, 1906; Norway, 1907; Iceland, 1913; Denmark, 1915; Russia, 1917; Canada, Austria, England, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Scotland, and Wales, 1918.
What was the role of religion in winning this basic civil right? The 19th Amendment was named for Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), who co-authored a History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1887), with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826-1898), and who co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association. Anthony was an Agnostic. Stanton, who answered in the negative in her essay “What Has Christianity Done for Women?”, and Gage, author of Woman, Church and the State (1893), were also Agnostics. So were Fanny Wright (1795-1852), Susan B. Anthony biographer Ida Husted Harper (1851-1931), Ernestine Rose (1810-1882), Lucy Colman (1817-1906), Lydia Child (1802-1880), Helen Hamilton Gardener (1853-1925), Eva Ingersoll-Brown, and 90 percent of the rest of the early leaders – and also, perhaps, 50 percent of today’s leaders.
It is a fact of feminist history, as of all social progress, that the movement began with heretics and, after it caught on with the public, was adopted or co-opted by the churches. So the churches sometimes end up on the wining side of the battle – after the battle has been won by Freethinkers! But now that women can vote, it will be more difficult to burn them as witches…
Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.