How World War I strengthened women’s suffrage

Stanford Pamela S. Karlan on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during

Stanford Pamela S. Karlan on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Selma-Montgomery march for voting rights. (Image credit: Courtesy Pamela S. Karlan)

Times of crisis can be catalysts for political change, says Stanford legal scholar Pamela S. Karlan. For women activists in the early 20th century, the catalyst was World War I.

While American women had been fighting for the right to vote for decades prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, it was not until World War I that their cause for political independence regained momentum, says Stanford legal scholar Pamela S. Karlan.

As women filled jobs vacated by men fighting the war overseas, public attitudes toward women’s role in American democracy began to shift dramatically. By 1918, President Woodrow Wilson acknowledged to Congress that women’s role in the war effort was vital to the war effort, explained Karlan.

"Suffragists conscripted rhetorical claims advanced in favor of the war, and pointed to women’s key role on the home front, to bolster their arguments in favor of domestic expansion of voting rights," said Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law in an interview with Stanford News Service. "Times of crisis can be opportunities to make real progress."

The 19th Amendment

As part of the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment that granted women the right to vote, Stanford scholars reflect on this milestone in a three-part series:

Here, Karlan discusses what the 19th Amendment accomplished and the challenges that persist today. For example, while white women have encountered few legal obstacles to voting since the amendment’s ratification, Black Americans have endured persistent racial discrimination - despite the 15th Amendment’s parallel prohibition denying citizens the right to vote on account of race or color.

Karlan is one of the nation’s leading experts on voting and the political process. She has served as a commissioner on the California Fair Political Practices Commission, an assistant counsel and cooperating attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and a deputy assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Karlan is the co-author of leading casebooks on constitutional law, constitutional litigation and the law of democracy, as well as numerous scholarly articles.

What did the 19th Amendment accomplish?

The 19th Amendment guaranteed that women throughout the United States would have the right to vote on equal terms with men. Prior to the 19th Amendment, while many western states had given women the right to vote, most states east of the Mississippi River restricted the right to vote only to men.

What does the 19th Amendment symbolize to you?

It symbolizes that women in the United States are full citizens, entitled like all others to participate actively in self-government.

The franchise did not happen overnight, but through decades of campaigning by women’s suffragists. What makes constitutional change, especially the franchise, so challenging? What resistance and obstacles did these activists encounter?

The Supreme Court held, in the Minor v. Happersett case, in 1874, that the Constitution did not prohibit restricting the franchise to men. What made formal constitutional change hard to accomplish was, in part, that the existing electorate in most of the country was entirely male and the mechanism for formally amending the Constitution runs through existing legislative bodies - many of which were entirely, or predominantly, elected by men. What made changes in constitutional interpretation - for example, in interpreting the equal protection clause - so difficult, was that public attitudes often treated women as less rational and independent than men, and therefore less qualified to participate in public affairs.

What might activists today learn from the suffrage movement?

Sometimes, activists don’t recognize that times of crisis can be opportunities to make real progress. The suffrage movement seemed stalled by the first decade of the 20th century. But World War I changed the dynamic and ultimately strengthened the suffrage movement. The industrial demands of modern war meant that women moved into the labor force and contributed to the war effort on the home front. In 1918, President Wilson, who had ignored suffrage completely in his 1916 address to Congress, gave an address in which he supported suffrage "as a war measure," noting that the war could not be fought effectively without women’s participation.

"Constitutional change comes about through people... pressing for their rights."

--Pamela S. Karlan

The Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law

What did the 19th Amendment fail to accomplish, and what can be done to continue to promote the franchise among voters?

In narrow terms, the 19th Amendment was stunningly successful, especially in comparison to the 15th Amendment, which in essentially identical language forbid denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color. White women throughout the U.S. have faced very few legal barriers to voting since the amendment’s ratification. By contrast, racial discrimination in voting - the form of discrimination prohibited by the 15th Amendment - persisted in a prevalent and explicit form for essentially a century, essentially denying Black women in the South the right to vote until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And even today we continue to see all kinds of barriers to full and equal participation by minority citizens.

The United States has a decentralized, politicized system for regulating the franchise that stands in sharp contrast to most other developed democracies. We need to enact laws with real teeth in them that enable every citizen to register, to cast a ballot and to have that ballot counted.

What do you tell your students about the 19th Amendment?

I often start my Constitutional Law course with two things - a short video of the House of Representatives opening its session by reading the Constitution, in which Rep. John Lewis was invited to read the 13th Amendment, and an excerpted version of the opinion in Minor v. Happersett. This is designed to remind them that there are many methods of interpreting the Constitution - Minor showcases them all - and that constitutional change comes about through people - some of them, like Lewis, younger than my students even - pressing for their rights outside the courts.


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