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A Little History Lesson

Hello,

You are reading this after November 3, 2020 (Election Day), but I drafted this on the eve of the 2020 presidential election and finalized it the day after. As I'm sending this out, yes, we are still unsure who the President will be for the next four years. Even so, I have faith in our system and Americans. I hope you do too!


This is the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. As a woman, I felt like voting was my way to pay tribute to all of the people (both men and women) who rallied to make it possible for me to have this right. Yet, here I am so many generations removed from when women had to fight to vote, and rather than feeling like it’s a privilege to protect, being able to vote is an act that can be very easily taken for granted. It is easy to forget how we got here. With that, I wanted to share a little history lesson this week.

I’ll start with my personal history. For many years, I saw the world and the people in it in very simplistic ways. You were good or you were bad. My understanding of how things operated was binary and easy. I learned that the Pilgrims came to America in 1620 and landed on Plymouth Rock. Their life was hard but it was worth it because they were able to practice their religion without persecution. The Pilgrims laid the foundation on which this country was built. The Colonists carried on that tradition and created the laws which we still practice today. These laws were penned in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and The Bill of Rights. Americans were people who worked hard and through that hard work became successful. This was the neat and tidy framework of civic understanding that I had.

More recently, I see the world and the people in it in very nuanced ways. No one is wholly good or bad. My understanding of how things operate is multi-dimensional and complex. I learned that the Pilgrims did come to American for religious freedom but were hypocritical in their willingness to allow others to practice religions that differed from theirs. The article, “Freedom of Religion,” from History.com, explains:

“The Puritans and Pilgrims arrived in New England in the early 1600s after suffering religious persecution in England. However, the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony didn’t tolerate any opposing religious views. Catholics, Quakers and other non-Puritans were banned from the colony.”

In fact, when I was a high school English teacher, I taught my students about this hypocrisy through the play The Crucible—written in the 1950s but set in Puritanical Salem, Massachusetts. This play mocks the McCarthy Era witch hunt for Communists. We also read The Scarlet Letter, written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great-great grandson of John Hathorne, the judge who presided over the Salem Witch Trials and condemned the “witches” to death. Interestingly, Nathaniel Hawthorne was also related to “a number of the accused witches from the Salem Witch Trials: Mary and Philip English, John Proctor and Sarah Wilson, as well as one of the accusers: Sarah Phelps” writes Rebecca Beatrice Brooks on her website, “History of Massachusetts Blog.”

Fast forwarding to the 1770s, of course I understood the Boston Tea Party’s battle cry of “No taxation without representation” was about the colonists being taxed but not having a seat in the British government. However (and don’t be too critical when you read this next part), I didn’t have a full grasp until recently that our Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, etc.—were people who engaged in civil war with their own government since the United States was a British colony. Civil war! I’d never thought of the Revolutionary War as British citizens fighting against British citizens. These people who became the framers of the United States were a motley crew of disgruntled colonists. Of course, if they had not won the Revolutionary War, the way we look at and what we call that war in the colonies would have been very different.

Not only was my understanding of the earliest years of our country simplistic and incomplete, my knowledge of the evolution of our laws was too. With regard to voting, did you realize that nowhere in our foundational documents did the Founding Fathers specify who could vote? This is why, if we’re looking at a timeline, in 1789 when George Washington was elected, different states had different laws regarding suffrage; most (but not all) states only permitted white, male property owners to vote. Nicki Beaman Griffin’s TED-Ed video (see below) explains that in the 1820s and 30s, there was a desire to create “universal suffrage” that would allow white males who did not own property the ability to vote. This desire was supported by westward expansion of states and the first “common man” president, Andrew Jackson.



In 1861, the 15th Amendment was passed which said the right of citizens of the US to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the US or any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude,” thereby granting voting rights to black men—at least on paper. We know that there were many barriers erected to circumvent the law and prevent black men from voting. That same era saw the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights held in 1848. Nevertheless, it took nearly forty additional years before the women’s suffrage moment started gaining real traction and another thirty years of battles before women were permitted to vote based on the 19th Amendment which, as I wrote earlier, passed in 1920—100 years ago.

The story behind the story of the 19th Amendment was the way that white women were pitted against people of color (both men and women) in the pursuit to gain voting rights. There was an overt conflict whereby only one group, either white women or black men, were going to be allowed to vote. In fact, two of the major leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, i.e., Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were vocally opposed to the passage of the 15th Amendment. They horrifically felt that educated white women should surely have the right to vote before uneducated and previously enslaved black men (watch the video “What You Need to Know About Women’s Suffrage | Now This”). It was a philosophical, political, and social trap; an “either/or” scenario of the worst kind when there could and should have been a mutual belief in the power of “and/both.” The Anti-Defamation League’s “Women’s Suffrage, Racism and Intersectionality” lesson plan summarizes this conflict, stating:

Racism became a factor, causing strife amongst coalitions of white and Black women leading to divisiveness within the women's suffrage movement. After the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 granted African-American men the right to vote, some leading activists opposed the amendment and prioritized white women’s suffrage over voting rights for all women. When the 19th Amendment passed, women of color were still unable to vote.”

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1960s that black women were able to vote. As Brent Staples wrote in July 2018 in the New York Times, “It would take another half-century—and a new suffrage campaign, with black women in a leading role—before that black community was fully enfranchised, through the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

If you’re keeping track, in 1620 a group of people who were such zealots about their own rights landed in what we now call Massachusetts. They hypocritically cast out and killed others for their beliefs. In the 1820s, two hundred years later, a group of people who proudly claimed the title of “American” fought to expand voting rights. These Americans, however, were still more than comfortable limiting that right to just white men and disregarded women and all people of color (not to mention enslaved people, but that’s a letter all by itself). Another two hundred years later in 2020, we have our own issues.


Let's not forget in this history lesson other stops along the way though. In the 1760s and 70s the people who came to be known as Americans hoped for a better future and risked everything to achieve that. Two hundred years later in the 1960s and 70s plenty of Americans believed in equality for themselves and others and marched, protested, burned bras, and broke glass ceilings. In 2020, in the midst of COVID and the BLM movement, Americans made dozens of masks to share with those in need, used social media to share ideas with the world about a willingness to continue to ban together for equality, and voted in rates that are projected to break a nearly 60-year record (Washington Post). Yes, Americans are hypocrites, narcissists, and bigots. We are also philanthropists, innovators, and purveyors of hope.


In the musical Hamilton, after the Revolutionary War is won, George Washington cautions Alexander Hamilton, "Winning is easy, young man, governing is harder.” The reality is that most ideas like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are complicated, challenging to achieve, and hard to classify. Being an American doesn’t mean we don’t disagree or that we don’t have conflict, it certainly doesn’t mean that we always get it right or that we stop trying. Our democracy was never supposed to be about perfection, it’s supposed to be about enacting the rights outlined in those documents we hold so dear.

Just like my understanding of history has evolved, so has my understanding of the present. We live in what is considered to be the longest continuous democracy currently in existence (click here to read a fascinating post about democracies, “The World’s Oldest Democracies” by Jeff Desjardins on the World Economic Forum website). We are privileged to live in a country that allows us to not only share our thoughts with others and hear theirs, but to have a voice in what happens. The US is a democratic country that allows every registered voter to vote. This is not just a right, but a reason why we continue to support other countries around the world with military and financial support in the hope that they will remain and/or become democratic. Certainly a lot can be said about how imperfect our system is—both historically and presently—and there is so much that can be done to make it better. That is why I vote. Voting is the ultimate exercise of one’s rights in a democratic society—rights that so many have fought so hard for us to have.

~Heather

P.S. Please remember to...

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