Oct. 24, 2016 – As Americans weigh the candidacy of the first woman running for president on a major party ticket, panelists at the University of Houston Law Center recently discussed the lengthy struggle for women's suffrage that led to passage of the 19th amendment.
The "American Women Fight to Vote!" panel, held in Krost Hall, was sponsored by the Association of Women in Law, the American Constitution Society for Law, the Sports & Entertainment Law Organization, and the Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Student Group.
"The 'American Women Fight to Vote!' panel and movie showing was an especially important event due to the upcoming election," said Neeharika Tumati, president of the Association of Women in Law.
"We wanted to provide students and staff with an opportunity to reflect on the eve of this historic election. It was very meaningful to have Professor Rave and Professor Gregory speak on the history and impact of the women's suffrage movement."
Assistant Professor D. Theodore Rave began the panel discussing the methods suffragists used to gain the right to vote.
He noted that voting rights varied from state to state and nowhere in the Constitution granted citizens the right to vote. Rave said the suffragist movement picked up momentum after amendments were added to the Constitution following the Civil War.
"Shortly after the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were added to the Constitution, suffragists argued that denying women the right to vote was depriving them of the privileges and immunities of citizenship which were guaranteed by the 14th amendment," Rave said.
In the 1874 case of Minor v. Happerstett, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the suffragist's argument, ruling that the 14th amendment did not automatically make all citizens voters.
"That Constitutional status for the right to vote led the suffragists to two strategies -- they could either amend the constitution or they could go state by state and get states to adjust their laws to provide women the right to vote – there was nothing stopping the states from doing that," Rave said.
"The big coup for the state by state strategy came in 1917 in New York, which was the biggest state at the time, and it extended the right to vote to women, he said. "The more radical National Women's Party led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns went for the constitutional amendment strategy and tried to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to support the 19th amendment."
The passage of the 19th amendment in 1920 successfully overruled Minor V. Happerstett, and granted women the right to vote.
Elizabeth Gregory, a UH professor of English and director of Women's Gender & Sexuality Studies, said while progress has been made since 1920, the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton in 2016 could provide another breakthrough.
"In the 96 years since suffrage, we know that women have been advanced into a lot of spheres where they were formerly excluded," Gregory said. "Advances and changes have been made but not so much in the realm of leadership.
"We are currently right in the middle of the debate of, 'Can women lead?' For the first time we have a major party candidate that puts that up for vote."
The panel concluded with a screening of "Iron Jawed Angels," a 2004 film starring Hillary Swank as Alice Paul. Voter registration information was also made available to attendees.
Former Law Center adjunct Professor Judy Dougherty '78 also sponsored the event.
"I am on a mission right now to get people to learn the history of how women got the right to vote," Dougherty said. "What a precious gift it is to have the right to vote and to vote freely. The only way you have a voice is to vote, and each vote is so important."