June 26, 2015 is a historic day for human rights in the United States. Marriage equality has been achieved in all 50 states. But history will probably forget the fact that prior to today’s ruling, 38 states had some form of marriage equality.
Things are similarly confusing when it comes to the issue of how women gained the right to vote in the United States. Think all American women couldn’t vote until 1920? Think again. Much like marriage equality, the fight for women’s suffrage started at the state level.
Our hodge-podge system of governance (otherwise known as federalism) grants states a whole lot of power, provided those powers adhere to the highest laws in the land. Many states allowed women the right to vote prior to 1920, just as many states allowed gay couples to marry before today’s historic ruling.
As just one example, in 1869 the territory of Wyoming granted full voting rights to women. After it became a state, that same right was extended in 1890. The 19th Amendment, which gave women in all 50 states the right to vote, wasn’t ratified until 1920.
In fact, most American states allowed some voting rights for women before 1920. Twenty-one states didn’t allow women to vote in any elections shortly before the 19th Amendment was finally ratified in August of 1920.
Today, we often forget that fact, just as history will probably forget the long hard fight for marriage equality that saw its first victory at the state level in 2003 when Massachusetts first permitted same-sex marriages. These facts take nothing away from the significance of both the 19th Amendment and today’s ruling, but it does illustrate just how hard it can be talk about the history of certain achievements in America.
This was an important day for all Americans, and June 26, 2015 has earned an important place in the history books. But our current system (and our obsession with the concept of “states’ rights”) often means that some fundamental freedoms arrive for Americans piecemeal rather than all at once.
Photo: Protest for women’s suffrage outside the White House in 1918 via AP