“Votes for women” was a rallying cry for suffragists during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Women finally achieved that right when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finalized on August 26, 1920.

Women and men are rallying again to celebrate the centennial year of the passage of women’s right to vote in our constitution and strengthen election laws so that every citizen will be assured that right. The League of Women Voters and the Delta Sigma Theta sorority invite everyone to kickoff the 2020 celebrations. The event is scheduled for 5-7 p.m. October 17 at the West Huntington library. Refreshments will be served.

When the U.S. Constitution was adopted, there was no reference to allowing free American men and women of all colors the right to vote. The states determined eligibility, and some states and territories did allow women to vote. Article 1 Section 4 allows the Congress to make laws on elections, but it took the 15th and 19th amendments to say that all citizens had the right to vote.

It was not an easy path to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the July 1848 Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. The convention passed the Declaration of Sentiments that included the first public appeal for the rights of women to vote. Suffragists were often put at odds with their husbands and families. Some were militant and some were more restrained.

Years of meeting, appealing, protesting, writing, lobbying, marching, crusading before the White House and even going to jail finally convinced Congress that eligible voters should also include women. Before the 19th Amendment was passed, some states and territories had allowed women to vote, but the 19th Amendment assured all women in the United States the right to vote.

The West Virginia Legislature passed ratification on March 10, but it still took more states for passage. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee Legislature passed the 19th Amendment. This vote gave the two-thirds majority of states needed to ratify a constitutional amendment. On August 26, 1920, the U.S. secretary of state certified the ratification. August 26 is now known as Women’s Equality Day.

After the Civil War, the passage of the 15th Amendment gave African American men the right to vote, but not women. Although ratified in 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century when the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed in Congress.

At first the amendment was enforced, but after Reconstruction ended in 1877, many of the southern states established barriers such as the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation, and other means. Other ethnic groups, including Native Americans, were kept from voting in some states. And after the passage of the 19th Amendment, voting rights still were not enforced in certain states. It took the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to correct that travesty.

But in 2013 along came the Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County v. Holder. It negated many of the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Following this court decision, more than 16 states passed bills that made it more difficult for African Americans and other communities of color to access the ballot box.

These obstacles led to an increase of voting rights challenges aimed at finding alternative ways to protect the stripped provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Fast forward to 2019. HR 1, “For the People Act,” passed the House and is waiting action in the Senate. It will make voting easier and more accessible by modernizing our elections and putting power back in the hands of the American voters. HR 4, the “Voting Rights Advancement Act,” was introduced in the House of Representatives to restore protections to the Voting Rights Act. It would modernize the coverage formula overturned by the Supreme Court. It would also require nationwide notification of voting changes, promote transparency, and allow voters to have the right information about what is needed to vote before Election Day.

Other efforts to improve our elections are measures to ban political gerrymandering. While we celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment, we must also work continually to protect the right to vote, such as HR 1, HR 4 and fair redistricting would give.

Let’s all look for opportunities in the Huntington area to celebrate the 19th Amendment centennial and work to protect the right to vote. We can start celebrating at our kickoff on October 17.

Helen Gibbins is president of the League of Women Voters of the Huntington Area.

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