On Tuesday night, I spent a good 45 minutes waiting in line to vote. Since cell phones are prohibited in polling places, it was a good time to get some thinking done and mull over the electoral process.
It struck me that while more and more of our daily lives can be conducted online (shopping for gifts, paying bills, buying groceries, renting movies…even renewing library books), voting is one of the few activities in American culture that still must be done in person. That was why, on that dark and chilly evening, I put on a pair of sneakers, bundled up in my winter coat and hat, and walked 10 minutes up the street to a local elementary school to cast my vote.
Walking to the polling place felt a bit old-fashioned, yet somehow fitting. Voting is a communal activity, and I didn’t want to hide behind my car or my cell phone. When I arrived, I saw more of my neighbors than I had ever had before. Old, young, black, white, Asian. Men and women, union members and office workers, young twentysomethings in sweats and families bringing their kids. It was a melting pot in microcosm, it was Ellis Island on the local level.
Of course, voting hasn’t always been like this, and as a woman, I am very aware that it took decades of dedicated and pioneering effort to extend suffrage to both genders.
In fact, many of the first states to allow women to vote were Western states, where women were “pioneers” on many levels! The territory of Wyoming gave women voting rights in 1869 (I read somewhere that this was done to create better public order and curb the effects of too many rough and tumble men participating in the political process). In fact, when Wyoming became a state in 1890, it insisted on retaining suffrage for women.
Utah’s move to support women’s suffrage in 1870 is said to have been part of a PR campaign to counter perceptions of Mormonism as anti-female. Women’s voting rights there were later repealed under the Edmunds–Tucker Act, but by the time Utah became a state in 1896, women had won back their right to vote.
Montana was also an early adopter of female suffrage, giving women the right to vote in 1914. Montana then became the first state to elect a woman to Congress. Jeanette Rankin won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1917, at the age of 36. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, considering that the United States did not amend its Constitution to give women the right to vote until 1920. It really makes you wonder what her first day on the job was like when she got to Washington.
Note: New Jersey is actually the first state where women had full voting rights. After the Revolutionary War, eligibility to vote was determined by property ownership, not gender. In 1790, state law was amended to specifically state that women had the right to suffrage. In 1807, these privileges were revoked by the New Jersey state legislature.