Today in History: August 18

Until August 18, 1920, a woman’s right to vote was a states’ rights issue in America, determined by each individual state. In New York State and in most but not all of the states west of the Mississippi, women could vote on any issue presented on a ballot. In many states, women could only vote for president, but in some other states, women could only vote on local issues. Most of the states along the east coast completely denied women the right to vote.

In 1870, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave the vote to freed male slaves. It reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Minor v. Happersett in 1875 that the Constitution does not grant the right to vote to women, because, “if it had been intended to make all citizens of the United States voters, the framers of the Constitution would not have left it to implication. So important a change in the condition of citizenship [such as voting rights] as it actually existed, if intended, would have been expressly declared.” In other words, if the framers wanted it, they would have included it, thus we can’t. A neat syllogism.

This decision was and still is frequently cited by those interested in restricting the vote to certain privileged parties (white men), even though it was overturned several times by law and common sense in subsequent years.

In 1878, a U.S. senator from California, Aaron Augustus Sargent—who was otherwise famous for fighting against Chinese immigration—introduced a bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate that read, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” This is the sentence that became the 19th Amendment, but it was defeated that year. Each year after this for the next forty years, one senator or another would introduce this 28-word sentence as a bill and watch as it was defeated. In 1918, this changed: it passed the House and failed in the Senate by only two votes. In 1919, it passed the House and failed in the Senate by just one vote.

Times, they were a-changing. Sensing this, President Woodrow Wilson called a special session of Congress specifically to take up the cause of women’s suffrage. It passed the Senate on June 4, 1919, and went to the states for ratification. After more than a year, two-thirds of the states passed it in their legislatures; Tennessee passed it by one vote on August 18, 1920, and with that, the 19th Amendment was law.

Both of my grandmothers were born in a pre-19th Amendment nation.

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The Woodstock Music & Art Fair was scheduled to conclude on August 17, 1969, a Sunday night, but, as with all things to do with the Woodstock Festival, it did not conclude on time. The last act was heard at 9:00 a.m. Monday morning, August 18, by a much smaller crowd than had packed the venue during the weekend. It was Jimi Hendrix, and he performed from 9:00 till 11:00 a.m. He introduced his band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as “Gypsy Sun and Rainbows.” He concluded his set with “Hey Joe,” but a few songs before that he played “The Star-Spangled Banner”:

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Don Pardo died two years ago today.

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Shelley Winters was born in 1920 on this date. Roberto Clemente was born on this date in 1934. Patrick Swayze was born 64 years ago on this date.

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Brian Aldiss is 91. Rosalynn Carter is 89 today. Roman Polanski is 83. Rafer Johnson is 81. Robert Redford is 80 today. Martin Mull is 73 today. Sarah Dash is 71. Elayne Boosler is 64. Carole Bouquet is 59 today. Denis Leary is 59 today. Madeleine Stowe is 58. Bob Woodruff is 55 today. Edward Norton is 47. Christian Slater is 47. Malcolm-Jamal Warner is 46. Andy Samberg is 38.

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