An important day for women

May 21st is an important day for women in the US, because it was on that date in 1919 that the 19th Amendment, extending votes to women, was introduced to the House of Representatives. It passed by 304 to 89, well above the two-thirds required. It passed in the Senate two weeks later, by 56 to 25, two votes over the required two-thirds. It then went to the states for ratification, requiring three-quarters of them to assent before it became part of the Constitution.

Its passage was uncertain, largely because most of the Southern states opposed it - indeed, many rejected it. By March of 1920, 35 states had approved it, one short of the three-quarters needed. It came down to the wire in Tennessee where state legislators were split 48 to 48. The casting vote was left to 23-year-old Harry T. Burn, a Republican. Although initially opposed, it is reported that his mother persuaded him to “do the right thing.”

The Amendment was declared carried in August, and US women finally acquired the dignity of becoming full citizens after decades of campaigning by fearless leaders. Some 8 million women voted in the elections in November.

Women in the UK acquired similar rights in stages. The Representation of the People Act 1918, passed by a coalition government, extended the franchise to all men, and to women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications. In 1928, a Conservative government finally passed the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act giving the vote to all women over the age of 21 on equal terms with men. Women, who had been second-class citizens in almost every culture in history, could now have their say in who was to represent them in the governments of the US and the UK.

May 21st saw another symbolic event for women. On that date in 1932, Amelia Earhart landed in Northern Ireland, having flown solo from Newfoundland. In doing so, she became the first woman to repeat Charles Lindbergh’s epic achievement of 5 years earlier. She had intended to fly to Paris, but a petrol leak forced her to land in a small field in Donegal. It’s reported in the Irish Press that her first request was for a glass of after, after which she casually mentioned, “I have just flown the Atlantic.”  

There have been women members of the Senate and Congress, and of the Commons and the Lords. There have been women Presidents and Prime Ministers in several countries. There have been women high achievers, like Amelia Earhart, in many fields and, except in a few countries yet to embrace the modern world, no-one thinks anything of it. But that date, May 21st, marked a symbolic early step.