The Key to Liberty

The key to liberty? The right to vote. The midterm elections are almost upon us. Four hundred and seventy seats in the U.S. Congress (35 Senate seats and all 435 House seats) are up for election on November 6. Not to mention local and state elections all around the country. The rhetoric is fierce, political commercials dominate the airwaves, and negative campaigning abounds in both parties.

Nevertheless, the right to vote is the key to liberty and a democratic society. My hope and prayer is that every American who is eligible will either vote by absentee ballot or show up at their polling location on November 6. Gary and I sent in our absentee ballots last week because we will be at the Council of Bishops meeting on November 6.

Did you know that in 1776, the official beginning of the United States, voting was controlled by individual state legislatures? Only white males age 21 and older who owned land were allowed to vote. Almost a hundred years later, in 1870, the 15th amendment to the Constitution eliminated racial barriers to voting for males. However, women and Native Americans were still denied the right to vote. In addition, poll taxes, literacy tests, fraud, and intimidation prevented many from voting who were eligible.

I have become fascinated with the story of the fight for women’s voting rights in America because the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment to the Constitution will be upon us in 1920. I am particularly interested because in 1920, my grandmother was 28-years-old. She was a bit of a rebel, and I regret that I never had a chance to ask her what she thought about the right of women to vote. I would encourage you to read Elaine Weiss’ 2018 book, The Women’s Hour; The Fight to Win the Vote, which tells the story of the fierce battle that ensued in Nashville TN, the battleground of the 19th amendment.

In the 19th century, women began advocating for the abolition of slavery in the south. Lucretia Mott founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 and led the delegation of women to the 1840 World AntiSlave Convention in London. In 1848, Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton decided to call a convention for women’s rights at a Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls NY, with assistance from former slave and great friend to women, Frederick Douglass. Weiss summarizes Douglass’ arguments, “The ballot is the guarantor of all other rights and the key to liberty.” Three hundred women showed up, and a suffrage resolution was passed by a small minority.[i]

Full voting rights for women were still many years away, however. In 1920, after 72 years of constant advocating, women became more confident and assertive and enjoyed more opportunities, yet they were still second-class citizens. The struggle of women was not only political, but it was moral, social, cultural, and religious as well. Wealthy, powerful men were threatened by the courage of women, and pastors often condemned women from the pulpit for their boldness in speaking out. In addition, racism and sexism were intertwined in the struggle for the vote.

©Paul Thompson/Getty Images

Momentum for women’s voting rights continued to build during the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1919, the 19th amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote, passed the U.S. House and Senate. Now it had to be ratified by two-thirds of the state legislatures in order to go into effect.

36 states were needed to ratify the 19th amendment, and by the summer of 1920, 35 states had approved it. Tennessee now became the battleground for one of the greatest fights in US history: the right of women to vote. If the Tennessee legislature ratified the 19th amendment (popularly called the Susan B. Anthony amendment, after another great social reformer and women’s rights activist), 23 million women would be eligible to vote in the November 1920 presidential election.

Three different women’s organizations were in Nashville to advocate for their cause. “Antis” were against women’s suffrage, and “Suffs” were advocates for women’s right to vote. Carrie Chapman Catt was president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. Catt grew up as Carrie Lane and lived on a farm in Iowa. When Carrie was 13, she watched her father, brother, and their farmhands go off to town to vote. She also knew that her mother was smarter and had greater political instincts than any of them. Yet they were eligible to vote, and her mother wasn’t.

Catt graduated from Iowa Agricultural College and, at age 24, became the superintendent of schools in Mason City, Iowa. Eventually, Catt devoted her life to women’s voting rights and traveled the country advocating and organizing. The other “Suff” organization was the National Women’s Party. This radical wing of the suffrage movement was led by Sue White. Unfortunately, rather than cooperate and collaborate, the two suffrage organizations often competed against each other.

The third organization was the Tennessee Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage, led by President Josephine Pearson. Their opposition to voting rights for women was based on arguments such as “Is the US ready for women to be equal citizens?” and “A woman’s place is in the home as wife and mother.” The men had their own arguments. “The Bible prohibits women from being in leadership over men.” “Women are too irrational, emotional, sentimental, and not intellectual enough.” “Only those who must bear arms should be allowed to vote.” And, “I’d rather see my daughter in a coffin than at the polls.”

On August 13, 1920, after intense lobbying on both sides, the Tennessee legislature affirmed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by a single vote, and women were given the right to vote. It was the Women’s Hour. On August 26th, the 19th Amendment entered the Constitution. Consider the next 64 years.


  • In 1924, Native Americans were given the right to vote.
  • The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 guaranteed that all men and women, 21 and older, could vote regardless of race, religion, or education.
  • In 1965, the Federal Voting Rights Act banned literacy tests and mandated translation of materials where there are a large number of non-English speaking citizens.
  • In 1971, the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age to 18.
  • In 1984, the federal Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act required polling places to be accessible to people with disabilities.

Women continue to make great strides as we approach the 100th anniversary of voting rights for women. We’re not there yet, however.

  • Women comprise 20% of the House and Senate.
  • Three of nine Supreme Court justices are women.
  • Women are presidents of 25% of American colleges and universities.
  • Women in ministry earn 20% less than male counterparts.
  • 17 of the 66 active United Methodist bishops are women.
  • In 1980, the first woman, Marjorie Matthews, was elected and consecrated as a bishop in The United Methodist Church. In 1984, the first African-American woman, Leontine T. Kelly was elected and consecrated as a bishop. In 2005, Rosemarie Wennerwas the first women to be elected bishop outside the United States. And in 2008, Joaquina Filipe Nhanala was the first woman to be elected bishop on the African continent and serves the Mozambique Episcopal Area.

Still today, the ballot is the guarantor of all other rights and the key to liberty. So, head for the polls on November 6 and let your voice be heard!


[i]Elaine Weiss, The Women’s Hour; The Great Fight to Win the Vote, 2018, Kindle edition, p. 50.

3 thoughts on “The Key to Liberty

  1. Thank you, Bishop Laurie, for reminding of the obligation to vote and the struggle for
    African-Americans women, and Native Americans to secure that right. We are,called to inform ourselves and vote as people faith and Anericans.

  2. Thanks you for this informative essay. Linda and I just returned from a trip to New York and one of the stops was Women’s Rights National Park in Seneca Falls, New York. It was all very uplifting and I was happy to learn that the Wesley Chapel played a role in this struggle. The restored chapel is just east of the museum and a window frames a view of it making it park of the commemoration of this important history.

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