STATEHOUSE — The Ocean State celebrated 100 years of votes for women on Monday, marking the Rhode Island Legislature’s ratification of the 19th Amendment.
Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea was joined by more than a dozen women elected officials, and many others at the Statehouse that morning, to celebrate the momentous anniversary.
“You’re here because we stand on the shoulders of so many women,” Gorbea said to audience members crowded inside the Statehouse Library. “Like any good idea, it took decades and decades of hard work and determination to accomplish.”
In Rhode Island, the first petition for women’s suffrage was submitted to the legislator in 1867 by Elizabeth Buffum Chace — 19 years after the first Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. For nearly two decades, the Rhode Island chapter of the Women’s Suffrage Association sent repeated petitions to the General Assembly before they passed the Women’s Suffrage Amendment in 1887. Despite their efforts, however, the state’s male voters failed to support the amendment in a statewide referendum.
Women in Rhode Island and across the nation were not discouraged from their efforts, however, and continued to petition their local legislators and federal delegation. By June of 1919, both houses of Congress passed the 19th amendment, guaranteeing that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The amendment still had to be passed by two-thirds, or 36 states, though.
When the Rhode Island General Assembly returned to session in January of 1920, ratification of the 19th amendment is among the first items on the legislative calendar. After passing the House and Senate in a landslide, Rhode Island became the 24th state to ratify.
“I think we can all be inspired by the persistence of those trailblazing women who worked to obtain this fundamental right,” Gorbea said.
Looking back on the momentous anniversary, Gorbea encouraged Rhode Islanders to think of all the progress that’s been made, but also the progress that’s yet to be made.
“The good news is that each of us has the power to shape our communities through our voices, our votes and our actions — that’s the beauty of living in a Democracy,” she said. “But we can only move that democracy forward if we include as many people as possible.”
Although the ratification of the 19th Amendment was a major victory, enabling millions of women to cast their votes for the first time, Gorbea noted that millions were still excluded from voting due to their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and other barriers. And while many barriers to voting have been dismantled, some still remain.
In partnership with the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities, Executive Director Elizabeth Francis and Gorbea took the opportunity on Monday to announce the launch of XIX: Shall Not Be Denied — an educational resource developed to help amplify programs, exhibitions, research and performances related to women’s suffrage.
“The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities is proud to collaborate with the Rhode Island Department of State,” Francis said. “This is an opportunity to engage with the history and achievements of the women’s suffrage movement and connect that moment to the work that still remains to ensure equal access to voting and other rights.”
Francis and Gorbea believe this anniversary is “a powerful opportunity to engage Rhode Islanders, especially our youth, in important conversations about the complex history of the women’s suffrage movement and how that history relates to their own civic engagement today.”
“We are going to need that civic engagement and spirit of the suffragettes to move things forward in our state and our country,” Gorbea said.
To help celebrate the launch of this campaign and the anniversary of Rhode Island’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, women elected officials from all corners of the state and community members from all races, ethnicities and religious backgrounds filled the room. The event, Gorbea said, called people together.
Calling on prominent female leaders from across Rhode Island in the fields of government, business and community action, Gorbea challenged those present to use their “powers and leadership abilities” to make 2020 a year of civic engagement — whether that means helping others to understand the importance of voting, getting involved with the 2020 census or serving in office themselves.
A suite of programs and activities will be offered throughout Rhode Island this year to increase civic literacy and engagement, including cash-prize competitions for elementary and middle school students.
For more information, visit https://www.shallnotbedenied.org/