August 26, 1920 was the day that American women finally got the right to vote. It took a long, hard fight to win this right. Let’s celebrate!
Everybody counts in applying democracy. And there will never be a true democracy until every responsible and law-abiding adult in it, without regard to race, sex, color or creed, has his or her own inalienable and unpurchasable voice in government. -Carrie Chapman Catt
We can’t read the newspaper or watch the news these days without hearing about the desperate struggle of Egyptian people to get a government that will rule democratically. Americans are inclined to be a little smug about the way we set about separating from England and establishing our own democracy. After all, we had those enlightened gentlemen in elegant clothes sitting decorously at a table and writing a document that would stand for centuries as the cornerstone of a stable democracy.
A closer look back at our revolutionary leaders gives us a better grasp of reality. I’ve been reading a biography of Mercy Otis Warren, who, like her good friend Abigail Adams, influenced many of the men who fought in the Revolution. Mercy and John Warren’s home became a meeting place for leaders who organized the Boston Tea Party and fought for the rights of the colonies to organize their own governments. Even though women were not encouraged to participate in public life, Mercy Warren began writing pamphlets and satirical verses and dramas that supported the Revolutionary cause.
At leisure then may G[eor]ge his reign review,
And bid to empire and to crown adieu.
For lordly mandates and despotic kings
Are obsolete like other quondam things. (1775)
The years following the Revolution brought little peace to Mercy Warren and her husband as they disagreed with many of the decisions of the Federalists who controlled the government. James Warren, who had been a leading figure in the war for independence, was shut out of government service and his sons struggled to find posts.
When a new constitution was drafted and presented to the states, Mercy Warren opposed its ratification. She wrote a pamphlet “Observations on the New Constitution…” in which she urged the states to reject the draft. One of her major objections was the lack of a bill of rights “There is no provision by a bill of rights to guard against the dangerous encroachments of power” she wrote. She was also concerned about the six-year terms given to senators. “A Senate chosen for six years will, in most instances, be an appointment for life…” (Well, she was right about that, wasn’t she? Many Senate terms have lasted for a generation or more.) She worried that there were no defined limits to judiciary powers and that the executive and legislative branches were dangerously blended together. The Constitution certainly did not seem a sacred document to her.
As we all know, the Constitution was ratified and has become the basis of American law. Some of Mercy Warren’s concerns were addressed very early. The passage of the Bill of Rights can be attributed in part to her demands. Other aspects of government continue to be addressed such as the power struggle between the Legislative and Executive branches. But the Constitution survives and so does the country.
Reading about the early struggles for democracy in America can give us some hope for the several countries around the world that today are moving down the same path. Perhaps they too will eventually find a way of building a democracy. Revolution is never easy, and it never solves all of a society’s problems, but we can’t give up hope that eventually most citizens will join together to build a livable country.
If you want to read more about Mercy Otis Warren, there is information about her in Cokie Roberts’s book Founding Mothers. For a complete biography, I highly recommend Muse of the Revolution: the Secret Pen of Mercy Otis Warren by Nancy Rubin Stuart.
Twenty years ago this month Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a Supreme Court justice and ever since then she has been making history. Her opinions, whether in agreement or dissent on a wide range of cases have kept the Court on an even balance over the years.
Media pundits have been talking and writing about Ginsburg’s legacy and they often seem surprised that at the age of 80 she is still going strong in her demanding job. But there is one factor that no one has mentioned so far that might have improved her vitality and her long-lived success. She went to Cornell University, graduating in 1954, not too far off from the year I graduated from Cornell. In those days men far outnumbered women at the university, and one of the popular folk beliefs among the men was that coeds lost their good looks because they had to climb the hills of Ithaca to go to classes. It was said that our legs became too muscular and we looked more like athletes than “real women”. Well, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and all of the women of our generation who are still alive and participating in the world, were probably strengthened by all that walking on those snowy hills. Justice Ginsburg regularly goes to the gym and is reputed to be strong and fit. Perhaps the world owes a vote of thanks to the good start she got on the hills of Ithaca.
Of course physical vitality is only a tiny part of Justice Ginsburg’s many extraordinary attributes. She proved herself a brilliant lawyer and a staunch advocate of the rights of women and of all citizens to equal treatment before the law. Unlike some justices, she does not believe that the Constitution is an unchanging text set in stone, but rather a document written by humane leaders setting forth the basic principles of democratic government. As the world and society changes, Justice Ginsburg’s view of the Constitution is not bound by the 18th century meaning of words but rather by the deepest values of our ever-changing population.
Let’s all wish Justice Ginsburg a happy anniversary of service and hope that she continues to add her valuable voice to the Supreme Court for many more years!