2020 Susan G. Butruille

The most magnificent July 4 celebration in history featured much more than fireworks, and five intrepid women crashed the party. The scene was the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Nearly 9 million visitors from all over the world attended the six-month-long celebration of our nation's independence.

Among the 9 million were five women who, months earlier, had requested time on the official Independence Day program to present their Declaration of the Rights of the Women of the United States on behalf of the National Woman Suffrage Association. The group's leader, Susan B. Anthony, four years earlier had attracted national attention when she was brought to trial for voting "illegally" as a citizen of the United States. The Declaration listed numerous grievances. Among them were denial of the right to vote, denial of the right to trial by a jury of peers (which Susan B. Anthony experienced), taxation without representation, unequal codes of law, denial of property rights, and other rights.

The women planned only to summarize their four-page Declaration, and to have it conveyed to President of the United States for posterity. The Centennial Commission denied their request: "[I]t would be the event of the day - the topic of discussion to the exclusion of all others," the women were told. In other words, ladies, don't steal the show.

Using the platform passes offered by the commission, the five women were there on July 4 to observe the official ceremony. As the final speaker finished reading the entire Declaration of Independence, Susan B. Anthony and the others rushed the speaker's platform and handed their Declaration to the startled master of ceremonies. Then they marched through the audience, handing out copies along their way to an empty platform. There they read the entire Declaration of the Rights of Women of the United States to the gathering crowd, concluding with these words:

"[W]e declare our faith in the principles of self-government; our full equality with man in natural rights; that woman was made first for her own happiness, with the absolute right to herself . . . and we deny that dogma of the centuries . . . that woman was made for man - her best interests, in all cases, to be sacrificed to his will. . . . We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever."

It would take another 44 years of struggle simply to win voting rights for most women across the nation in 1920. Yet voting rights still were not universal, then or now. Law and custom, violence and intimidation still denied the right to vote to large numbers of people of color, including Black people, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Chinese and other Asians. Throughout the 20th century, a patchwork of laws granted voting rights to various groups. By 1965, the civil rights movement had led finally to the Voting Rights Act, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.

Voting rights remain under threat. The 2010 Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act by reversing restrictions on campaign finance spending, allowing unlimited funding by corporations and other outside groups.

In 2013, the Supreme Court further gutted the Voting Rights Act by restricting enforcement mechanisms. With few or no restrictions on their actions, many states and counties, particularly those with high numbers of minority voters, have taken steps to suppress votes under the guise of combatting "voter fraud" (which rarely occurs). Voter suppression tactics include widespread gerrymandering, restrictive voter ID laws, precinct closings, purging of voter rolls, Sunday voting closures. During a pandemic, one would expect our officials to make voting easier, faster, safer, and inclusive.

I believe the five women who crashed the Independence Day party might be quoting the words commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

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