The Constitution of the United States is a very revered and respected document. It is the pentultimate document for our country that provides the foundation for our way of life. To proclaim that one part of this august document is any more important than another part is very difficult, but not impossible. One simply has to look at the freedoms granted to us in the Constitution to understand the importance of what it means to be free. Furthermore, the rights granted to us by the Constitution and its amendments serve to drive our democracy. By understanding and analyzing the Constitution along with its amendments, one may start to uncover the one component that has shaped me both as an American citizen and as a woman. I believe therefore, that the most important part of the United States Constitution centers around equality, and more importantly, women’s rights.
When our founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they did not use the women nor did they limit the rights or privileges of American citizens to simply those who were males. Instead, they used the gender neutral word “persons.” Since our common law was inherited from British law, individual states interpreted the law to apply to only men. Combine with that the fact that the principle of coverture governed how women were treated during this time period (a woman was not a person in the eyes of the law, and was totally dependent on her husband for things legally speaking), and one has a recipe for the general repression of women. In 1868, the Constitution began to change to meet the growing needs of women to be independent.
The first change to the United States Constitution that directly affected women’s rights was the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. Although this amendment’s original intent was to overturn the Dred Scott decision, it served to also provide an equal protection clause for voters. An onslaught of cases that were adjudicated during this time period called on the Fourteenth Amendment for protection. Myra Bradwell took the state of Illinois to court in 1873 on the auspices of the Fourteenth Amendment, but was struck down when the judge said that her right to practice law was not protected and that a woman’s role was to serve as wife and mother. In Minor versus Happerset in 1875, the women’s suffragist movement used the Fourteenth Amendment as justification for voting.
As the cases continued to mount and women continued to test the boundaries of the Constitution, the suffragist were beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. In 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by enough of the states to make it official. This amendment finally gave women what they had been working towards for so long-the right to vote. This is especially near and dear to my heart since my great grandmother was part of the suffragist movement and was one of the first women to cast a vote in an election. This amendment was a major milestone for women since it put them on the same level as men when deciding the future of our country.
Women were far from satisfied with sitting on their laurels. They realized that there was much work to be done and that being granted the right to vote was merely the beginning of what would become a nationwide push for equal rights. In 1923, Alice Paul wrote what would later be called the Equal Rights Amendment. It did not pass Congress, however, until 1972. Congress gave the states seven years to ratify it, but it fell three states short of the required 38 states needed for ratification. Since scholars challenged the legality of time constraints on the ratification of the amendment, it is still viable for ratification.
Women have worked diligently towards a goal of garnering equal rights. Using the Constitution and its amendments a framework, women nationwide have called upon politicians to do what is right and extend equality to all mena nad women as our forefathers originally intended.