The right to vote is essential in any democracy. This is a value Americans share with Armenians and one that must be protected and preserved. The concept that every citizen gets a voice in electing their leaders is so cherished that, for centuries, people around the world have fought and even died to attain or preserve that right. The world witnessed history-making examples of civic activism during the Velvet Revolution in April 2018 which led to Armenians exercising their right to vote during the snap elections held in December 2018.
Some of you may be surprised to learn that when the U.S. Constitution was first adopted in 1789, though it created a government for “We, the People,” it did not specify which people were allowed to vote for the new government – it was left to each state to decide. At the time, most states restricted voting to white male property owners, though some also allowed non-white men to vote, as long as they met the property requirement.
After the Civil War in the 1860s, the United States moved to standardize voting rights nationwide. The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted non-white men and freed male slaves the right to vote – though southern states found ways to suppress the rights of black and poor white voters.
Of course, this still left half of the adult U.S. population without a voice in the election of their leaders. In fact, it was another fifty years before the Constitution was changed to grant women the right to vote. This year marks 100 years since the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect, marking the culmination of a nearly 80-year battle for women’s suffrage (a fancy word for “the right to vote.”) A central figure in that lengthy fight for equality was Susan B. Anthony, one of the first American “suffragettes.”
Today, February 15, 2020, is Susan B. Anthony’s 200th birthday. Not only was she a key figure in the fight for equal rights for women, but she also actively worked to end slavery in the United States. And, while she died 14 years before her lifelong goal was officially codified in the U.S. Constitution, she is widely regarded as a pivotal part of organizing the women’s movement – which she pursued for more than 50 years.
It was not until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Jim Crow laws, which discriminated against black voters, were eliminated. Just as with women’s suffrage, the Voting Rights Act came as a result of years of toil, thanks to civil rights heroes like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, but also because of millions of regular Americans who banded together to fight for equality for all. Next month we will mark the 55th anniversary of the famous march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama – a landmark in the American civil rights movement that directly led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Change can be slow, the road to equality is a long one. But, as the Susan B. Anthonys of the world show us, change does not happen if the people do not show up to fight for it. In a true democracy, the people have to participate — whether it is volunteering to help your fellow citizens, or showing up at a march for a just cause, or simply turning up at the voting booth on election day.
A democracy requires its citizens to be engaged to succeed. I’m inspired everyday by Armenians, especially young people, who are active in their communities, who are showing up, and are making their voices heard on the future of Armenia.
So today, in the words of Susan B. Anthony on the 200th anniversary of her birth, remember:
“Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.”