Women's Equality Day Program, National Training Center – Ft. Irwin, CA

Document Date: August 3, 2005

Nadine Strossen, President of the ACLU, spoke as part of the Women’s Equality Day Program, August 3, 2005, at the National Training Center in Ft. Irwin, CA. Speech written by Nadine Strossen, with substantial contributions to research and drafting by Namita Luthra.

Download the speech for printing >>I am delighted to be here with you today to celebrate Women’s Equality Day – the 85th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which finally granted women the right to vote.(1) Too many of us now take that precious right for granted, with almost half of qualified voters not bothering to vote! Yet, many thousands of our predecessors struggled, for more than a century, to earn this core right and, as a human rights activist, I can personally attest to how powerful it really is. Even for the highest elected official in the land – President of the United States – we’ve seen in the last two elections that every single vote does indeed make a difference. And that’s even truer for state and local elections.

The organizers of this event asked me to give you some information AND inspiration about women’s voting rights and other rights. I hope that the information – about the long, hard fights to secure these rights – will inspire you to stand up for the rights that you already have and also to SPEAK up for the rights that you don’t yet have.

One of the greatest things about our Constitution – and the government it created – is that the ultimate power rests with “We the People,” to quote the Constitution’s first three words. One of the powers that “We the People” have is to amend the Constitution itself and, significantly, the vast majority of Constitutional amendments – throughout our history – have been to create new legal rights for individuals and groups of people whose full and equal rights were NOT protected when the Constitution was first adopted.(2) Three of these constitutional amendments were expressly for purposes of extending the essential right to vote to people who didn’t have that right to start with.(3) The right to vote is so most fundamental, since it is a prerequisite for effectively exercising all other rights. When we can’t vote, then politicians can ignore our rights and interests with impunity. So, winning the right to vote is an essential step in winning full citizenship and equality. But it’s only a STEP.

We then have to use that key right – along with our First Amendment rights of speech and association – to press for policies that we believe are right. I’ve advocated for many policies with many politicians, including in the U.S. Congress. And I can assure you that it’s amazingly easy to get their attention. They are especially concerned about the views of the voters who elect them – their constituents. Even in a large state such as California, it takes a surprisingly small number of voters to get even your U.S. Senators to focus on an issue of concern to you. The first time I asked a Senate staff member for a candid off-the-record answer about this, I was astounded to learn that just 10 will usually be enough. And I keep hearing the same thing from many different sources. So whatever issues might be important to you – and whatever your views might be on those issues – I urge you to convey those views through your voice and your vote. It will indeed make a difference!


As a human rights activist, I’ve always felt a close bond with all of you, as members of the U.S. military services. All of you take an oath “to support and defend” the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And that’s essentially the core mission of the American Civil Liberties Union: We do our best to defend all fundamental freedoms for everyone in this country no matter who they are – and no matter what they believe – even if their beliefs are inconsistent with our own civil libertarian values.

For example, we take no position for or against U.S. participation in any war, since that is a foreign policy matter, not a civil liberties matter. However, we always defend everyone’s free speech rights to express any perspective on any war, and the current war in Iraq is no exception.

Let me cite just one example each of the many pro- and anti- Iraq War views we’ve defended the right to express in the last couple years. Shortly before the war started, we came to the defense of state college students right here in California, who favored the war, but whose professor had given them a class assignment to write letters to President Bush opposing the then-looming war; if the students didn’t convey an anti-war view, they wouldn’t get credit for the assignment! And on the other side, one of my favorite examples of a case where we had to come to the defense of someone who expressed peaceful opposition to the Iraq war came from my own state of NY. A 60-year-old lawyer who worked for the state government was arrested at a shopping mall for wearing a T-shirt that said, “Give Peace a Chance”!

Again, the ACLU as an organization doesn’t agree or disagree with any of these views about the War – that’s not our focus, as a civil liberties organization. But we DO disagree with government officials suppressing any of these views. And, we easily won both of these cases –

and others like them – since the First Amendment does in fact protect all expression of this kind.

When it comes to war, the stakes are so high that it’s especially important for all concerned individuals to be able to convey their views about these issues to their elected officials.


So let me now tell you the story behind the Constitutional Amendment you’re celebrating today, securing women’s right to vote. When our country was first founded, despite the democratic ideals that had inspired the American Revolution, only a minority of all the adults were actually entitled to vote. Far more than half of the adult population was disenfranchised. Those who couldn’t vote included: slaves, women, apprentices and indentured laborers, convicted criminals, many free black men, many white men who didn’t own property, and those considered mentally incompetent. Actually, that last category – alas – included women; the reason women weren’t allowed to vote was because we were presumed to be incapable of sound reasoning!

Let me outline some of the milestones in the century-long struggle that finally culminated with the 19th Amendment. One of the first public appeals for women’s right to vote came in 1848, at the famous Seneca Falls Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York. The Convention participants – men, as well as women – signed a “Declaration” calling for the end of all discrimination against women, including the denial of our voting rights. In many ways, the Seneca Falls Declaration tracked the Declaration of Independence, but it extended the earlier language to explicitly embrace women, as well as men. For example, the most famous phrase in the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that “all men are created equal,” but the Seneca Falls Declaration improves on that language, by declaring instead that “all men and women are created equal”!

In 1870, after the Civil War, the Fifteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution to expressly secure the right to vote for African American men, including former slaves. But there was no counterpart amendment expressly securing the right to vote for ANY women, regardless of their race or whether or not they had been slaves. In short, in terms of an explicit constitutional right to vote, ALL women were treated worse than ALL men.

This glaring inequity prompted the founding of two national women’s suffragist organizations. They maintained that even though the Constitution did not EXPLICITLY affirm women’s right to vote, it did so IMPLICITLY. Specifically, they relied on ANOTHER amendment that had been added to the Constitution after the Civil War: the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment extended general rights of equality and citizenship to all U.S. citizens, in very broad language. It provides: “All persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are citizens. . . No State shall. . .abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens.”

Relying on this provision, suffragists argued that all women are certainly persons; and all women born or naturalized in the U.S. are, thus, citizens; so, therefore, they are entitled to that paramount “privilege” of all citizens – namely, the right to vote. That seems like an airtight argument, doesn’t it?!

Accordingly, in the next Presidential election – in 1872 – suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony led a group of women in Rochester, N.Y., to the polls to vote. But not only were she and her followers not allowed to exercise this basic privilege of all citizens; worse yet, they were arrested, indicted, prosecuted, convicted, and fined for the crime of unauthorized voting!(4)

In 1873, while Susan B. Anthony was being prosecuted for her alleged “crime” of trying to vote, she gave an eloquent speech in which she explained why her attempt to vote should be treated NOT as a crime, but, rather, as a constitutional right. She made a powerful argument that women didn’t really need a constitutional amendment expressly securing their right to vote since much general language that was already in the Constitution implicitly secured that right. Such language included both the 14th Amendment, which I have already quoted, and also the Preamble of the Constitution: its opening passage, which captures its philosophy of government and human rights. Here’s how the Preamble reads:”We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense [that’s where all of you come in!], promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”In Susan B. Anthony’s 1873 speech, she quoted this Preamble to the Constitution, and then she argued as follows:”It was we, the people – not we, the white male citizens nor yet we, the male citizens – who formed the union. And we formed it, not to give the blessings of liberty but to secure them; not to the half of ourselves and the half of our posterity but to the whole people, women as well as men. And it is a downright mockery to talk to women of their enjoyment of the blessings of liberty while they are denied the use of the only means of securing them provided by this …government – the ballot.”
Anthony then concluded her speech with a ringing denunciation of both gender and race discrimination. She said:”[E]very discrimination against women in the constitution and laws . . .is today null and void, precisely as is every one against Negroes.”
These compelling constitutional arguments were ultimately accepted by the U.S. Supreme Court, but not until the next century. Susan B. Anthony’s 1873 argument for full constitutional rights for African Americans wasn’t accepted by the Supreme Court until almost a century later, after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. And her 1873 argument for full constitutional rights for women wasn’t accepted by the Supreme Court until MORE than a century later – in 1997.

( I find it especially ironic, in light of Anthony’s brilliant advocacy, that at the time, she would have been prohibited from working as a lawyer in most states. And, in the very year that she made this argument, the Supreme Court upheld these state laws – absolutely barring all women from practicing law – in a ruling that wasn’t overturned until 100 years later.)

So, Susan B. Anthony was a woman truly ahead of her times, earning her place as the first woman on a U.S. coin or bill: the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin. Not many of them are in circulation any more – people complained that they were too easily confused with quarters – but now when you come across one, I hope you will think of this remarkable woman and of the rights she helped to secure for all of us!


The next major milestones in the long fight for the 19th Amendment occurred in the winter of 1916-1917, when suffragists started picketing the White House. The President, Woodrow Wilson, did NOT support their cause. They stood in silence at the White House gates while holding signs that read: “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”(5)

At first, these suffragist protesters were ignored, but that changed after the United States entered World War I in April of 1917. From then on, the suffragists’ signs became even more pointed. They taunted President Wilson, accusing him of hypocrisy. How could he send American men overseas, they asked – to die in a war for the sake of preserving democracy – when at home he did not support the most basic democratic right of all – the right to vote?

Through these tactics, the suffragists became an embarrassment to President Wilson. It was decided that their picketing in front of the White House had to be stopped. Passersby assaulted the women – not only verbally, but also physically – and the police did nothing to protect them. To the contrary, far from arresting the passersby who were assaulting the suffragists, the police instead started arresting the suffragists themselves, on trumped-up charges of loitering or obstructing traffic.

These determined women weren’t deterred though, so the government’s efforts to silence them escalated, leading to increasing prosecutions and longer prison sentences. The police ultimately arrested and imprisoned nearly 700 women on unfounded charges of loitering or obstructing traffic.(6)

One of these women was suffragist leader Alice Paul, who was sentenced to 7 months in prison, where she was placed in solitary confinement. Still undeterred, she began a hunger strike, which other imprisoned suffragists followed. Prison doctors responded by putting Alice Paul in a psychiatric ward. They even threatened to transfer her to an insane asylum. Still, though, she refused to eat. In her words, the hunger strike “was the strongest weapon left with which to continue . . .our battle.” Afraid that she might die, doctors force-fed her. Three times a day for three weeks, they forced a tube down her throat and poured liquids into her stomach. Despite the pain and illness that the force-feeding caused, Paul refused to end the hunger strike – or the fight for the vote.


Another key development during War I also played a major role in finally securing the 19th Amendment: Many women took factory jobs to support the war effort. After the war, Alice Paul and other suffragist leaders insisted to the President and Congress that women should be rewarded for their important contributions to the war effort by being recognized as full citizens, and be entitled to vote. This argument finally persuaded President Wilson to support the suffragist cause. In a speech in 1918, he said: “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil – and not to a partnership of right?”

The next year, after heated debates, Congress finally passed the Women’s Suffrage Amendment.(7) This was 41 years after it had first been introduced in Congress. As you know, constitutional amendments not only have to be passed by 2/3 of both Houses of Congress, but they also have to be ratified by 3/4 of the states, which then came to 36 states out of the total of 48.

Even after Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment, it still took more than a year before enough states ratified it to make it law. After 35 of the necessary 36 states(8) had ratified the Amendment, the battle came down to the Tennessee House of Representatives.

The Tennessee Senate had voted in favor of the amendment on August 13th, 1920, and the House vote took place on August 18th.(9) On that historic date, anti-suffrage and pro-suffrage forces from around the country descended on the state capital, Nashville. And the Tennessee House chamber was filled with roses. Supporters of the amendment wore yellow roses, while opponents wore red roses. The contest was so close that the first vote resulted in a tie, 48-48. And then the same thing happened in the second vote.

As the third roll-call vote went on, it seemed that another tie was imminent. The person who could break the tie – the last one to vote – was the youngest member of the legislature: Harry Burn, only 24 years old. In the first two votes, Burn had voted to kill the amendment by tabling it. With the fate of the 19th Amendment resting on his young shoulders, Harry Burn had entered the Tennessee legislature that day with a red rose in one of his buttonholes, indicating his opposition to the women’s suffrage amendment. However, he also had a letter from his mother in his pocket. Here’s what the letter said:”Dear Son… Vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were very bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not seen anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy…With lots of love, Mama”
Well, Harry Burn did indeed turn out to be “a good boy,” who did just as his “Mama” told him! When it was finally his turn to cast his third roll-call vote, he broke the tie by voting to ratify.(10) So, the amendment passed the Tennessee House by the razor-thin margin of 49-47. Opponents of women’s suffrage were so outraged at Harry Burn that they literally chased him around the room! He escaped the angry mob only by climbing out of a third-floor window and then hiding in the attic in the Tennessee State Capitol building!(11)

Later, when Burn was asked why he had cast the decisive vote in favor of the amendment, he said: “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for a boy to follow…”(12) Thanks to the special influence that Harry Burn’s mother exercised on this one particular elected official – her son – ALL mothers and all other women finally won a more general influence over ALL elected officials, through the right to vote!


So, in 1920, the 19th Amendment was finally added to the United States Constitution.

In that same year, something else happened that continues to have an important positive impact on women’s rights: the founding of my organization, the American Civil Liberties Union. Not coincidentally, some of the leading suffragists of that time – including Alice Paul – became founding mothers of the ACLU. They recognized that securing the right to vote was only an important step toward women’s equal rights, but far from the end of the road; just as the 15th Amendment, which had secured the constitutional right to vote for African-American men, hardly brought about racial equality for them.

From the ACLU’s very beginning, rights of gender equality have been an essential element of our signature mission: to defend all fundamental freedoms for all people. In our first decade, our clients included women who were pioneering advocates of women’s rights and social justice, including Margaret Sanger – the founding mother of Planned Parenthood – who was prosecuted and imprisoned just for giving women information about their health and reproductive options.

In 1972, the ACLU consolidated its ongoing work in this area with a new program, called the Women’s Rights Project. Its founding director was someone who had been a law professor writing about women’s constitutional rights – or lack thereof: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Even though she went on to become a Supreme Court Justice – only the second woman in history to sit on the nation’s highest court – she still says that her favorite job ever was working for the ACLU!

In that capacity, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in front of the Supreme Court a series of constitutional cases that enhanced the rights of ALL people to be free from gender stereotypes – men as well as women. And I want to pause on that key point. When I talk about “women’s rights,” I’m really referring to “men’s rights” too. That’s because what’s really at stake is the right of every individual to be treated as such – as an individual – and not judged on the basis of generalizations, or stereotypes, or prejudices about a social group to which that person belongs.

In recent decades, we’ve made great strides toward breaking down gender-based stereotypes. But they are still too prevalent, and they are still used to deny many opportunities to many individual women and men. One prevalent stereotype is that men are better equipped for the public sphere – for politics or business or war – and that women are better equipped for the private sphere – to raise children and to maintain the home. So the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project continues to defend the rights of particular women and men to be judged as individuals and to pursue opportunities in any sphere of life they choose.

All of you women here, as members of the US military, would probably be interested in the ACLU’s many cases that have sought – and won – equal opportunities for women in the military despite stereotypes that women aren’t as well-qualified to fight as men. Our most recent victory in this area was in the historic case in which the Supreme Court held that the prestigious Virginia Military Institute – VMI – had to admit qualified women as well as men. It was so appropriate that this landmark victory for gender equality, in 1997, was in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg!

The state of Virginia had defended its policy of completely excluding all women from VMI by arguing that very few women would be qualified for – or even interested in – the very rigorous VMI training, which it called the “adversative method.” Here’s how Justice Ginsburg responded, on behalf of the Court:”It may be assumed, for purposes of this decision, that most women would not choose VMI’s adversative method….[H]owever, it is also probable that many men would not want to be educated in such an environment. ….The issue, however, is … whether [Virginia] can constitutionally deny to women who have the will and capacity, the training and attendant opportunities that VMI uniquely affords.”
Now let me mention one example of a case in which the ACLU successfully challenged a law reflecting stereotypes that men are the breadwinners, and women are economically dependent on them. This very important case also arose in a military context. We won it in the Supreme Court in 1974, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg acting as an ACLU lawyer, rather than a Supreme Court justice. We represented Joseph and Sharon Frontiero, a married couple.

Sharon was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, who sought increased benefits for Joseph on the ground that he was her “dependent.” These increased benefits would have been paid automatically for a male member of the armed services, based on the presumption that his wife was his dependent. However, the spouse of a female member of the armed services was denied these automatic benefits, because it was presumed that the female service member was NOT the primary breadwinner. Such laws clearly disadvantaged the men who were deprived of equal benefits: the husbands of female servicemembers. But these laws also disadvantage women — not only the women in the service who were denied automatic benefits for their husbands, but also the women who were married to servicemembers and hence automatically entitled to benefits. That’s because such laws reflect a paternalistic attitude, assuming that women need special protection from men and from the law.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg well described that problem in the Supreme Court brief she wrote for the ACLU in the Frontiero case. In fact, the Supreme Court quoted this line from her brief in its decision in favor of Sharon and Joseph Frontiero: “[S]uch…paternalism …, in practical effect, put[s] women, not on a pedestal, but in a cage.”


As part of the ACLU’s mission to defend all fundamental freedoms for all people, we have often defended the rights of members of our nation’s armed services. In the words of former Chief Justice Earl Warren: “Our citizens in uniform may not be stripped of basic rights simply because they doffed their civilian clothes.”(13)

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, we were handling so many cases on behalf of members of the armed forces that our military justice program spun off as a freestanding organization. Of particular significance to this audience, the ACLU has long promoted the rights of women in the military – as indicated by the VMI and Frontiero cases I already mentioned.

As you no doubt know, women have served in the United States military – in one capacity or another – going all the way back to the Revolutionary War, when Margaret Corbin replaced her fallen husband behind a cannon! So, way back in our nation’s very first war some women were on the front lines, in combat!

Women became an official part of the U.S. Armed Forces early in the 20th Century with the establishment of the Army and Navy Nurse Corps. In World War II, 400,000 women served.(14) Shortly after that War ended, in 1948, our top General – Dwight D. Eisenhower – applauded women’s contributions to the war effort. He actually urged Congress to include women in any future draft. Here’s an excerpt from his Congressional testimony: “Like most old soldiers I was violently against women soldiers. I thought a tremendous number of difficulties would occur, not only of an administrative nature… but others of a more personal type that would get us into trouble. None of that occurred… In the disciplinary field they were a model for the Army…[T]heir influence throughout the entire command was good. I am convinced in another war they have got to be drafted just like men.”(15)
Today, women’s representation in the military is at an all-time high: 350,000 women, which is almost 15 percent of all active duty personnel.(16) Nearly all of the prior restrictions on women’s military roles have been lifted. The only restrictions on women today are in direct ground combat.(17) In Iraq today, nearly 20,000 women are serving in numerous capacities. One in every seven soldiers in Iraq is a woman.

Given the unpredictable insurgencies there, women have inescapably become involved in combat. As the Commander of the Multi-National Corps in Iraq has said: “There are no front lines here, so our forces have to be ready to fight all the time – every single sailor, soldier, airman or marine.” Several dozen women have been killed and several hundred have been wounded.(18)

Despite women’s substantial numbers and roles in the military today, women still can’t be drafted and don’t have to register with the Selective Service System. I’m sure all of you have thought about these issues a lot, and have your own strong views about them. I’d love to hear your thoughts and discuss these issues with you, given your expertise.

And this is an important example of the general point I made at the outset – about how you can influence public policy by raising your voices. Congress now has bills pending that seek to resolve the issue of women’s military roles in various ways; some of these bills would prohibit women from engaging in combat and others would lift the remaining combat restrictions on women. Moreover, there are many proposals floating around Congress to reinstate the draft, and to move away from the current all-volunteer army. Given the military experience that all of you have, your views would carry particular weight in the Congressional debates on these crucial issues.

The ACLU’s position, and my own – you won’t be surprised, is against any gender-based line. We believe that an essential aspect of full equality is sharing fully in not only the rights of citizenship, but also the responsibilities. And often these two go hand in hand. Of course, voting is a precious right, but it is also a serious responsibility. And the same is true of the opportunity to participate in our country’s national defense. It is no coincidence that one of the key milestones in ending racial discrimination under law in our country was the end to racial discrimination in our armed forces.


As I have explained, the fight for women’s suffrage was hard-won by many dedicated women and men who were fighting not only for their own rights and welfare, but also for the rights and welfare of all women – and men – in the future. Here’s how one suffragist described her sense of responsibility, which impelled her to participate in the struggle:”The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time and I had a duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.”(19)
We women today carry on that responsibility – not only of occupying those high seats, including here in the military, but also, if need be, rearranging them and adding new ones!


I want to end by repeating an important point I made earlier: conveying my deepest respect and gratitude to each and every one of you here – women and men – for your valiant defense of our Constitution AGAINST all enemies and FOR the benefit of all of us: all women and all men, of every diverse group in our wonderfully diverse society.

Thank you very much.

1 It provides: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

2 The Constitution has been amended 27 times since it was originally adopted, and the vast majority of those amendments were for purposes of increasing rights. In contrast, only one amendment was adopted to LIMIT people’s rights and that was the Prohibition Amendment – to ban alcohol– which only lasted for 14 years, before it was repealed. The 18th Amendment, ratified 1/16/1919, implemented Prohibition; it was repealed by the 21st Am., 12/5/1933.

3 15th (African American men – “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”), 1870; 19th (women), 1920; 26th (18-year-olds), 1971.

4 She was fined $100, the 2005 value of which is $1,618.89.

5 PBS, Alice Paul’s Fight for Suffrage,

6 City of Elmira website, Pages in the history of Elmira: Crystal Eastman: Founded the ACLU, available at:

7 The Senate passed it (56-25) on June 4, 1919; and the House passed it (304-89) on Jan. 10, 1918. It had first been introduced in 1878 in the Senate

8 There were 48 states (until Alaska and HI became states in 1959).

9 Jone Johnson-Lewis, Women’s History, Copyright 1999-2004, available at:

10 Online Textbook, Overview: A more detailed look at the battle for a woman’s right to vote, available at:

11 Kay R. Daly, Women’s Suffrage, Republicans Suffer, October 18, 2004, available at:

12 Online Textbook, Overview: A more detailed look at the battle for a woman’s right to vote, quoting The Tennessean, August 25th, 1920, available at:

13 ACLU, Annual Report, 1962-63 (hardcopy from archives)

14 Committee on Women in the Nato Forces, Year-in-Review 2001, 85, available at:

15 General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Hearings on S.1614 Before the Subcomm. On Organization and Mobilization of the House Comm. on Armed Services, 80th Cong., 2d Sess., No.238. at 5563-64 (1948), quoted in, ACLU, Women’s Rights Report, Winter 1981 (hardcopy from archives)

16 See

17 In other words, service in units that:

(1) engage an enemy on the ground with weapons,

(2) are exposed to hostile fire, and

(3) have a high probability of direct physical contact with the personnel of a hostile force.

18 As of March 2005, 35 women soldiers have died in Iraq, and 261 have been wounded.

19 See