170 Years Ago in Seneca Falls New York, Voting Was a Radical Idea

July 31, 2018
sikkink2

Original publication via Harvard's Ash Center.

On July 19th, we celebrated the 170th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, a gathering that launched a global movement to secure the right to vote for women. As people in the US and around the world lament the state of our democracy, now is a good time to reflect on an anniversary that reminds us of how democratic change occurs.

Women’s suffrage was the most radical demand that Elizabeth Cady Stanton included in the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. When Stanton first suggested a suffrage resolution at the Seneca Falls Convention, even her most resolute supporters were afraid that it might make the women’s movement look ridiculous and compromise their other goals. Voting was considered the quintessential male domain of action. Resolutions on other issues at Seneca Falls, such as equal access to jobs and education for women, passed unanimously, while the suffrage resolution carried by a small majority and only after eloquent speeches by Stanton and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. It would take decades of struggle, including parades, protests, arrests, hunger strikes, and force feeding, before the US acknowledged women’s right to vote in 1920. The struggle to secure the vote for African Americans is an even longer story that can be traced from the Civil War to current voter suppression in states like North Carolina.

Our appreciation of voting as a radical demand secured through decades of struggle has been lost in US politics today, as reflected in low voter registration and turnout. At Harvard, where I teach, 59% of eligible students voted in the 2016 presidential election and only 24% in the 2014 midterm elections. This spring, I did a small set of focus groups with Harvard undergraduates to gauge their attitudes toward voting in an attempt to understand these low numbers. In every group, at least one person clearly articulated the belief that voting is a privilege and duty of citizenship. A small number argued that there was no duty whatsoever to vote and that there might be good reasons not to vote. Most students, however, fell in between these two positions. They argued that voting is the right thing to do, but that it is optional and that there are many reasons why it is acceptable not to vote. These reasons include lack of compelling candidates, lack of information, lack of interest, and lack of a personal stake in the matter.

“All of us have to collaborate in helping people exercise their legal right and their civic duty to vote”

These students revealed disillusionment with the political system, saying their vote would not make a difference. Voting was one option for participation in a democratic society, but for many of the students it held little meaning or impact. The passion of Seneca Falls was missing. One student mused, “I wish that there was a way … to make people more enthusiastic about voting. … apathy is a huge problem…”

People often assume college students don’t need advice or help to vote, especially Ivy League students. But many of the students found the US voting system genuinely complicated, and antiquated, especially in the case of absentee voting. At times, what the students described reached the level of voter suppression.

We need to continue the struggles launched by the activists in Seneca Falls to expand voting. If some of the smartest and most motivated young people in America today find voting difficult, we have a responsibility to help them and many others as they navigate the often complicated and sometimes hostile terrain of the US voting system. Voter suppression has been a conscious and well-orchestrated set of policies in many states; voter encouragement must be no less conscious or collective. Ensuring that US citizens enjoy the right to vote is very much the work of our government and political parties, but should not be left only to them. All of us have to collaborate in helping people exercise their legal right and their civic duty to vote.

Kathryn Sikkink is the Ryan Family Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at Radcliffe