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Setting the Stage

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
                        First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution

The new U.S. Constitution was sent to the states for approval in 1787.  Many state legislatures strongly criticized it because it did not include specific protections for the individual liberties that Americans had fought for during the Revolution.  The Constitution was ratified in June 1788 without a bill of rights, but the first Congress elected under the new system took up the question of adding one as soon as it convened in March 1789.  Eventually, 12 separate amendments were submitted to the states.  They quickly ratified all but two of them.  These first ten amendments, which became known as the Bill of Rights, entered into force on December 15, 1791.

The Bill of Rights protects the liberties at the heart of the American system of government.  Many scholars think the First Amendment may be the most important of them all.  The First Amendment is often at the center of the nation’s bitterest conflicts.

Suffrage, the right to vote, is not one of the rights protected by the Bill of Rights.  The Constitution left decisions about who could or could not vote to the states.  At the time the Constitution was adopted, most states allowed only property owners and taxpayers to vote.  The vast majority of voters were white men, but white women who met the property qualification could vote in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and New Jersey.  By the early 1800s, all four states had enacted universal white manhood suffrage, but excluded women.

The first call for voting rights for women came in 1848, at the First Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York.  By the 20th century, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the oldest and largest of the women’s suffrage organizations, was concentrating on amending state constitutions to allow women to vote.  By 1916, women could vote in 12 western states, but the campaign seemed to have stalled.  In 1917, a small group of determined, impatient women set out to extend the vote to all women by amending the U.S. Constitution.  The proposed amendment had been introduced in Congress in 1878, reintroduced every year for almost forty years, but never brought to a vote.  The women’s attempts to gain the rights of full, participating members of “We the People” would test the ability of the First Amendment to protect the liberties it guaranteed.  They picked Lafayette Park, across from the White House in full view of the president, as the stage for their campaign.

 

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