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Voting Rights: Woman Suffrage and Puerto Rico Statehood

On June 4, America celebrated the 100th anniversary of Congress’s passage of the 19th Amendment. This is the constitutional amendment that gave voting rights to American women.

In today’s society, you would be hard-pressed to find many Americans who oppose the Amendment that gave women the right to vote. Yet while it may seem like an obvious decision now, back then the issue faced controversy. The rationales posited by anti-suffragists (Antis), women who opposed woman suffrage, were eerily similar to those of present-day anti-statehood Puerto Ricans.

So what were they thinking? Why women opposed woman suffrage.

Literature written by the Antis from the 16th century onward point to three main concerns regarding women’s right to vote.

(1)    Disputes in the prevalence of support– Many Antis were steadfast in their belief that the majority of women did not want the right to vote. They based this assumption on local elections regarding women’s suffrage and cited that because the majority of women did not show up to the polls their absence should count as a vote against suffrage.

(2)    Projected negative repercussions– Antis commonly feared an influx of uneducated voters. They also feared the effect on efficiency that doubling the voting population would have. Many added it was women’s political neutrality that gave them the power to efficiently make social changes; granting women the right to vote would diminish this capability.

“Our present duties fill up the whole measure of our time and ability,” the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage claimed in 1894, and “political equality will deprive us of special privileges.”

(3)    Cultural Erasure– Antis uniformly feared the change suffrage would force on women. They believed political pressures would force women to change their character, their speech, and their daily responsibilities. Many anticipated that these changes would deviate women’s attention from the home to the male-dominated political sphere.

“Were women admitted to vote and hold political office,” wrote Clara T. Leonard in a letter read before the Massachusetts Committee on Woman Suffrage in 1884, “all the intrigue, competition and selfishness displayed by men in political life would also be found in women.”

What we are hearing in the case of statehood

Today, anti-statehood Puerto Ricans make similar arguments. They argue that the five previous referenda regarding Puerto Rican statehood do not show majority support. While the most recent plebiscite had 97% of voters in favor of statehood, critics state that because the majority of eligible voters in Puerto Rico did not show up to the polls, politicians must view their absence as a vote against the change. Former U.S. Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI) countered this argument best when he stated: “If you want to oppose a position then you need to vote against it, otherwise, you are consenting to have the other voters who do participate make that choice on your behalf.”

Another ideology found among anti-statehood forces is the purported negative impact of the change on Puerto Rico. This group of naysayers point to many corporations based in Puerto Rico that have historically qualified for special tax treatment. They postulate that if Puerto Rico becomes a state, these corporations will leave, further hurting an already downturned economy.

However, a Senate Committee researched this claim and found that very few of those corporate benefits ever reach the local Puerto Rico economy. Also, Puerto Rico’s economic hardships stem in part from its lack of incorporation as a state, including lack of post-storm support, proportionate lack of Medicaid, refundable tax credits and nutrition assistance, and the mass exodus of residents who move to the mainland for opportunities.

The third prominent argument stated by anti-statehood Puerto Ricans is cultural erasure. While the Antis feared the loss of womanhood, anti-statehood Puerto Ricans fear the loss of Puerto Rican identity on a local and international scale. Many view Puerto Rico as a unique and separate nation with its separate history. Becoming a state, they claim, would change the nature of what it means to be Puerto Rican. Feared cultural shifts include a change in the primary language from Spanish to English, the minimization of Puerto Rican history, and an overall loss of identity. Puerto Ricans currently have Olympic teams and participate as a “country” in worldwide beauty pageants.

Given how prevalent Spanish is in the states and how common bilingualism is generally, how many Puerto Ricans are part of U.S. Olympic teams, and what worthy contenders Puerto Rican beauty pageant participants are, it is easy to reassure Puerto Ricans that these threats are nothing to fear.  Besides, the distinct nature of each of the 50 states proves without a doubt that individualism can withstand any threat of national – and global – assimilation.

Voting rights are still under the power of Congress

It took over 70 years for Congress to grant women the right to vote. Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory for 121 years. Puerto Ricans have been citizens for 102 years. The population of Puerto Rico is larger than that of 21 states. Yet  Puerto Rico still does not have the full rights enlisted to them through the Constitution. Voting rights are a conspicuous part of that inequality. Congress has the same power it had in 1919 to change the status quo.  It remains to be seen how long that will take.

Read “Some Reasons Why We Oppose Votes for Women,” National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (1894)

Read Letter by Mrs. Clara T. Leonard, read by Thornton K. Lothrop, before the Massachusetts Legislative Committee on Woman Suffrage, January 29, 1884.

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