August 2020

“Ordinary equality”

By Dyan Ebert

August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of a historic change to the U.S. Constitution, the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The substance of the amendment—a mere 28 words—provides “[t]he 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.” As Carrie Chapman Pratt, a prominent figure in the women’s suffrage movement, noted, “The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty.”

While the battle for the right to vote actually began many years before, the 1848 Seneca Falls convention marked a turning point in the women’s suffrage movement. The convention resulted in the adoption of the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which called for equality between the sexes, including the right to vote. Over the next seven decades, suffrage supporters tirelessly lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience in an effort to secure that right.1 The 19th Amendment was officially certified by the Secretary of State on August 26, 1920. With its ratification, the face of the American electorate was forever changed. In the November 1920 elections, more than 8 million women in the United States voted for the first time.2 

The importance of the 19th Amendment has not been forgotten. In fact, a Gallup poll conducted at the end of the 20th century revealed that passage of the 19th Amendment was observed to be “one of the most important events in the century,” second only to World War II.3 

What is often overlooked about this historic event, however, is that while the amendment opened the door for women to share their voices in the political process, the harsh reality is that it did little to advance this same opportunity for women of color in our country. After the amendment’s passage, a number of voter suppression measures persisted or were newly implemented across the country—particularly in the south, which limited Black women’s access to ballot boxes by means that included poll taxes, literacy requirements, and grandfather clauses. Indigenous women and Latinas met a similar fate. The struggle for voter equality for these citizens persisted for decades despite the passage of the 19th Amendment, and similar although less overt efforts aimed at limiting poll access for people of color persist today. 

As we look toward the 2020 election, I firmly believe that as lawyers we have a unique opportunity to play an important role in protecting, advocating for, and highlighting the significance of the right to vote, not just for women but for all eligible voters. While lawyers clearly have divergent positions on political issues and candidates, there is (or should be) a universal interest among us regarding the importance of protecting this “emblem of equality.”

One way lawyers can help protect the right to vote is to volunteer as election judges. According to the Secretary of State’s Office, Minnesota requires approximately 30,000 election judges to work at the roughly 3,000 polling places for each statewide election. Election judges perform many functions, from greeting and registering voters to distributing ballots and helping with vote tabulation. The need for election judges in 2020 is anticipated to be greater than ever due to the challenges created by covid-19. Many individuals who have previously served as election judges are retirees. Because individuals in this age group are more vulnerable to covid-19, it is likely to affect their ability to serve in the upcoming primary election in August and the general election in November. If you are able and willing to serve as an election judge, I encourage you to contact the Secretary of State’s Office for more information. The MSBA is currently exploring options for securing CLE credit for special training that may be offered to attorneys interested in this role; please watch for additional information on this issue in the coming weeks. Even if CLE credit is not an option, please consider serving in this important role.

Alice Paul, another instrumental leader in the women’s suffrage movement, observed that while “[m]ost reforms, most problems are complicated... there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” By all accounts, the effort required to secure passage of the 19th Amendment took an extraordinarily long time and was extremely complicated. I must admit that, like Paul, I find it odd that it would take so long to achieve such “ordinary equality” for women. Similarly, it troubles me that there remain so many other ways in which our society, including the legal profession, is still lacking in equality for women. But I am encouraged by the significant strides that have been made in this regard and the clear desire of many individuals and organizations, including the MSBA, to continue to work toward gender equity. 

Dyan Ebert is a partner at the central Minnesota firm of Quinlivan & Hughes, P.A., where she served as CEO from 2003-2010 and 2014-2019. She also served on the board of directors of Minnesota CLE from 2012-2019. 


1 If you are interested in learning more about the women’s suffrage movement, I highly recommend the 2004 HBO film Iron Jawed Angel. Albeit historical fiction, it is very informative and demonstrates the great sacrifices made by supporters of the movement to secure passage of the 19th Amendment.

2 See https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/19thAmendment-1 (last accessed 7/9/2020); https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured-documents/amendment19
(last accessed 7/9/2020).

3 https://www.gallup.com/poll/3427/most-important-events-century-from-viewpoint-people.aspx (last accessed 5/27/2020).


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