Molly P. Rozum, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the University of South Dakota and the Ronald M. Nelson Chair of Great Plains and South Dakota history, is a leading expert in women’s suffrage and Northern Great Plains history. As the nation celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, Molly has worked to ensure that South Dakota’s story does not get lost. What many may not know is South Dakota women could vote in any election in the state and in the nation two years before the U.S. Congress passed the constitutional amendment that would allow all women the right to vote.
Molly, a native of Mitchell, South Dakota, gives readers a quick lesson about the history of the Nineteenth Amendment, an amendment that -- in Molly’s words -- upholds the nation’s democratic process.
USD: This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that guarantees and protects women’s constitutional right to vote. Why is this amendment important to America’s history?
Molly: The Nineteenth Amendment affirms the democratic process. Based on the logic of natural human rights, some women asked for laws of equality as early as the American Revolution and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.
It took several generations, but passage of the Nineteenth Amendment shows how social movements work to perfect democracy.
Women’s advocacy for the vote took off in the middle of the 19th century as a part of a larger movement for equality that would abolish slavery, open higher educational institutions and the professions to women, and grant married women rights to property, earnings, and their children. Women argued the vote—and elective office—would allow them to end the many discriminations they faced. Even before they could vote, women began to shape the political culture of the nation by pioneering street meetings, protest parades, signature petitions presented to legislatures, and even direct mail. It took several generations, but passage of the Nineteenth Amendment shows how social movements work to perfect democracy.
USD: Some celebrated the amendment on Aug. 18, while others celebrate on Aug. 26. Can you tell us more about the two dates?
The U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed a proclamation on Aug. 26 by which the Nineteenth Amendment officially entered the U.S. Constitution.
Molly: The U.S. Constitution requires three-fourths of state legislatures to ratify an amendment in order for it to become law. On Aug. 18, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, which prohibited the denial or abridgment of voting rights on account of sex. However, the opposition to woman suffrage in the Tennessee House used a parliamentary procedure that delayed the bill to buy time to call for a revote. The stall failed. Tennessee’s governor signed the certification of his state’s ratification on 24 August and sent it to Washington, D.C. The U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed a proclamation on Aug. 26 by which the Nineteenth Amendment officially entered the U.S. Constitution.
USD: Though the Nineteenth Amendment was a historic moment for women’s suffrage, where did it maybe fall short? How did the U.S. make improvements over the years?
Molly: Not all women in the nation were able to vote after ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Important for South Dakota, many Indigenous women—and men—did not have access to the ballot. In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed an Indian Citizenship Act that included voting rights and importantly, did not force Indigenous peoples also to renounce tribal affiliation; but this act did not stop states from denying voting rights by other means. Indigenous peoples did not vote in large numbers until the 1950s. Many states also denied the ballot to African American women—and men—until the U.S. 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting and provided federal oversight and enforcement mechanisms. Women in U.S. Territories also waited longer to win voting rights. The U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico, for example, allowed literate women the right to vote in 1929 and extended the vote to all women in 1935.
USD: What can you tell us about South Dakota’s involvement in the Nineteenth Amendment?
Molly: South Dakota ratified the Nineteenth Amendment unanimously a little after midnight on Dec. 4, 1919 and became the 21st state to do so. At the urging of the state’s suffrage leaders, South Dakota legislators agreed to pay their own way to Pierre after Governor Norbeck agreed to call a special session of the legislature. National suffragists looked to states where women already voted to lead the way to ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
South Dakota’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment affirmed the state’s commitment to women’s voting rights and created momentum for the national ratification effort.
South Dakota granted women the right to vote in 1918, after a long movement that stretched back to 1868-1869, when woman suffrage won in the House but failed in the Council of the Dakota Territorial Legislature. Woman suffrage failed five times more (1890, 1898, 1910, 1914, and 1916) during statehood before achieving success. South Dakota’s ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment affirmed the state’s commitment to women’s voting rights and created momentum for the national ratification effort.
USD: Can you tell us about your research? What areas do you focus on?
Molly: In 2019, I co-edited a volume of new scholarship on woman suffrage in the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, called Equality at the Ballot Box: Votes for Women on the Northern Great Plains, published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. The volume includes the first comprehensive history of woman suffrage in North Dakota and a new look at the radical Republican politics surrounding the passage of woman suffrage in 1869 in Wyoming Territory: the first territory—and in 1890, the first state—in the nation to grant women the right to vote. My scholarship in the volume focuses on the first failed post-statehood South Dakota referendum on woman suffrage in 1890; the electorate voted on whether to remove the word “male” from the South Dakota’s 1889 constitution. In part, women argued their widespread property ownership meant that without the vote they paid taxes without representation. The state’s electorate also considered restricting the votes of Indigenous men in 1890. The public debate over voting rights for women and Indigenous peoples shows how race and gender shaped the political culture of the new state of South Dakota.
I am the South Dakota coordinator for the “Online Biographical Dictionary of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the United States” for the Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600-2000 (WASMUS) website. I curated a series of over 30 biographies of South Dakota suffragists, and co-wrote many of the biographies with students enrolled in one of my woman suffrage history courses. The WASMUS website aims to include a biography of all the suffragists in the United States who played a role in winning the vote working with Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Howard Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt and all of the leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
USD: You have been doing a lot over this last year to spread awareness of the Nineteenth Amendment and its importance. Can you tell us what you have been up to?
Molly: I’ve been researching women’s suffrage since 2016, when I began collaborating with my co-editor, Lori Ann Lahlum (University of Minnesota-Mankato) on the Equality at the Ballot Box book. I’ve presented my work at scholarly conferences such as the Western History Association and the Northern Great Plains History Conference. Looking toward Nov. 1918 and South Dakota’s 100th anniversary of vote rights for women, I began speaking on South Dakota suffrage history for libraries, women’s groups, and local historical societies in towns such as Vermillion, Yankton, Sioux Falls, Brookings, Mitchell, Madison, Spearfish, Rapid City, and Elk Point. The South Dakota Humanities Council Speakers Bureau sponsored many of my appearances, and I also taught several classes for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at sites in Vermillion, Sioux Falls, and Pierre. I was invited to speak at the National Women’s History Museum, and for the Western Writers of America, the South Dakota State Bar Association, and the conference of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
South Dakota Public Broadcasting produced a short film on the state’s woman suffrage movement called Simple Justice, on which I consulted, and I’ve appeared on S.D.P.B.’s “In the Movement” radio program.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, many appearances scheduled for this past summer have transformed to online presentations and contributions to organizational newsletters. South Dakota Public Broadcasting produced a short film on the state’s woman suffrage movement called Simple Justice, on which I consulted, and I’ve appeared on S.D.P.B.’s “In the Movement” radio program. In November 2018, a day after the 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights in South Dakota, the state’s voters elected their first female governor. I’ve worked also with a nonpartisan Centennial Delegation called “Her Vote. Her Voice” appointed by Governor Kristi Noem to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
If you would like to learn more about Molly’s research and the Nineteenth Amendment, check out the resources below.
Equality at the Ballot Box: Woman Suffrage on the Northern Great Plains.
Edited by Lori Ann Lahlum and Molly P. Rozum, published by South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2019.
Simple Justice: Suffrage in South Dakota
Molly consulted on and appears in this documentary film.
How Radical Live Series: “South Dakota Democracy 1890: Who Should Vote?”
PowerPoint presentation based on Rozum’s research for South Dakota’s “Her Vote. Her Voice.” Centennial Celebration.
“The 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage”: South Dakota’s Ratification of the 19th Amendment
Rozum interview with Lori Walsh on SDPB’s “In the Moment”
“The Final Push for the 19th Amendment”: in South Dakota
Rozum interview with Lori Wash on SDPB’s “In the Moment”