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Women's Rights in Iraq and America

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Women's Rights in Iraq and America
By Congressman Joe Pitts

August 26, 2005

"Iraq's Assembly Is Given Charter, Still Unfinished," blared the headline in the New York Times this week heralding what many believed to be the failure of the Iraqis to complete their Constitution "on time."

These critics seem to forget the fits constitution-writing gave the likes of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton - hardly novices in the practice of democracy or the study of political philosophy. Even these lions of the Revolution needed two tries. We have subsequently made seventeen changes to the most effective governing document in history.

What the Iraqis appear to be getting right - something we missed - is the right of women to vote. The draft constitution gives Islam a similar role ("a basic source of legislation") to Afghanistan 's, a role that must be ironed out in practice. At first glance this appears to mean a state cut in the mold of Iran and Saudi Arabia where women are second class or worse.

But the Iraqi constitution's guarantee of equal rights for women belies this first glance. The draft document guarantees certain liberties unheard of in the Middle East and is by far the most liberal governing document in the region. For instance, the first Article of Chapter Two reads: Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination because of sex, ethnicity, nationality, origin, colour, religion, sect, belief, opinion, or social or economic status." It goes on to establish equal opportunity for all Iraqis, an independent judiciary, universal voting rights, private property protections, and so on.

From Afghanistan to Iraq , millions of recently enfranchised women are celebrating their newfound freedom to determine their own political destiny. Their struggle is of paramount interest to guarantee the long-term stability and democratic rights of half of the residents of the world.

What 21st century Americans may not remember, however, is that this August 26th marks the 85th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, an Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. Today, we take for granted that both men and women can venture into their local voting booth and put a check next to the candidate of their choosing.

That was not the case in 1820 or even in 1920 in the United States . Before the ratification of the 19th Amendment, women did not have the right to vote in federal elections. They were unable to run for political office in virtually every state, and some were even arrested for attempting to vote for President of the United States .

Recognizing that disenfranchising half of America was morally wrong, two reformers, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, made one of the first public appeals for women's suffrage in 1848. These pioneers called a women's rights convention in Seneca Falls , N.Y. to discuss how best to fight for and endorse an amendment guaranteeing women's voting rights. While it would take another 72 years before a women's right to vote was added to the U.S. Constitution, their early and earnest efforts set the stage for the changes to come.

The Republican Party played a leading role in the fight to secure the right to vote for all American women. In 1896, Republicans were the first major party to favor women's suffrage. Additionally, the first woman elected to Congress was a Republican, Jeanette Rankin from Montana in 1917. Montana 's men and women elected her to Congress three years before the rest of American women were finally given the right to vote.

Following House and Senate approval of the 19th Amendment in 1919, the new Amendment went to each of the States for ratification. The last state needed for formal ratification, Tennessee , ratified the Amendment by one vote in the State Senate on August 20, 1920. Six days later the Governor of Tennessee sent the bill to Washington and women received the right to vote. Today all Americans celebrate August 26th as the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment.

When the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, 26 of the 36 state legislatures that had voted to ratify it were led by Republicans. Following adoption of the 19th Amendment, Carrie Chapman Catt, the head of the National American Woman's Suffrage Association, said the following to the Republican Party, "Ratification at this date would not have been achieved without your conscientious and understanding help. I wish also to express our gratitude to the Republican Party for its share in the final enfranchisement of the women..."

On the 85th Anniversary of women gaining the right to vote throughout America , I hope that we will all remember the struggle that American women went through to gain their voting rights.

Remember their hardships and sacrifices when you hear about the magnificent strides that women in this country and throughout the world are making to advance the cause of freedom and liberty.

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