The 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote nationally on August 18, 1920, so why is Women’s Equality Day on August 26th each year?
The simple answer is that just because a constitutional amendment is ratified, it’s not official until it is certified by the correct government official. In 1920, that official was Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. On August 26, 1920, Colby signed a proclamation behind closed doors at 8 a.m. at his own house in Washington, D.C, ending a struggle for the vote that started a century earlier.
The New York Times ran the story about the document’s signing on its front page and noted the lack of fanfare for the historic event.
Colby had been asked by women’s suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt to allow groups in Colby’s office for the document’s signing and to film the event. Instead, Colby told reporters that “effectuating suffrage through proclamation of its ratification by the necessary thirty-six States was more important than feeding the movie cameras.”
The Times said Colby was concerned about the rivalry between Paul and Catt and wanted to avoid a public scene at the signing.
“Inasmuch as I am not interested in the aftermath of any of the friction or collisions which may have been developed in the long struggle for the ratification of the amendment, I have contented myself with the performance in the simplest manner of the duty devolving upon me under the law,” Colby said.
A package of documents from the state of Tennessee had arrived by train in Washington around 4 a.m. It included the official ratification document from the state legislature.
How Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, was a story in itself. Congress had passed the proposed amendment a year earlier, and it was supported by President Woodrow Wilson.
By the middle of 1920, 35 states had voted to ratify the amendment, but four other states—Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina and Florida—would not consider the resolution for various reasons. The remaining states had rejected the amendment.
So Tennessee was the battleground to obtain the three-fourths of the states needed to ratify the amendment. Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old legislator, switched his vote on the Tennessee state house floor at the urging of his mother, assuring the 19th amendment’s ratification.
But as Colby signed the proclamation on August 26, members of the Tennessee legislature were still trying to nullify the previous vote.
In 1971, Representative Bella Abzug championed a bill in the U.S. Congress to designate August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.” The bill says that “the President is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation annually in commemoration of that day in 1920, on which the women of America were first given the right to vote.”
As a footnote, the amendment certification process has changed since 1920. Now, the Archivist of the United States, who heads the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is responsible for finalizing the ratification process.
Back in 1920, Secretary Colby’s attorney reviewed the documents that arrived from Tennessee. Today, NARA's Office of the Federal Register reviews the documents and writes the proclamation for the Archivist of the United States to sign.
Section 106b of the United States Code spells out the finality of the proclamation.
“The Archivist of the United States shall forthwith cause the amendment to be published, with his certificate, specifying the States by which the same may have been adopted, and that the same has become valid, to all intents and purposes, as a part of the Constitution of the United States.”