Women’s suffrage and the world’s oldest person

The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified 92 years ago this month. ((It had been introduced 41 years earlier by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but sometimes it takes a few decades to move the Overton window towards sanity.))

Less than a century is certainly short enough that some women who are alive today were born without the right to vote. But, then, they would’ve been too young to vote at the time anyway. Is there still a woman alive today who could have been denied a vote in a presidential election on the basis of her gender? ((Of course, considering the shocking war on women being waged by the current GOP, there must be plenty of examples of disenfranchisement on the basis of gender. In this post I’m just looking at the timing of the Nineteenth Amendment.))

As it turns out, the answer to that question seems to be yes. The world’s oldest living person happens to be an American woman named Besse Cooper, and she celebrated her 116th birthday this weekend. She was born in 1896 in Sullivan, Tennessee, but moved to Monroe, Georgia during World War I. That means she would have been living in Georgia when she turned 21 on August 26, 1917. (I’m going with 21 instead of 18, because that was the national voting age before the passage of the Twenty-sixth Amendment in 1971.)

1918 was a Senate election year, and Ms. Cooper would have been denied the right to vote in that race. Incumbent Thomas Hardwick lost in the Democratic primary, but two years later was elected governor. One of his most notable acts, incidentally, was appointing the first woman to serve in the Senate, Rebecca Latimer Felton. Her appointment was basically ceremonial — she only served for one day — but to date she’s still Georgia’s only female Senator.

Anyway, cut to two years later and the first presidential election since Ms. Cooper’s 21st birthday. Because of the recent ratification, women all over the country were set to vote for the president for the first time. Georgia, however, was not only the first state to reject the amendment, but also continued to resist it even after its ratification. In particular, the legislature refused to allow women to vote at the polling station because they had failed to register in April and May of that year, before they were legally allowed to do so. ((This point is actually a bit contentious. The source I link to seems credible, but I’d like to hear from people who know more about this.)) Women in Georgia apparently weren’t allowed to vote until the 1922 mid-term election, and the state didn’t formally ratify the amendment until 1970.

Georgia went to James M. Cox, but Warren Harding won the national vote in a landslide. Four years later, Ms. Cooper may have been able to vote for the president after being denied the first time. Ninety-two years later, she may be the only living woman in the country to have had that experience.

One Comment

  1. Maira
    Posted 31 August, 2012 at 00:30 | Permalink

    I’d like to know if she has any thoughts about that. Actually, as someone who’s 116 and has seen *so much*, I’d like to know her thoughts about a lot things…

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