Communication Currents

Ritual as Revolution: When Casting a Vote Challenged a Nation

July 1, 2007
Political Communication

If public rituals showcase the conventions of a community, can they also promote social change? Observation of ritual performances through history suggests that, paradoxically, repetitive rituals can offer a foundation for powerful challenges to accepted beliefs. On the one hand, rituals symbolize cultural norms, presenting an image of shared convictions for participants and spectators alike. For example, a wedding ceremony depicts a personal attachment and a couple's new social role. A politician taking an oath of office swears loyalty to an institution and a set of principles. Such ordinary, repeated rituals communicate the message that traditions are continuous; yet even traditions can be challenged. Consider a wedding ceremony in which both members of the couple are of the same sex, or consider a politician taking an oath of office as the first woman to occupy that position. In both cases, substituting different characters for the expected ones calls attention to the conventional ritual as custom rather than incontestable reality, and it creates possibilities for imagining a different world.

U.S. history offers various examples of efforts to promote social change through alterations of conventional rituals of law, religion, and politics. Studying such efforts in the past not only expands our historical understanding of persuasive strategies but also gives us insights, by analogy, into the ways that public controversies are currently enacted. One especially dramatic example of the appropriation of an ordinary ritual for persuasive purposes occurred in the aftermath of the Civil War. From the late 1860s through the mid-1870s, hundreds of disenfranchised women throughout the country presented themselves at registry offices and polling places, demanding to be allowed to do their citizen's duty and perform the patriotic ritual of voting.

An organized movement for woman suffrage had existed in the United States since the Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention of 1848. This movement fundamentally challenged the cultural norms for gendered behavior that defined political actors as independent males and assumed that women were represented in public life by their fathers, husbands, or sons. The early woman suffrage movement elicited ridicule, although some suffragists in the post–Civil War period saw signs of hope. The passage of amendments to the U.S. Constitution on behalf of newly emancipated southern slaves created friction among suffragists but also affected the development of new legal arguments supporting a general broadening of the U.S. polity. For example, the Fourteenth Amendment, adopted in 1868, sweepingly defined U.S. citizens as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” In 1869 St. Louis attorney Francis Minor argued that the Constitution already enfranchised women, and many suffragists, including his wife, Virginia Minor, claimed these arguments as the conceptual basis for aggressively assailing registry offices and polling places. The Fifteenth Amendment's promise of protection against the denial of voting rights “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” also formed a conceptual foundation for voting efforts, especially those of some African American women.

Post–Civil War changes to constitutional law were not the only sign that women's political participation as voters might be feasible. In 1869 and 1870, respectively, Wyoming and Utah Territories granted full voting rights to women. Encouraged by legal arguments and by observable change, many disenfranchised women throughout the nation presented themselves as voters. A few registered and voted successfully, but most were turned away. Some of those who were refused deposited ballots in separate boxes that they had brought to the polling place for this purpose. A few sued the authorities who denied them access to the official ballot box. Some who voted successfully saw the election officers censured or indicted. In Rochester, New York, Susan B. Anthony was arrested and tried for illegal voting.

Women's efforts to register and vote—to present themselves as individuals with authority to perform the ordinary, participatory ritual of casting a ballot—were widely reported in the press. Editorial commentary ranged from celebration to derision. Reports highlighted the ordinary aspects of the ritual form as well as the challenge to convention represented by women at the polls. It was not the voting ritual that was newsworthy but rather the fact of the unauthorized person presenting herself as a legal voter, offering a picture of an alternative understanding of justice.

Women who attempted to vote sometimes reported jubilation at having made the effort, whether or not their votes were accepted. Some reported experiencing pleasure and strength, as well as renewed interest in public questions; others reported anger at being refused, which motivated commitment to the suffrage cause. Advocacy journals framed women's efforts to register or vote as an advertisement for suffragism and as an inspiration for others.

From Connecticut to California, legal authorities had a profoundly different response. Women who sued election officials lost their cases. In New York State in 1873, Anthony was convicted of illegal voting. In 1875 the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decisive judgment in a case begun by Virginia Minor in St. Louis. The opinion in Minor v. Happersett affirmed that women were citizens, but the Court also formally divorced citizenship from voting rights. The justices said flatly that citizenship meant “membership of a nation, and nothing more.” This case curtailed the voting efforts, although the legal arguments developed on behalf of Minor continued to circulate for decades. The Court's ruling also made it clear that securing the vote for all women citizens would require an amendment to the federal Constitution, a goal realized only in 1920.

The history of woman suffrage activism in the United States teaches the importance of perseverance in persuasive efforts to elicit social change. In a movement that encompassed more than seventy years of painstaking work, the range of tactics was vast. For a few years after the Civil War, many suffragists tried an especially aggressive strategy. Women going to the polls symbolized illegal intrusion into male bastions, and the simple ritual that they attempted to perform was culturally defined as patriotic when performed by men but as abominable when performed by women. Abstract legal arguments buttressed the controversy over women's voting, but women's bodies behaving as political actors offered a new, experiential kind of argument.

The evidence of the power of such actions appears in the narratives of diverse participants and in details of the widespread voting campaign. Furthermore, the legal record, which shows the generation of inventive suffragist arguments as well as powerful opposition, indicates the opening of a new arena for serious discussion of what was entailed in being a citizen. The failure of the suffragist argument at the Supreme Court is hardly incidental to the story, but neither is it the only significant factor. Such persuasive efforts provide a context in which to understand the appropriation of rituals by those culturally marked as the wrong people, whether a couple of the same sex marries, women preside from a Speaker's or bishop's chair, or undocumented workers publicly refuse invisibility. Rituals affirm who we are and show who we might 

About the author (s)

Angela G. Ray

Northwestern University

Associate Professor