The 19th Amendment

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Amendment XIX to the US Constitution

Technically this post is off-theme today, but it is important-enough topic that I know you won’t mind.  Today we are celebrating the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The 19th Amendment prohibits states from restricting voting rights on the basis of sex.

Ah, that’s nice, so what.

Here’s the thing: the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920!  Yes, 1920, not even 100 years ago.

Oh, well, I’m sure it was just an oversight.  You are?  Well then, why was language removed from the 14th amendment that would have included women’s suffrage?  Do you know when the 19th amendment was introduced to Congress?  1878!  Um yeah, that is 42 years from the time that the legislation was introduced until the time it was ratified.

And this is why, even though I grew up thinking that women were equal citizens with full rights, that women’s legal status is a precious and precarious thing and should not be taken for granted.

In the early days of the republic, voting rights were generally limited by states to “freeholders.”  A freeholder was defined as a person who owned land worth a certain amount of money.  Now, women were denied the right to own property through coverture laws, legal doctrine by which a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband.  So, by default, women would not have the right to vote as they couldn’t be “freeholders”.

As time went on, property restrictions began to be eliminated as a condition for suffrage. In parallel, women’s rights advocates were focused abolishing coverture; however, by this point the two issues were being treated as mutually exclusive.  New York State’s Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 made substantial changes to the existing laws concerning the rights of women to own and control property, influencing other states’ legislation as well as the language of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed the applicant for a land grant to be of either gender (it specifically indicates, “he or she….”). 

As women began to gain rights as property holders, they were expected to pay taxes on their assets although they continued to be denied the right to vote.  Now what was that whole American revolution thing about again?  Taxation without representation?  I see…

Opponents of the 19th amendment claimed that giving women the right to vote would harm the institution of marriage as women were already represented in the public sphere through their husbands.  These arguments succeeded in blocking women’s suffrage as part of the 14th amendment in 1868, which specifies that voting rights shall be granted to “male inhabitants.” And the fifteenth amendment, ratified in 1870 to clarify the intent of the 14th, states that voting rights “shall not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” and pointedly does not include sex.

Rather than falling too far down the rabbit hole of the history of women’s legal rights in the United States at this point (don’t worry, there will be more coming down the pipe), let’s celebrate that on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified.  And let’s plan a big party next year for the centennial.  In the meantime, never forget that women’s inclusion in the public sphere has been hard-fought and piecemeal and that we must be vigilant about defending the status of women as fully vested citizens.

Wendy Whelan, Associate Artistic Director, NYCB

Something happened recently that I think is very exciting – Wendy Whelan was hired as associate artistic director of New York City Ballet (NYCB). Together with Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford, she will be helming the country’s largest ballet company as it emerges from years of scandal following #METOO allegations of misconduct by former AD Peter Martins as well as several male dancers.

You might be saying, “yes, but she is only the associate artistic director, big whoop,” or asking, as the New York Times did, “if the AD job is too big for one person, why not make Whelan and Stafford co-artistic directors?” Fair enough.

Research shows that women are often appointed to C-level roles at organizations in crisis. But not because women are deemed the most qualified to turn things around. The underlying attitude with these appointments seems to be, “well things are already a mess.” It has also been demonstrated that women are judged more critically than their male counterparts for their performance and given less credit for creating positive outcomes.

I think that what NYCB is doing here is a really interesting way to avoid this paradigm. The position that they created for Whelan has clearly defined responsibilities focused around her sweet spot – programming and dancer development.  They are elevating her to a leadership role in which she is likely to be successful, not just to serve as a female figurehead or sacrificial lamb.

Wendy Whelan’s Career

Whelan is one of my all-time favorite ballerinas. Seeing her perform Agon when I was in college was such a formative moment – the way that she attacked the movement, the way that you could see the power radiating from her. From then on, I strove to infuse my dancing with that kind of fearlessness and energy.

As an artist, she was fierce and precisely technical. Her lines were always correct, and she owned the stage. I saw her and Craig Hall perform After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon at USC on March 24, 2011. I had seen this piece before in San Francisco, with Yuan Yuan Tan performing, and had a very vivid memory of the work. For a few minutes, I thought I may have been mistaken, it looked like a different piece. It was Whelan’s clean lines and exacting positions. I was blown away!

She retired from NYCB in 2014 after a 30-year career. I watched the snippets of her farewell concert on the internet, disappointed that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see her dance in person again. Fortunately for me, retirement was the beginning of her career as a modern dancer, and I was able to see her in 2015 and 2017 here in Southern California.

New York City Ballet Leadership

New York City Ballet has a long and storied history. Founded in 1948 by George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, Balanchine served as artistic director (and force of nature) until his death in 1983. Jerome Robbins, who had been assistant artistic director since 1948 and Peter Martins then assumed the roles of co-ballet masters in chief. When Robbins retired in 1990, Martins was solely in charge of the company until 2009, when NYBC created an executive director position to oversee the administrative functions of the company. Martins continued to run the company from an artistic perspective until 2018.

I see Whelan’s appointment as the board’s way of signaling an earnest endeavor to change the culture. Beyond her esteemed 30-year career as a ballerina, she has pursued innovative artistic paths and actively worked to cultivate young talent. I am optimistic that the organization will give her the resources and support required and that she will have a significant and lasting impact on the dance cannon beyond her career as a performer.