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What 26 Million New Voices Meant for Health in America

1920 was a big year for being in the 26-million range.

In November’s Presidential Election, 26,368,528 total votes were counted, and Warren G. Harding emerged as the winner. But democracy’s biggest victory of the year had occurred about two and a half months prior, on this day 100 years ago.

When over 26 million women were granted the right to vote.

26 million voices formally invited into the democratic process, after decades spent fiercely demanding their rights through seemingly every means for change the American Constitution provides, excluding the ballot box. And with the calls for women’s suffrage reverberating so loudly across the country, how could they be ignored?

They couldn’t. The 19th Amendment was ratified, and with it came a reckoning for many politicians who wrestled with a big question: what did it mean for an entirely new demographic of eligible voters to enter the playing field, especially all at once?

Strategies were quickly recalculated, with 26 million additional voices factored in. Realistically, not every woman would vote in every election, but it was nevertheless a shock to what was a traditionally male-dominated sphere. Many anticipated that women would consolidate an enormous voting bloc, and while it later turned out that this was not the case — women were actually represented across the ideological spectrum — in the moment politicians scrambled to take a stance that they believed would best align with a demographic 26 million strong. Either way, the right to vote became a newfound source of power and influence for women: lawmakers could either listen or risk losing their seats.

Many chose to listen, and listened particularly well when it came to health issues. Just a year after the 19th Amendment was ratified, the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act passed, allocating $1 million in federal funding per year to support states running programs for mothers and infants, including prenatal clinics and health education efforts. Local public health spending also increased by 35%, enabling door-to-door hygiene campaigns to take place across the country that ultimately reduced child mortality by 8–15%.

The presence and efforts of women voters also transformed reproductive healthcare policies. In the wake of the 19th Amendment, birth control was made more accessible and affordable, and state Medicaid programs were mandated to include services and supplies for family planning.

Through all of these changes, an important commonality exists: 26 million women were granted the right to vote, and many of them acted on it. Many of them continued to be activists for the issues that mattered to them, including but in no way limited to their health and the health of their children. Their voices were heard in every corner of America, taken seriously by legislators in Congress, and backed at the ballot box at last.

August 18th, 1920 was indeed a big win for democracy.

A win for America’s founding ideals.

A win for women.

And 100 years later, that win continues to be honored and celebrated as we bear witness to its effects in not just health care but every aspect of society.