IT'S HARD to believe: On this day just 74 years ago -- perhaps within the lifetime of your grandmother, or your mother, or even yourself -- the power of the ballot was still for men only. The fate of a nation was entrusted to half of its citizenry. But five days later, on Aug. 26, 1920, one of the most profound changes in American history occurred: the 19th Amendment to the Constitution took effect, and women at last had the right to vote.

Before the anniversary of that moment again passes unnoticed next Friday, one might ponder this question: How could women have been denied such a fundamental role for the first 144 years of our nationhood? Why was something so obviously right achieved only after decades of passionate protest, civil disobedience, and old-fashioned, knock-down, family-dividing, church-splitting, liberal-versus-conservative debate?

The 19th Amendment represented a sea change in the political character of the nation. Few issues since the abolition of slavery roiled the populace to such an extent. A review of the debate, as I discovered recently over a couple of days at the Library of Congress, provides some answers and sheds some light on our current political scene.

The suffrage movement began to attract national attention late in the 19th century and gained momentum during the first two decades of the 20th. People of divergent backgrounds united around one central conviction: that while our Founding Fathers may have overlooked it, women as well as men were created equal, and the vote was their natural right too.

The issue over which the forces of left and right squared off could not have been more basic: Should the dominant group, white males, be required to share their privileged access to the voting booth? Complicating matters, the proposed amendment could take effect only if ratified by a majority of that male electorate -- that is, only if most men cast their votes in favor of the suffragists.

To experience the real flavor of the debate leading to the 19th Amendment it is important to read the exact words of the proponents and opponents of women's suffrage. The quotes that follow, if not attributed otherwise, are taken from Aileen S. Kreditor's excellent 1965 book, "The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920" (Columbia University Press). The arguments against extending the vote to women fell into the following categories:

* Biological/psychological: No anti-suffragist argument was used more frequently than the one that found a disqualifying flaw in woman's biological makeup. "The masculine represents judgment . . . while the feminine represents emotion . . . the predominance of sentiment in women renders her essentially an idealist. She jumps at conclusions," declared O. B. Frothingham in his 1890 essay "The Real Case of the 'Remonstrants Against Women's Suffrage.' "

Yet another expert in the biology of womanhood, a man named Walsh, declared to a mass meeting in Albany, N.Y.: "A woman's brain involves emotion rather than intellect; and whilst this feature fits her admirably as a creature burdened with the preservation and happiness of the human species, it painfully disqualifies her for the sterner duties to be performed by the intellectual faculties . . . "

Unlike some of today's feminists, the suffragists did not respond by noting the war-mongering propensities of testosterone-stoked male voters and politicians, not to mention their patent neglect of programs to aid the weak. Perhaps liberals of the day considered the biological balderdash too ridiculous to dignify with a response.

* Family Values: Giving women the vote, opponents claimed, would interfere with women's maternal duties. It could "encourage singleness." Moreover, a good wife by definition shared in the creation of a "consensus on political matters," which consensus her husband duly voted at the polls. Thus, she already shared in the vote. More than one spokesman stressed that this practice spared women the "burden" of voting.

The argument for women's essentially familial role is set forth clearly in an anti-suffrage article, "Household Hints," published in an undated Massachusetts journal: "Housewives! You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout. . . . Control of the temper makes a happier home than control of elections. . . . Good cooking lessens alcoholic craving quicker than a vote on local option. . . . Clean houses, which cannot be provided by legislation, keep children healthier and happier than any number of laws."

Anybody for deja vu? This mother-cook-housekeeper image of woman still persists in some 1994 circles. But it was not persuasive even 100 years ago. The most effective rebuttal to such a confining definition of woman's role was the sheer physical presence of the suffragists in the streets, in legislative halls, at factories, in rallies and wherever else they chose to assert their self-definition as equal partners with men.

* Woman Idealized: Just as some fret today that jury duty can expose women to lurid details of crimes, anti-suffragists argued that women shouldn't be burdened with the rough-and-tumble of political campaigns. Some suggested more than once that women might simply vote for the handsomest candidate. Others deemed it unthinkable for women to forfeit their true role as ennoblers of a corrupt society. Many women, of course, shared this concern. In 1913, a congressman named Gallinger read into the Congressional Record the statement of a group of New Hampshire women that "with the demands of society, the calls of charity, the church, and philanthropy increasing, we feel that to add the distracting forces of political campaigns would wreck our constitutions and destroy our homes."

Liberals rejected this idealization of women as an artful subterfuge to keep them powerless. One suffragist sniffed that putting women on a pedestal simply provided men with a good view of their legs!

* Theological: As in the civil rights movement, the clergy divided sharply to the right and the left. The religious right sternly admonished the faithful against any change in the status of women, offering a biblical basis for that status: woman's role in The Fall, the resulting banishment from Eden, woman's subsequent pain in childbearing and her scripturally defined marital status as in subjection to her husband.

Liberal theologians insisted that the Bible, rightly interpreted, supported the equality and dignity of all human beings. They often cited St. Paul's clear admonition in Galatians 3:28 that in Christ "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female . . . " But the challenge was grave enough that the National American Woman Suffrage Association at its annual meeting in 1902 appointed a commission to come up with "ways and means of interesting conservative church women."

* Economic: Conservative opponents of women's suffrage often succeeded in identifying the movement with socialism -- a tactic more recently used against Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, welfare and, yes, health care reform. The true goal of the suffragists, it was alleged, was to vote sweeping liberal reforms. Since women could not be trusted to vote conservatively, they should be denied the vote. One business spokesman expressed the fear that giving the franchise to women would result in "upsetting all calculations."

Liberals responded that, since conservatives considered women less corruptible than men, the beneficent influence of their vote should make for more integrity in the marketplace. That would be good for society and might even be good for business! Aesthetic: Perhaps the oddest statement of all in the suffrage debate appeared in the Sewanee Review in 1909. The writer warned that if the small minority comprising the suffragist movement achieved their goal, "women would become large-handed, big-footed, flat-chested, and thin-lipped."

There apparently was no liberal response to that alarming claim. I conducted my own brief survey of women passing on the street and indeed found some with one or more of those characteristics, but thus far I have not been able to establish a correlation between physical appearance and voting habits.

* States' Rights: As might be expected, Southern states insisted that the 19th Amendment would be a gross intrusion into the rights of the states -- a tired chestnut that has been used repeatedly to block or delay some of the most important legislation in our history, as the civil rights struggle amply illustrated. We even waged our costliest war to resolve the argument. Yet the states' rights banner is still unfurled at times, and that is one major reason it took the nation 144 years to extend to women what they should have had from the beginning.

The arguments that kept women out of the voting booth seem quaint today. They are gone with the wind, of which they mostly consisted. None of the dire predictions of disaster has resulted from the 19th Amendment. Even conservatives now seek women's votes, reminiscent of the old rooster that crowed at noon to herald a dawn he'd slept through.

Every time we hold an election we can celebrate women's victory. That's true even though we liberals know that many of them will cast their votes for the political descendants of those who once blocked the doors to the voting booth.

Ross Coggins, an Annapolis writer and retired Foreign Service officer, is working on a historical book tentatively titled "Hug a Liberal."