The Women’s Suffrage movement
When people think of the 19th Amendment, they often incorrectly assume that all women received the right to vote at the same time. By 1920, 15 states had full suffrage, and more had what is often referred to as partial suffrage. Women could vote in some elections, but not all (think local elections or primaries or even school board elections). As many women as there were in support of Suffrage, you also have Anti-Suffrage groups led by women. Just to give you an example, in 1911, anti-suffragists formed the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS), led by Josephine Dodge, their publication, called the Woman’s Protest, discussed their position on suffrage. The road to suffrage is complex and in order to more fully understand what happened in 1920 and why the movement gained steam during the Progressive Era, we have to go back in time a bit.
Having the right to vote was critical if women were going to be able to secure other rights within American society. Women did not have access to the same education as men, the same jobs as men. The most prestigious schools only admitted men. When women were employed in the few occupations that were deemed appropriate such as teaching, they were paid less than their male counterparts. For unmarried women, they were able to own property, enter into legal contracts, sue and be sued. Once a woman married, she lost those rights. When women married, they promised to obey – her husband became a master of sorts. Susan B. Anthony never married as a result of that fact. Under the eyes of the law, women belonged to their husbands. Their property, inheritance, wages, went to their husbands. In 1848, NY passed the Married Women’s Property Act. This law allowed women to own and control their property. Other states used this law to pass similar ones.
For women, their rights were few. If their husband gambled away his earnings she had little recourse. If he was violent and abusive, she had little recourse. In the eyes of the law she was the equivalent to a child. Even in cases of divorce which were not common, men tended to be given the children. Only very young children and daughters were ever given custody to women in cases of divorce.
When talking of leaders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, there are a number of heavy hitters. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who began their work together after being refused entry to an abolitionist conference because of their gender after a chance meeting at a Tea Party some time later. They hosted a women’s rights convention which eventually became known as The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The Seneca Falls Convention was held in upstate New York over two days. The first day, only women were allowed to attend and on the second day, the meeting was opened to men as well. This event is known as the beginning of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. At the Seneca Falls Convention, The Declaration of Sentiments which was read and signed by both male and female attendees. It was written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The Declaration of Sentiments was modeled after the Declaration of Independence. Declaring that both men and women were equal. The document highlighted the areas within society where women were held as second class citizens and were unequal to men. Access to education, equal protection under the law, the right to enter into legal contracts, property ownership, and of course, the right to vote. They argued that the only time women were recognized by the government was in terms of taxes.
Today, in Seneca Falls, there is a wonderful museum. You can see the Wesleyan Chapel where 300 people attended the convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house where she raised her 7 children. And the home of Mary McClintock where the Declaration of Sentiments was written.
During the Civil War years, the movement for women’s suffrage and temperance were put on hold. Women focused on the war effort. In the years following the Civil War and Slavery was abolished and the 15th amendment stipulated that the right to vote could not be denied or abridged based on race or previous condition of servitude, the fight to extend the right to vote to women continued.
There were some states and territories that allowed women the right to vote. NJ for example, gave women the right to vote until 1807 when they took it away.
In 1869, Wyoming became the first state to give women the right to vote. Many western states and territories granted women full citizenship and the right to vote if they were over the age of 21.
Susan B. Anthony is probably the most famous of the leaders of the Women's Suffrage movement. She comes from a family of activists. Raised a Quaker, she was guided by the belief that all people are equal in the eyes of God. She was also a supporter of The Abolitionist and Temperance Movement. She met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851 and they formed a lifelong bond. Often traveling around the country and giving speeches in support of suffrage. In 1872 she was arrested and fined $100 for voting illegally. Today, many women in particular will go to her gravesite on election day and place their I Voted stickers on her grave.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton doesn’t get the same praise as Susan B. Anthony but she should. She came from a wealthy family and like Anthony, also supported Abolition. She would write the speeches and Susan B. Anthony, who was unmarried and had no children, was able to travel around the country giving those speeches. She helped to author two books, one was a history of the suffrage movement and the other was called The Woman’s Bible which discussed the way women were portrayed throughout the Bible created a bias. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was seen as too radical as a result of this book and because of her work in support of reproductive rights for women. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton couldn’t have led more different lives. Stanton’s role as wife and mother limited her ability to do as much as Susan B Anthony but I would go as far to say that without Elizabeth Cady Stanton, you don’t have Susan B. Anthony.
Lucretia Mott who helped to organize The Seneca Falls Convention with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was a member of William Lloyd Garrison’s Anti-Slavery society and helped to found the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery society. I mentioned earlier that her and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s inability to participate at the convention in London led them to organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 after another chance meeting at a tea party. She worked to further the movement for women’s equality and her speech titled a Discourse on Woman was published and widely read. In it she made the case for granting political rights for women and how current conditions for married women and a lack of access to higher education led women to be considered inferior.
Not All women suffragists were white women. Many women of color were leaders within the movement. In our podcast on Reform movements of the 1840s, we talked about Sojourner Truth and Fannie Barrier Williams. If you didn’t listen to that podcast, definitely go back and listen!
In 1869, The National Women Suffrage Association was created by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell Mary Livermore and others.
Above the titles of wife and mother, which, although dear, are transitory and accidental, there is the title human being, which precedes and out-ranks every other.
The NWSA was more radical and created by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (NWSA) they encouraged women to attempt to vote and when they were arrested, to use the court system to bring about change. Each group worked to gain the right to vote on their own but, in 1890, these groups merged and became known as National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Susan B. Anthony was the first President and then Carrie Chapman Catt. The Progressive Era and WWI would both embolden the arguments for women to gain the right to vote. On May 21, 1910, around 10,000 New Yorkers held the largest rally up that point in Union Square to demand that women receive the right to vote. Black Women had to create their own suffrage groups. Only in some instances were Black and White suffragists working alongside each other. While both had a common goal of attaining the right to vote, understand that there were also women who wouldn’t support suffrage if it meant extending the vote to women of color as well. Fear of alienating Southern allies was another reason for the separation of movements. Articles printed in “The Crisis” which was the magazine for the NAACP printed articles about the growing importance and the push for women of color to gain the right to vote. The social, political and economic future of Black Americans, especially Black women, depended on gaining the right to vote. For their future and for their children’s future.
In October of 1915, 25,000 women marched along 5th Avenue in NYC in support of Suffrage. A New York Times article issued a warning about what would happen if women got the right to vote. “They will play havoc for themselves and society,” and that if women were “granted suffrage, they would demand all the rights that implies. It is not possible to think of women as soldiers and sailors, police patrolmen, or firemen”! One of my favorite stories was in 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson traveled to NY for the celebration planned at the Statue of Liberty for its switch to electricity. The switch was to be triggered by President Woodrow Wilson while aboard the Presidential yacht, the Mayflower. Suffragists wished to “bomb” the president with suffrage petitions and pamphlets from the air. The plane was piloted by Leda Richberg-Hornsby.
Catt’s focus on securing the right to vote in NY finally paid off in 1917. She believed that the strategy of getting individual states to pass Suffrage laws would push forward an eventual Federal Law or Amendment granting women the right to vote across the country. On election day, the New York Times printed a quote by Catt stating “Remember that our country is fighting for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government. Vote for woman suffrage, because it is part of the struggle toward democracy.” This was printed in the very same newspaper that years earlier printed an article saying the world would go to hell in a handbasket if women were given the right to vote.
The first major National March for Suffrage took place on March 3, 1913. The Women’s Suffrage Procession was the day before Woodrow Wilson’s Inauguration. The capitol was abuzz with people planning to attend the inauguration. 5,000 suffragettes marched along Pennsylvania Avenue. The procession was meticulously planned and was full of symbolism. Women were organized into different state delegations or they marched based on their professions or wearing school colors. Many of the spectators began to attack the women participating in the march. It got so violent that US Army troops had to intervene so that the march could continue. Over 100 women had to be hospitalized for their injuries.
In the quest to obtain the right to vote, there were also protests in front of the White House. Whitehousehistory.org is a great resource for this topic.
The first protest took place on Jan. 10, 1917. Twelve women stood in front of the White House holding banners in support of Women’s Suffrage.
Alice Paul later said “the real turning point came when people continued to volunteer to picket, knowing full well that they would be arrested. These protests were sponsored by the NWP. Between 1917-1919, over 500 women were arrested for picketing in front of the White House. They were charged with obstruction of traffic. Six days a week, day in and day out, no matter the weather, the women stood in front of the White House. When the US entered WWI, many people viewed the continued protests as unpatriotic. This new generation of women learned from the mistakes of the predecessors. Calls for suffrage were put on hold with the outbreak of the Civil War, this was something they regretted doing. They would not make the same mistake again.
The Silent Sentinels as they were called stood in front of the white house holding banners quoting President Woodrow Wilson, or asking him, how long American women would have to wait for Liberty. Many thought that while Men were fighting oppression in Europe, it was unpatriotic for women to protest in front of the White House. Unlike, during the civil war, women did not stop their fight for equality and the right to vote. A wonderful film to show on this is Iron Jawed Angels. It does a wonderful job of showing the tireless dedication and even the hunger strikes many went on while in prison for trying to gain the right to vote. Another favorite of mine is the book “Jailed for Freedom” by Suffragist Doris Stevens who wrote a first-hand account of what she went through to secure liberty for women.
In January of 1878, a Senator from California named Aaron Sargent introduced an amendment to the Constitution: “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.” At his request, the Senate allowed Suffragettes to testify before Congress. This bill would not be voted on until 1887 and it was defeated. If you go to wilsoncenter.org, they have a great discussion of Woodrow Wilson’s stance on Suffrage. We will get into this more on our podcasts on Wilson. When he entered office in 1913, they describe his position as being “lukewarm at best”. In his 1918 address to Congress, President Wilson stated “We have made partners of the women in this war… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Woodrow Wilson was a husband and the father of 3 daughters. His daughter Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre (who was married at the White House) was a vocal supporter of Women’s Suffrage. By his second term in office, his stance began to change. His support didn’t stop at that speech, he made continuous appeals to members of Congress. US involvement in WWI and the role that women undertook on the home front, couldn’t be ignored. With all able bodied men of a certain age off fighting in Europe, women were tilling the fields, harvesting the crops and working jobs men had once occupied. Multiple attempts at a vote on a Constitutional Amendment failed in 1918 and 1919. On June 4, 1919, the resolution finally had enough votes to be sent to the states for ratification. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had approved the amendment. Tennessee became a battleground of sorts, 8 states had rejected the amendment and 5 states hadn’t voted on it. The 19th amendment was approved by the final state needed in August of 1920 by one vote. Representative Harry T Burn of Tennessee who changed his vote after receiving a telegram from his mother. There were of course celebrations, but many suffragists knew their work wasn’t over. Many, including Alice Paul got to work drafting an Equal Rights Amendment.
Women gained the hard won right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment but not all women would immediately benefit from it. For Asian women, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese women from voting until it was repealed in 1943. Jim Crow Laws would limit women of color for being able to exercise their right to vote in many states until the mid-1960s. Women getting the right to vote was an important stepping stone to equality that many of the activists we discussed, didn’t live to see. So much was needed to be done. Access to education, employment in a variety of fields would take decades more. Up to as recently as 1970, women needed to have their husband’s signature in order to be able to get a credit card. Women are still paid less in some industries as their male counterparts and white women are often paid more than women of color. The movement for women’s equality is still very much alive and well.
I’d like to end our discussion today with a quote from Abigail Scott Duniway, a suffragist who didn’t live to see the passage of the 19th Amendment
"The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by helping onward the reforms of their own times, by spreading the light of freedom and of truth still wider. The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future”. Each and every one of us owes a debt to those who came before us far greater than we realize. Do the work that needs to be done so that the generations of women that come after us will not have to be told they can be anything they want to be, for that will already be understood!