My mother recently forwarded an email she’d received from a friend of hers. It reviews some of the incidents that led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution granting women the right to vote. Since this year is the 90th anniversary of women’s suffrage in America, I think it’s worth looking at that momentous occasion again (with my text rather than the rather sparse explanations that accompanied the photos in the email forward).
The United States was founded on the principle expressed in the Declaration of Independence that “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Yet despite this, women were not seen as “the governed,” and therefore their consent was not required. Many western territories, upon becoming states, included women’s suffrage in their constitutions (including Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado). But in the rest of the country, women’s suffrage was virtually nonexistent.
In 1850 was convened the first National Women’s Rights Convention. Attendees were faced with the task of finding answers to the following questions: Should the movement include or exclude men? Who was to blame for women’s inequality? What remedies should they seek? How could women best convince others of their need for equality?
Many of the women who worked for women’s suffrage were also active in the anti-slavery movement. After the Civil War, the desire for black men to vote both joined and competed with the movement for women’s suffrage. Frederick Douglass believed that black male suffrage should be fought for first and supported the Fifteenth Amendment granting all men the right to vote regardless of race. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fifteenth Amendment unless it were revised to include women.
There were also differences of opinion within the women’s suffrage movement on how to push for the granting of the right to vote. One organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (headed by Stanton and Anthony), lobbied individual states to grant women suffrage. Another, the National Woman’s Party (led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns), pushed for a constitutional amendment to grant women the right to vote on a national basis.
When President Woodrow Wilson declared that World War I was a war for democracy, women challenged him to make America a true democracy by enfranchising women. He eventually made pro-suffrage speeches, and his support for the cause was followed shortly by passage of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women through America the right to vote. But not without a fight.
The photos below illustrate some of the scenes and people involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage. The year 1917 saw some of the darkest hours of the women’s struggle. According to Snopes (which asserts that the email circulating the Web is true), the NWP’s picketing demonstrations in front of the White House were met with increasingly severe measures by the government. Beginning with arrests and fines of $25 for obstructing traffic, the police began rounding up the women and imprisoning them overnight, and later for up to three days. When the women refused to pay the fines and were obviously undeterred by the night in jail, the government resorted to stiffer punishments. On July 14, six women were arrested and sentenced to 60 days in Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, where “conditions were abysmal. Prison cells were small and dark, with fetid air, and the food was infested [with mealworms]. Moreover, [the cells] were infested with a variety of animal life. Alice Paul recalled that among the women imprisoned with her ‘was one whose shrieks nightly filled the jail as the rats entered her cell.’”
November 14, known as the “Night of Terror,” saw the arrival of a new crop of arrested suffragists at Occoquan. While the women waited in a holding room for processing, the superintendent burst in with a posse of guards and proceeded to order the women to their cells. Here is the account given on Snopes of the treatment of the women by the guards:
The scene was one of bedlam, intentionally disorienting. Suffragists feared for their lives and the lives of their compatriots. May Nolan, a seventy-three-year-old Floridian with a lame leg that she had to take pains to treat gingerly, was literally dragged off between burly guards, each of whom held an arm, despite her assurances that she would go willingly and despite the pleas of other suffragists to refrain from injuring her leg. Dorothy Day had her arm twisted behind her back and was purposefully slammed down twice over the back of an iron bench. Dora Lewis was thrown into a cell with such force that she was knocked unconscious. For several frantic minutes her companions believed that she was dead. Alice M. Cosu of New Orleans was also thrown forcefully into her cell. Cosu suffered a heart attack and repeated and persistent requests for medical attention for the obviously stricken woman went unanswered by the authorities throughout the long night. Lucy Burns, who had been arrested once again on November 10, shortly after completing her previous sixty-day sentence, was identified by [Superintendent] Whittaker as the ringleader for the group. She was manacled to her cell bars, hands above her head, and remained that way until morning. Later, her clothing was removed and she was left with only a blanket.
The purpose of the email is to remind women of the efforts and sacrifices made for us by our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Without their courage and conviction, it’s unlikely that American men would have thought of granting women’s suffrage on their own initiative. A review of history—including the “rule of thumb” law, women’s legal status as chattel, droit du seigneur, and the notion even today that women have smaller brains and are less intelligent than men—should persuade even the most apathetic woman that the gift of suffrage is not one to be squandered.
There is a facetious (or not-so-facetious) expression: “I don’t vote for politicians; it only encourages them.” On the other hand, what does NOT voting do? In the 2005 Iranian elections, a large proportion of the Iranian population stayed home. They were fed up with the current system and decided to protest by not participating in the election. Now look who they got.
I encourage everyone to view the photos below and take inspiration from these brave souls. And VOTE! (Early and often…)
Alice Paul. When she embarked on a hunger strike, they tied her to a chair and force fed her until she vomited. This went on for weeks until word of her treatment was smuggled out to the press. Prison officials transferred Paul to a sanitarium in the hope of having her declared insane (and thus removing her from the helm of the suffrage movement).
Conferring over ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution at National Woman’s Party headquarters, Jackson Place, Washington, D.C. Left to right: Mrs. Lawrence Lewis, Mrs. Abby Scott Baker, Anita Pollitzer, Alice Paul, Florence Boeckel, Mabel Vernon (standing, right).
Those interested in videos on the subject might be interested in the documentary “Not For Ourselves Alone” about the partnership of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The 2004 HBO movie “Iron Jawed Angels” about the NWP’s battle for suffrage, starring Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor, also looks good. I love what the sanitarium doctor evaluating Alice Paul for insanity tells the prison officials who have brought her there:
“Courage in women is often mistaken for insanity.”