One hundred years ago today, I wouldn’t have just sent off my application for a mail-in ballot for this November’s election. They didn’t have mail-in ballots in 1920—but the main reason was that women didn’t have the right to vote until Aug. 26 of that year.
A couple of weeks ago, I watched “The Vote,” the Public Broadcast System’s American Experience documentary on women’s suffrage, and learned how very difficult the fight for the vote actually was, taking over seven decades and involving three generations of women.
I knew the names of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who proposed women’s suffrage at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, and Susan B. Anthony, who also fought tirelessly for the right to vote. I didn’t know that Frederick Douglass, the famous African-American abolitionist and former slave, was also passionate about women getting the vote. He was one of the outstanding speakers at the Seneca Falls convention.
I hadn’t heard about Harriot Stanton Blatch, Alice Paul, Carrie Chapman Catt and Ida B. Wells, who also made major contributions to achieving women’s suffrage.
Daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriot organized working women in New York and formed the Women’s Political Union. Ida B. Wells was not only one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People but was also active in the women’s rights and suffrage movement, especially for African American women.
However, Alice and Carrie were the driving forces of the groups that finally won the vote.
Alice grew up in a Quaker family, attending meetings of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association with her mother. When Alice went to England in 1909 to take graduate courses, she heard suffrage leader Christabel Pankhurst speak, and she joined Pankhurst’s militant group, whose members, including Alice, were arrested multiple times. Alice served three jail terms in England, participating in a hunger strike during the last one, during which she was force-fed through the nostrils.
When she returned to the U.S., Alice was determined to promote women’s suffrage in her own country.
At the time, the attitude of many American men was that women were too emotional and not intelligent enough to vote. They were supposed to have lots of children and weren’t supposed to know about anything outside the home. Some prominent women felt they didn’t need the vote, that they could accomplish more through indirect influence on their husbands.
Another strong opposing force was the liquor lobby, since many suffragettes were also associated with the temperance movement. The lobby spent lots of money opposing the women’s vote.
However, by 1910, four new Western states had approved women’s suffrage, since it was advantageous for them to report larger numbers of votes.
While some women’s groups wanted to work to get the vote approved state by state, Alice Paul thought it would be easier to pass a federal amendment. She planned a Women’s Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C. in 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Women came from all over the country to participate, a few hiking from New York, talking suffrage along their route. Some 5,000 women marched, with their lead banner reading, “We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising the Women of the Country.”
However, the local police didn’t provide protection for the marchers, who were jeered at and assaulted by drunk men and other opponents of their cause. In contrast, the inaugural parade the next day was perfectly orderly. The women complained bitterly about their treatment.
Carrie Chapman Catt, who organized the National American Woman Suffrage Association, worked to persuade both political parties to commit to suffrage and convince Wilson to support it. He had said that women’s suffrage would affect the home negatively.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, Carrie encouraged women to support the war effort, offering 2 million women to replace men in the workforce, manufacturing uniforms and supplies, distributing food, selling bonds and providing nurses to go abroad.
In January 1917, Alice Paul’s National Women’s Party began picketing at the White House, the first group to do so. They kept up their daily vigil, with signs demanding the vote, for two years. In June, the picketers began to be arrested for “obstructing traffic,” and several went to jail. Alice went on another hunger strike and, again, was force-fed, gaining nation-wide publicity for such harsh treatment for civil disobedience.
The combination of women’s huge contributions to the war effort and the continued publicity for the cause finally influenced Wilson to ask Congress to pass the 19th Amendment, allowing women to vote. Then three-fourths of the 48 states had to ratify it. The Southern states were all opposed, because they didn’t want to add African-American women to their voting rolls.
By mid-June, 1920, 35 states had approved the amendment, and it was up to Tennessee to provide the final needed vote. On Aug. 18, the vote was tied, until Harry Burns received a letter from his mother, saying, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” He changed his vote, and the amendment passed. It was certified on Aug. 26, and that Nov. 9 million women voted!
I recommend that you watch “The Vote,” but more important, please appreciate the long fight for democracy in the US and vote this November.