Aug. 26, 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, a milestone in equality that granted women the right to vote on a national level. In 2014, Montana celebrated its 100th anniversary of giving women the franchise and much was presented then about the state’s story. In honor of the 19th Amendment, let’s look at the story of how this legislation came to pass on a national level. It is an important history to understand because it lays the groundwork for the story we are living in our country today. The campaign for women’s suffrage was a great social and political revolution, and the men and women who pressed for changes were going against the status quo of the roles that women had occupied for centuries.
The parameters of American citizenship as defined in our Constitution never negated women’s right to vote, but its language made it unclear if they could vote. Individual states had authority to decide the question and every state excluded women.
Though many think of the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York as the birth of the movement, ideas about equality had been percolating for decades. In 1776, Abigail Adams reminded her husband as he helped the Continental Congress draft laws of the new nation that women “would not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we had neither voice nor representation.” Early feminist writers argued that women could be more effective and productive if given opportunities for education. By the 1830s, black and white women in the abolition movement began blending their anti-slavery work with women’s rights activism.
By the time reformers, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, met in Seneca Falls, they were advancing radical changes to the status quo in America. In their Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, they stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.“ Their demands included the right of married woman to own property, right to leave confines of home and participate equally in the “public sphere”, access to education and professions, equal pay and the right to keep it, and right to vote.
Newspapers across the country blared reports of the meeting. More state conventions were held and in 1850, the first national convention. In 1851, Stanton met Quaker abolitionist Susan B. Anthony. Together they formed one of the most formidable alliances in the history of social and political reform and changed the landscape of American feminism.
In 1861, women, seeing a chance to be included in this epic struggle for freedom, put aside suffrage demands and worked to end slavery during the Civil War. And when the war was over, a series of amendments put into place the beginnings of the continuing journey toward equality that we are experiencing today.
The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments abolished slavery, defined what it means to be a citizen, and ensured that black men had voting rights, respectively. These legal protections did not address how Americans would create a free and equal interracial democracy for all, and none of the provisions granted women the right to vote. Amidst all the turmoil of American reinventing itself after the war, women were on their own to convince voters that they deserved a voice in our democracy.
And so they persisted, with some insisting the way to success was to lobby in the halls of Congress for a federal amendment and others concentrating on campaigning in individual states. The movement was also divided along racial lines. As Jim Crow legislation and practices took hold in the South during the 1870s and 1880s, many white suffragists felt that excluding black women would bring quicker success. Black women, working to create communities and secure educational opportunities for their families in the wake of emancipation, were left out. Believing that having a voting voice by which they could bring about change, black women created their own suffrage efforts, and as the years went on, became a significant force in changing the tide of consciousness around women voting. Add to this mix the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU supported suffrage as a way for women to protect their families against the ravages of alcoholism and were loudly stirring the pot over its prohibition. Lots of voices demanding to be heard! For 20 years, these groups persisted without much success.
By 1890, things began to change. Aging Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had passed on the leadership of the movement to dynamic new leaders, Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Shaw. The suffragists united to form the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA). In the Western states, the realities of life on the frontier allowed women more opportunities. By 1896, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho had passed suffrage for women, and it looked like the tide was turning.
The turn of the 20th Century was a remarkable time in our history, with so much happening on all fronts of reform. And among the many voices clamoring to be heard – immigrants, laborers, blacks - a New Woman was emerging. Women left out of careers and public life began forming networks of clubs for advancement of literature and science, social reform, and civic involvement: these clubs took to new levels women’s organizational abilities and began to effect change. Not surprisingly, the clubs were not integrated, so black women became staunch activists on their own, adding their voices to the persistent cry for the ballot.
By the turn of the 20th century, issues like alimony, child custody, property ownership, and educational opportunities not available when the movement began had been secured in many places. Women were becoming public spirited citizens who give their time to philanthropic, charitable, educational and civic activities, and this was gaining acceptance with society. The popularity of the bicycle and the exercise it provided helped women shed not only the socially acceptable feminine ideal of a frail, delicate, pale creature unsuited for citizenship, but now women were mobile! The New Woman was increasingly independent, and with that came an increased urgency to take her place as a citizen with a voice in her government.
Yet, even with four western states having passed suffrage and the progress that women were making toward becoming participating members of society, suffragists continued to suffer defeat after defeat in convincing more states to grant women the vote. Political and social propaganda on both sides of the issue increased. When the state of Washington overwhelmingly passed the measure in 1910, the final dramatic push began. Montana, whose state legislature has debated and defeated suffrage each session since 1889, passed suffrage in 1914, making Montana the 13th state to give women the vote. In 1916, Montana elected Jeannette Rankin to the House of Representatives, the first woman to serve in Congress.
New leaders with new ideas emerged. Enter Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. Blatch and Paul brought new, more assertive tactics to the campaign, encouraging women to go into the streets, conduct open air speeches, organize parades, and pursue a more vocal and public way of getting the message out. This reenergized the women and the movement.
The outbreak of WWI saw women supporting war measures. Women went overseas to volunteer with the Red Cross as nurses and even doctors on the battlefields, working in relief camps for refugees. At home they collected and made necessities to send to soldiers, worked in manufacturing plants, and started rehab centers when our own soldiers eventually returned home. Suffragists took advantage of these activities to promote women as patriots. They continued to work for suffrage while supporting the war, believing it showed women were willing to support Congress and prove their citizenship, and Congress therefore should support suffrage.
The NAWSA continued their more conventional approach of lobbying, striding the halls of Congress to talk with all legislators about the importance of the amendment. President Woodrow Wilson said he would support suffrage if the states wanted it, but not a federal amendment. Alice Paul’s group said enough is enough, suffragists have to be seen and heard in a stronger way. Paul started her own organization, the Constitutional Union, and brought a new militancy of spirit as the final days of the campaign approached. In the end it was the combination of the pressures that brought success.
When Paul’s group started picketing the White House six days a week, they were called anti-American, traitors for bringing attention to their cause while we were at war. President Wilson, in his request that Congress vote for the war that the US was now fighting, said that the US would fight for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their government. The suffragists called him out for his hypocrisy. Twenty million American women submit to authority and do not have a voice in their government; when will you fight for them? Picketing suffragists called him Kaiser Wilson for his disregard for American women over foreign interests.
Crowds attacked the suffragists. They were arrested for obstructing traffic and spent days, weeks, months in jail, performing hard labor in the most abominable conditions, eating maggot infested food, enduring abusive treatment and beatings. Many went on a hunger strike and were force-fed for weeks.
And yet they persisted. Word of this treatment got out and was carried by newspapers across the country. Finally, President Wilson called for their release, knowing they would never give up.
In January 1918, the House passed the 19th Amendment. Two years later, the Senate passed it by one vote. Ratification required 36 states out of 48 states, and it too passed by one vote in the final state in August 1920. And then, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment, stating “the right to vote in the United States shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of sex” was added to the Constitution.
The battle for 19th Amendment was over, and though it did not enfranchise all women, it was a big step towards equality. Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 recognized Native peoples as citizens, but like African Americans in the South, many were prevented by voting within states that didn’t want them to. In 1965, President Johnson signed Voting Rights Act, making discrimination based on race illegal in US. In 1923, Alice Paul proposed the Equal Rights Amendment that would put women legally on par with men on a federal level. Congress passed the measure in 1972 but it has not been ratified.
What a powerful story of perseverance and persistence! What propelled these women and men to fight so long, to persist and never give up, to absorb one defeat after another, dissension within their own ranks, rejections, and humiliation? Why did they bother to fight for something that after a while most of them realized they would never live to see? What if we ask ourselves that question? In light of all the challenges on the social, political, economic fronts today, what are we willing to do to realize the necessary changes for our country currently, for a future we may not live to see?
One way is to vote, and take seriously the franchise that the suffragists insisted was the way to create a more fair and equal society. Your vote is your voice – if you don’t use it, no one will hear you. If everyone voted in an informed way, believing that it mattered, what could our country become?
If history of the women and the men who support them in America reveals anything, it shows a national character of perseverance and persistence!!! Elizabeth Cady Stanton said that the best protection a woman has is her courage, and that’s true for us all. The best protection we all have is our courage to live authentically, to care, to stand up and do what may be difficult or confrontational, so that 100 years from now, people will look back at us and be proud and thankful that we persisted.
Mary Jane Bradbury is an educator, historian and member of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Tourism Council, which provides the monthly Nuggets form Helena column in the Independent Record. Visit helenaevents.com for events and activities in March celebrating Women’s History Month.