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Transcript of Woman's Suffrage
In 1920, two years after the end of World War I, American women voted in their first presidential election. White men had been voting for nearly 140 years; black men for fifty years. Why did it take so long for women to participate in American politics?
In the 1800s, most people believed that women and men should be active in different spheres of life.
Women were supposed to be best suited to the private sphere of the home. Although considered morally superior to men, they were also thought to be emotionally and physically weaker. Doctors claimed that their smaller brains made them more artistic and refined. It was their responsibility to teach their children to be good citizens and to maintain their homes as sanctuaries from the harsh, cruel, fast moving public world.
"Woman has a head almost too small for intellect and just big enough for love. Her voice is not for brawling. Its tender tones are for soothings and caressings.”
- Dr. Charles Meigs, Lecture to the Jefferson Medical College, 1847
Men were supposed to be stronger and cruder, so they were better suited for operating in the competitive public sphere of work and politics outside the home.
"Man is strong; woman is beautiful. Man is daring and confident; woman is shy and unassuming. Man is great in action; woman in suffering. Man has a rugged heart; woman a soft and tender one.”
- Cyclopaedia of Moral and Religious Truths, 1865
The separate spheres metaphor was an ideal. In reality, many women had to work outside the home to support their families. Still, it was what people hoped to achieve - it was a sign of success if women remained in the private sphere.
1848 Seneca Falls
During the 1840s, women in the abolition movement began to resent how they were being treated by male abolitionists. At conferences, for example, they were forced to sit in the balconies and not say anything. They decided to organize a conference to discuss the rights of women in the United States.
The conference, the first woman's rights conference in the history of the United States, took place in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Much to the surprise of the organizers, over 200 women and men attended.
One of the woman who spoke at the conference was
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
. She lived in Seneca Falls. Her father threatened to disown her if she attended the Conference and her husband was so embarrassed that he left town. But that didn't stop her. At first Stanton spoke so softly that no one could hear her. Then she called for women to have the right to vote.
At the Conference, Stanton created a modified Declaration of Independence. Drawing on the tradition of the American Revolution against the English, she wrote that men were ruling like tyrants over women. She demanded that women be treated as citizens in their own right. Her document was called the
Declaration of Sentiments
In the 1850s, Stanton joined forces with
Susan B. Anthony
, a Quaker schoolteacher, to work on winning the vote for women. At one point, in 1872, Anthony was arrested and convicted for trying to vote in the presidential election.
Meanwhile, Amelia Bloomer began wearing short skirts and pantaloons (bloomers) to free women from the restrictions of hoop dresses, scandalizing American society.
It was a steep uphill battle for these early women's rights activists. Newspaper editorials regularly questioned their femininity. The
New York Herald
claimed: “Some of these old maids have personal charms that are not attractive ... some of these women have been badly mated and are therefore down upon the whole of the opposite sex; some have so much virago in their disposition, that nature appears to have made a mistake in their gender - mannish women.”
Women who wanted to enjoy more rights often found little support at home. Here's an 1875 letter from Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone) to his fiance:
"Do you actually suppose the wishes of women are to be considered with the same respect as those of men? That their opinions are entitled to the same weight? That -- when forced by circumstances to gain their livelihood -- they are to be permitted to choose their occupations as men are?"
"The wisdom of the world has decided that they are inferior beings doomed to exist within the narrow space called "Woman's Sphere". Why then should they seek to rebel against the decrees of fate?"
After the Civil War, in the late 1860s, the women’s rights movement split over the passage of the 15th amendment. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony refused to support the vote for African American men unless there was a 16th amendment passed that also gave the vote to women.
Other suffragists, like
, the first woman in Massachusetts to earn a college degree, who also kept her last name when she married, believed that the time was right for black male suffrage, but not for women's suffrage. As she put it: "I will be thankful in my soul if any body can get out of the terrible pit (meaning lack of rights)." She worried that the 15th amendment would not pass if demands for women's suffrage were included.
This division over the 15th amendment led to the forming of two separate women's rights organizations in 1869.
The two women's rights organizations eventually merged in 1890 and became the
National American Woman Suffrage Association
. The aging Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the first president of NAWSA. Working on a state by state basis, NAWSA built a massive, highly respectable movement to win the vote. Thanks to the efforts of its membership, women won the right to vote in the new Western states of Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho (mainly because those states wanted women to move there). But NAWSA met with defeat in New York, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin.
To keep southern white suffragists happy, NAWSA largely excluded African American women. It was an unfortunate irony that white middle class women worked to broaden their rights while ignoring the rights of others.
Excluded from NAWSA, leading African American women, like Harriet Tubman, Ida B.Wells, and
Mary Church Terrill
founded their own organization, the
National Association of Colored Women,
to push for women's suffrage
laws that protected African Americans.
In the early 1900s, there was still strong opposition to women winning the right to vote. Many anti-suffrage organizations existed - often they were led by women. Anti-suffragists believed that men and women were fundamentally different and that women did not belong in the dirty world of politics. They believed woman suffrage would lead to the demise of the marriage and family. They also argued that women were not well informed enough to vote.
Carrie Chapman Catt
, the new president of NAWSA, continued to push for suffrage on a state by state basis. Although a strong personality, Catt believed it was important for suffragists to remain respectable and go through proper channels. She took a very moderate, patient approach to winning the vote for women, meeting with politicians and giving lots of speeches.
Carrie Chapman Catt
In the 1910s, some younger women’s rights advocates began to adopt more aggressive methods to win the vote. They represented a new generation of women who were willing to challenge gender roles. Tending to be white, college-educated, single and self supporting, they were more rebellious and willing to flaunt the traditional ideals of womanhood. They cycled, skated, played sports, smoked in public, simplified their clothing - even flew planes. These "New Women" still considered the home and children to be the primary responsibility of women. But they were also eager to play a role in shaping the country.
Instead of a state-by-state approach to winning the right to vote, these "New Women" believed that they needed to win a
Not only would the passage of constitutional amendment apply to all states at once, but it also would be hard to retract or reverse once it was passed.
and her close friend
became the leaders of this new, more aggressive generation of women's rights advocates. Paul came from a Quaker family that had always emphasized equality between women and men. Unlike most women of that time, she had gone to college and even earned a Ph.D. in sociology. While on an extended visit to England, she had met the Pankhursts, a mother-daughter team of militant suffragists whose motto was "deeds not words." The Pankhursts convinced Paul that women had to take it to the streets to win the right to vote.
When Alice Paul returned to the U.S., she joined NAWSA and began to push for a constitutional amendment. Carrie Chapman Catt thought it was the wrong strategy, but she agreed to let Paul try to pursue her goal.
What Catt didn't realize was that Paul and her friend Burns planned to use the confrontational tactics they had learned from the Pankhursts to win a constitutional amendment.
Soon after the parade, Catt booted Paul and Burns out of NAWSA. Paul and Burns began the
National Women's Party
. They also decided to go after President Woodrow Wilson. By the time the US entered World War I in 1917, women had won the right to vote in eleven states. At the urging of Woodrow Wilson, however, Congress rejected a proposal for a constitutional amendment for woman’s suffrage.
In 1917, President Wilson finally reversed his position and announced his support for a suffrage amendment, calling it a "war measure." In 1919, both the House and Senate passed the
and the battle for state ratification commenced. Just like with any proposed constitutional amendment,
of the states were needed to ratify or agree to the amendment before it could become law.
The battle for ratification came down to the state of Tennessee in the summer of 1920; if a majority of the state legislature voted for the amendment, it would become law. It was hotly debated. The Pros wore yellow roses and that Antis wore red roses. A count of the roses on voting day suggested that the 19th Amendment would be defeated.
The deciding vote was cast by twenty-four year-old Harry Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee assembly, who wore a red rose. Although originally intending to vote “no,” Burn changed his vote after receiving a telegram from his mom asking him to support women’s suffrage. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment.
The Antis were so outraged that they began chasing Burns around the legislature. He had to escape by climbing out the third floor window of the building, shuffling along a narrow ledge, and hiding in the attic until tempers cooled down.
Alice Paul celebrates with lemonade
Various women's history books
At first, the female vote did not have much impact on politics. In the 1920 presidential election, only 1/3 of the women eligible to vote did so. Most women and men still considered politics a male bastion. Still, thanks to the efforts of the League of Women Voters, the number of women voting did gradually increase. Women soon became the vice-chairs of both the Republican and Democratic parties - and some women began to serve in Congress and as state governors.
While many suffragists left public life and activism after the 19th Amendment was enacted, Alice Paul continued to fight for true equality. She had the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) introduced in every session of Congress from 1923 until it passed in 1972. But the amendment fell three states short of ratification and never became law.
Carrie Chapman Catt died in 1947. After the passage of the 19th amendment, she became active in the international women's suffrage movement. She was also one of the first Americans to protest Hitler's treatment of Jews in Germany, organizing the Committee of Non-Jewish Women Against the Persecution of Jews in Germany
Alice Paul died in 1977. When a Newsweek interviewer asked Paul why she had dedicated her whole life to women's equality, she quoted a saying from her mom back on the farm:
"When you put your hand to the plow, you can't put it down until you get to the end of the row."
is about the
is about how
men have abused
the rights of
The parade turned ugly when scores of male onlookers attacked the suffragists, first with insults and obscenities, and then with physical violence, The police stood by and watched. The event was covered by all the newspapers and suffrage suddenly became a popular topic of discussion in the country.
Ida B. Wells
A well known female lawyer, Inez Milholland, led the parade, dressed in Greek robes and astride a white horse. Accompanied by floats and banners, women from all different backgrounds followed in marching units directly behind Milholland.
Meanwhile, in 1916, Montana elected
to office in the House of Representatives - the first woman ever elected to Congress. "I may be the first woman member of Congress but I won’t be the last," she noted. Rankin became known for her anti-war votes.
Paul and Burns went to Washington D.C. and organized a massive suffrage parade to go up Pennsylvania Avenue. Just like the Women's March after Donald Trump's inauguration, the suffrage parade took place the day after the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson in 1913.
Worried about upsetting white suffragists from the Southern states, Paul and Burns asked women of color to march at the back of the parade. Most refused. Then when the parade was well under way, Ida B. Wells emerged from the watching crowd on the side and joined the white women.
The NWP organized demonstrations and picketed the White House and Congress. When members were arrested and imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes in jail and had to be forced fed. These kind of militant tactics offended more proper suffragists in the NAWSA. But the efforts of the NWP generated a lot of
publicity for the cause.