Between 1776 when the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men [were] created equal” here in the United States until the ratification of the 19th amendment (a woman’s right to vote) in 1920, women were seen as second class citizens. They were, literally, the property of their husbands and fathers. Most women today probably cannot imagine a time like the time in which the stalwart women of the suffrage movement lived. These women had no say in public life. After dinner there was an expectation that women would retire to a drawing room to drink sherry (or tea) and talk about the rearing of their children. Meanwhile, the men smoked cigars, drank scotch, and discussed politics, justice, current events and the economy. The message was clear: men were in charge. Women were not.
All that began to change as the women’s suffrage movement began. Starting in 1869 with the National Women’s Suffrage Association, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s organization for women, followed closely by Lucy Stone’s group, the American Woman Suffrage Association, these women (and hundreds like them) sought to secure women’s voting rights. In 1890 the two organizations became the National American Woman Suffrage Association and worked tirelessly for thirty years to assure passage of a constitutional amendment to change the voting laws in our country. In 1917 a Suffragist named Alice Paul was arrested outside the White House (where she and others had been protesting the lack of equal rights for women). She was sent to a workhouse where she staged a hunger strike. For 22 days she refused to eat. At that point the workhouse staff began force-feeding her. Eventually news of her imprisonment (and that of others in the movement) reached the media and President Woodrow Wilson was forced to intervene. Another suffragist, Lucy Burns, also staged a hunger strike and was subsequently force-fed. During the final years of the suffragist movement, Lucy Burns spent more time in jail than any other woman. She was jailed on six different occasions for adhering to her beliefs. Others involved in the movement included Inez Milholland, Carrie Chapman Catt, Ida Wells-Barnett, and Elizabeth McShane.
In 1918 President Wilson reversed his opposition to women’s suffrage and sent the 19th amendment to the US Congress. It passed the House with 2/3rds majority but failed in the Senate by just two votes. However, the suffragists did not give up. They had the amendment resubmitted the following year and it passed the House 309—90. It went on to pass the Senate by a vote of 56 to 25. It was then sent to the States to be ratified by a majority. The following year, Tennessee became the 36th state to pass the amendment, and on August 26, 1920 women were finally granted the right to vote.
This proud history is something that all women should know. A century ago, women protested, went to jail, starved themselves, and worked without respite for all women to have the right to vote. When we go to the polls next month, let’s think of Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and the countless others who made it possible for us to be there. Let’s show our gratitude by voting. We should never forget to honor their sacrifices on our behalf.
For more information on the Suffrage Movement, visit this link on Iron Jawed Angels: http://www.hbo.com/films/ironjawedangels/pdf/student.pdf
© 2008 Shavawn M. Berry
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