A Brief History of the Suffrage Movement
By Sarah Brown and Jane Vignos
The following was a speech was written in honor of the 75th Anniversary of Suffrage for women. It was given by Sarah and Jane all over the state of Ohio.
It is difficult to believe there was a time in this country when women could not vote and that it was only 77 years ago. It took a long time to achieve the vote for women and most of us have forgotten the sacrifices it took to win. That’s a pity because it is a great story, one that begins on the eve of the American Revolution. When John Adams, later our second president, was helping form a new code of laws, his wife Abigail wrote to him, “I desire you would remember the ladies…We will not hold ourselves bound to obey any laws in which we have not voice or representation.” Her cry fell on deaf ears.
The big push for suffrage did not come until1848, at a Methodist meeting hall in Seneca Falls, New York, where 300 people, women and men assembled to discuss women’s rights and the need for change. The meeting was called by Lucretia Mott, a Quaker and Elizabeth Cady Stanton,
In her opening statement, Mrs. Stanton demanded the right to vote. “Drunkards, idiots, horse-racing, rum-selling rowdies, ignorant foreigners and silly boys” all had the privilege denied to women.
Other speakers called for the women’s moral persuasion to end slavery. The main goal of some was to advance temperance goals, of others to obtain more humane conditions for women working in mills and factories. The resolution favoring suffrage engendered the sharpest debate–and passed by the narrowest margin. But the movement was on its way.
Restricted by law and custom, women were second class citizens. Once a woman married, everything she owned became her husband’s. She ceased to exist legally. She had no rights to her own property, to her children, even to the safety of her own body. One state upheld the right of a husband to beat his wife, saying that to do otherwise would be to upset the domestic tranquility of the home.
There were, in fact, two major emotional arguments that opponents of the suffrage of women championed from the beginning to the end of the campaign: that women by their elevated social position could exercise more influence upon public affairs than they could coerce by the use of the ballot and that women were of a milder, gentler nature which disqualified them for public life.
The Seneca Falls convention was the beginning of a wave of women’s rights meetings throughout the 1850s. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was torn between raising her children and being a revolutionary. Unable to travel, she made her voice heard in articles, letters and at local meetings.
It was following one of these assemblies that she met a restless schoolteacher from Rochester, New York, Susan B. Anthony. They began a lifelong friendship. Stanton said when she first saw that stately young, Quaker woman, she knew that together they would shake the very foundations of American Society. Inspired by Stanton, Anthony dedicated her life to the cause, taking to the road to fight for women’s rights. Susan commented to Mrs.Stanton, I do not want to become a man’s housekeeper. If a girl marries poverty, she becomes a drudge. If she marries wealth, she becomes a doll, and I want none of either!”
The suffrage movement would draw a number of extraordinarily independent women. A Boston abolitionist, the silvery-voiced, Lucy Stone joined the crusade. She had defied convention by keeping her own name when she married. Now a paid anti-slavery speaker, she split her time to work for women’s rights. There were the Quaker teacher and abolitionist, Lucretia Mott, the eloquent Ernestine Rose, Abby Kelley Foster, and the worldly Paulina Wright Davis who all became leaders in their states as well as Frances Dana Gage, an Ohio abolitionist who wrote children’s stories. There were also a number of black women who while their first interest lay in the anti-slavery struggle, consistently pointed out the relationship between freedom for the slave and equality for women of any color.
Among them was the great Sojourner Truth. For ten years, leaders of the women’s movement and abolitionists all worked together.
In 1861, when the issue of slavery erupted into civil war, these reformers saw the promise of independence for not only black Americans but for American women as well. The women put aside their own demands and worked for the Union cause. But to the consternation of the women, when the war ended, only black men were granted the vote. It was, the politicians said, the Negroes hour.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton denounced the constitutional amendment that gave the vote to black men but excluded women. Defiantly, they founded their own organization, the NationalWomen’s Suffrage Association.
Lucy Stone, who supported the amendment, set up a rival association with her abolitionist allies. For the next twenty years, the two competing groups would carry on the campaign.
In 1872. Susan B. Anthony used the presidential election to challenge the Constitution.
In Rochester, New York, in defiance of the law, she led a dozen women, including her elderly mother and three sisters, to the polling place at a local barbershop. She intimidated the young registrars into letting them vote. Four hours later, a U. S. Marshal came to the Anthony home with a warrant for her arrest.
Anthony demanded to be handcuffed before being led away. Anthony was notorious by this time in her life. This was a federal crime and officials must have thought if she could be stopped, the movement would be stopped.
Four months later, Susan B. Anthony was tried before a federal judge for the crime of voting. The courtroom was filled with very important people. This trial was of national significance. The newspaper people were there, the suffragettes were there. The jury, judge and lawyers were, of course, male.
Since she was a woman, Anthony was declared incompetent to testify on her own behalf. The judge instructed the jury that Anthony was guilty of voting virtually denying her a trial and fined her $100. Anthony was writhing with anger, and when the judge asked her if she had anything to say, she most certainly did.
Anthony wanted to appeal to the United StatesSupreme Court but was blocked on a technicality. A year later, the high court heard a similar case. The justices declared unanimously that while the U. S.Constitution made women citizens, the states would have to give them the right to vote.
Over the following years, Stanton and Anthony campaigned from Maine to California, giving thousands of women the courage to organize. By 1890, they were reunited with Lucy Stone and merged their organizations, but after 40 years of work, the leaders could only point to a single victory.
The Wyoming territory had granted its few women the right to vote and had entered the Union as the first and only suffrage state. In fact, the realities of frontier life where women performed many of the same tasks as men to survive seemed to bode well for the expansion of suffrage.
In 1893, a progressive governor in Colorado persuaded the state legislature to put women’s suffrage on the ballot. Women of the state, with only five months to mount a campaign, wrote to Anthony for help. She responded by sending them Carrie Chapman Cat.t, a tough 35-year-old from Iowa who was the movement’s best organizer.
Denver was a city in turmoil when Catt arrived. The price of silver had dropped. Thousands of unemployed miners roamed the streets. Catt and other women campaigned in the relief camps, handing out suffrage leaflets with every bowl of soup. They realized that when people are angry enough, they are ready for a change. So they organized among the working people along with the labor unions, church groups and farming organizations, hoping for a groundswell of support for women’s right to vote.
Young and strong, Catt set out alone to reach voters in the most remote mining towns and farming communities. To the hard-headed miners, she said, “Make your women free as you would your silver free. Never give up till both are free!”
By October, 10,000 women were organized. Among the most active were members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the WCTU. Horrified by the abuse that women and children suffered at the hands of drunken men, the WCTU fought for the vote in order to end the sale of alcohol. “If a woman had the ballot in her hands,” one member warned, “it would not be many years before the mighty power of the liquor interests would tremble.”
In state after state, the liquor interests had blocked every attempt by the WCTU to gain the vote. When Denver saloon owners realized that women might actually win, they hastily mounted an attack.
The liquor dealers plied the unemployed miners with tree drinks and plastered the town with anti-suffrage leaflets. On election eve, Catt and the suffragettes gathered together and waited for the Denver returns.
By morning, it was clear that Colorado had voted for free silver and women’s suffrage. Western states continued to lead the way. By 1896, women had won the vote in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah. Suffragists across the country dared to believe that the tide had finally turned.
By the 1890s, women in the Northeast had won some of the rights Elizabeth Stanton called for at Seneca Falls–rights to their property, rights to their earnings, rights to their children. Girls could now attend high school, even college, and thousands were going out to work. Despite these changes, opposition to suffrage was as stubborn as ever. In Boston, for example, the most vocal opponents of suffrage were the society women of Beacon Hill. They felt their capacity to shape the world rested on their particular identity as women who were focused
In 1895, the Massachusetts legislature brought the issue of women’s suffrage to a head. The state called for both men and women to vote in a non-binding referendum. Suffrage leaders had tile conviction that most women wanted the vote. Therefore, they did not feel it necessary to campaign. By contrast, the anti-suffragists had a very strong organization. They published leaflets and urged women not to vote at all.
On Election Day, only a very small number of women turned out to vote. Women’s suffrage was overwhelmingly defeated. Out of this victory for the anti-suffragettes grew a national movement as well but Elizabeth Cady Stanton commented that these women were begging to be left in their chains.
Profound changes took place in women’s lives in the 20th century. Women were working in factories, offices, and professions in greater numbers. They tackled some of the horrendous social issues by forming and working in settlement houses, fighting for better schools, and better government. These women infused new life into the waning suffrage movement.
Harriet Stanton Blatch, a graduate of Vassar, a socialist and daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, returned from living twenty years in England to take charge of the suffrage movement. Rejecting the established organization, she formed a new one drawing women from different classes and walks of life. Mrs. Blatchorganized public meetings and attempted to interest labor unions in their activities. She also deserves credit for initiating the parades that became so successful a form of suffrage agitation.
These parades came to be viewed with considerable alarm and conveyed to the public that the movement was not going to disappear. It reinforced in the minds of onlookers the absolute determination and discipline women now had to obtain the vote.
In 1912, three states, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin put women’s suffrage on the ballot. Even Teddy Roosevelt, the Progressive Party’s candidate for president spoke out for women’s suffrage. But, again, there was considerable opposition. The liquor interests realized that women, once they had the vote, could bring in prohibition. They could pass laws barring child labor, changing conditions in factories, and raising wages. Men, in general, realized that women getting the vote would redefine the roles of men and women altogether. Thus, in the fall of the year, all three states defeated women’s suffrage.
The suffragettes now realized the fight ahead was a monumental one and entailed campaigning in state after state, month after month and year after year. The end seemed nowhere in sight. Meanwhile in England, British suffragists, after 40 years of campaigning, were now turning to civil disobedience.
They, as well as their leader, Emmeline Pankhurst, were arrested and imprisoned. Once in prison, they undertook prolonged and widely-publicized hunger strikes. Brutal attempts on the part of their jailers to force-feed them fanned the flames of more militancy. A young American woman named Alice Paul marched and was imprisoned with Mrs. Pankhurst. She returned to the United States with Revolutionary ideas to apply to the suffrage movement. She opened a small office near theWhite House in Washington D. C. and formed the National Suffrage Association.
With another American, Lucy Burns, whom she met in prison, they agreed to seek a constitutional amendment to guarantee women the right to vote.
They organized parades the like of which never were seen in Washington to press home their point. As a matter of fact, on the day Woodrow Wilson arrived in town for his inauguration, the crowds were watching women campaigning for the vote. A month later, a western Senator andCongressman introduced
In 1914, Alice Paul decided to mobilize against the party in power for failing to move on the suffrage question and set out to campaign in the nine states where women had the vote against Democrats. Four million votes were at stake. Paul sent her top organizers to rally the women and sympathetic men urging them to use their votes to move the suffrage bill to the floor of Congress. While not overwhelmingly successful, Democratic candidates were on the defensive, and the suffrage amendment was turned out of committee and sent to the floor for a vote.
In 1916, a woman from Montana was elected to Congress. Hope infused the suffrage movement, and Carrie Chapman Catt, the great organizer, also called the”general” took control of the National Suffrage Organization. She represented the power and will of two million women across 44 states.
Mrs. Catt devised a comprehensive plan that included campaigning in the states before the federal amendment went to the legislatures. Organizing a sophisticated and comprehensive campaign, she recruited the able and tenacious Maude Wood Park as a lobbyist. Park trained hundreds of women, and along with the allies of Alice Paul, they systematically lobbied Congress.
In April 1917, when the United States entered the war, the suffrage organizations considered whether or not to cease their activities in favor of efforts for the war. Mrs. Catt as leader of the National Suffrage Organization decided that her group was quite capable of conducting the votes for women campaign and engaging in the war effort. But Alice Paul and her organization dedicated themselves only to the enfranchisement of women. To underscore this position, Paul and her compatriots began picketing the WhiteHouse, demanding that the President come out in support of the amendment. This was a thoroughly unbelievable phenomenon.
Silent, dignified, dressed all in white, black and white women stood outside the White House and held signs that called the President “Kaiser Wilson.” Wilson at first tolerated the pickets. But Mrs. Catt implored Alice Paul to withdraw as this was discourteous to the President. They then began to carry placards with phrases of Wilson’s speeches to mock him. Some people began to see the pickets as treasonous. Crowds began to gather around the women from time to time. Then one evening more and more people gathered and finally attacked the women.
Women were knocked down, dragged, their clothes were torn. Day after day, the women gathered, and while the attacks continued, the police did nothing to protect them. Then on July 14, 1917, the police arrested the leader of the pickets.
Young and old were placed into police wagons and taken to prison. All through that summer, women were taken to prison to remain for days, weeks, even months. Once released, they would return to the picket line and be jailed again. After five months of seeing the same women return, the authorities became frustrated and set about brutalizing the women. They were handcuffed for long periods, dragged up and down stairs and thrown into cells. One Congressman, after visiting the prison, stated that in all his years of criminal practice, he had never seen prisoners so badly treated.
These events were becoming a terrible embarrassment to the President. When Alice Paul returned to the picket line, she was once again arrested and given a seven months jail sentence. This time, she went on a hunger strike. Kept in solitary confinement, she was force-fed three times a day. Hoping to have her declared insane, a psychiatrist was called. He declared her to be sane, determined and having the spirit of Joan of Arc. A total of 218 women from 26states were arrested during the first session of the Sixty-fifth Congress. Of them,97 went to prison, and thirty prisoners refused to eat.
Protest poured into Congressmen’s offices. Finally, the administration released the prisoners and dismissed the prison sentences. The nation was served notice that this was an issue whose time had come.
New York State in November 1917, a formidable state opposed to suffrage for 70 years, gave women the vote. A House committee on women’s suffrage was appointed. Soon after, the House of Representatives scheduled a vote for January 10, 1918.
Both suffrage groups began to campaign with renewed effort. Congressmen complained that they were being harassed by the women. The women appealed to President Wilson to make a stand for the amendment. On the afternoon prior to the vote, the President announced that he was for the amendment. The day of the vote arrived, but Maude Wood Park learned that several of the representatives who were in favor of the vote would not be in attendance.
A coalition of supporters was formed, and men were brought to the session who otherwise would not be there. Four men were literally taken from sick beds. One man came in with a broken arm untreated so as not to miss the vote. One came straight from the hospital and another on a stretcher. One woman, a suffragette all of her life and on her deathbed, sent her husband to perform her dying wish.
It just passed, and with the vote came a quiet, after which women’s voices all over the House gallery rose singing “PraiseGod from Whom All Blessings Flow.” MaudeWood Park commented, through tears, that there was only one vote to spare and the fight would have been lost if all these men had not, at great risk, come to vote.
On June 4, 1919, the Senate as well, passed the Susan B. Anthony amendment. The biggest fight of all – to ratify the amendment in thirty-six states was ahead. Thirty-five states ratified the amendment by the summer of 1920. The struggle came down to a free-for-all in the state of Tennessee in August. Forces for and against, from all over the country, converged in Nashville during that hot August. They put up at the Hermitage Hotel and Carrie Chapman Catt, in the midst of the bustle, viewed the activities of the opponents with alarm.
Prior to the convening for the legislature, two-thirds of the members had signed pledges in support of ratification. But after arriving at the hotel, Mrs. Catt noticed that many of them gravitated to a mysterious room on the eighth floor.
When they reappeared, they were noticeably unsteady on their legs! Tennessee had been a prohibition state before the 18thamendment was submitted and the state had also ratified the amendment.
“Why was the law not enforced?” asked the women. “Now see
Hour by hour, men and women who went about the city to poll the legislators came back to the Hermitage with the same story–the legislature was drunk.
The next day as the roll was called in the stifling heat, the prodigious moment came when a young Republican, twenty-four-year-old Harry Burn called”Aye!” keeping his pledge to his elderly mother who urged him to helpMrs. Catt put the rat in ratification. The House broke into an uproar heard outside for blocks. The young man gave the nineteenth amendment the one vote needed to put it into the Constitution.
At the celebration at the Astor Hotel in New York following this great victory, Mrs. Catt spoke to a jubilant crowd.
“This is a glorious day, a wonderful day. For many a year, we have marched up this long hill together, you and I. We have lived to realize the great dream of my life–the enfranchisement of women. Weare no longer petitioners. We are not wards of the state, but free and equal citizens.
The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guarantee of your liberty. That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Money to carry on this work has been given usually as a sacrifice, and thousands of women have gone without that we might get the vote for you. Women have suffered