“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems, are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” Alice Paul
The year 2020 marks the Centennial Anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, guaranteeing and protecting women’s constitutional right to vote. In this year, 2020, which some might say will go down as one of the most challenging years in American History, it’s time to take a moment to commemorate and celebrate this milestone of Democracy.
The year was 1848 when the women’s suffrage movement actually began.
A women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York, and the suffrage movement was launched. Women’s suffrage supporters would work for the next 50 years to educate the public about the validity of enfranchising women. The setbacks and challenges along the way were numerous. Anti-suffragists argued that most women did not want to vote, and because they took care of the home and children, they said women did not have time to vote or stay informed on politics.
Most women who supported the suffrage movement wanted equal rights with men.
They felt that women’s interests should be represented and the female point of view heard for reform. At the turn of the century the suffragist movement became a mass movement. Two organizations were instrumental in leading the way to win the vote for women, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and the National Women’s Party (NWP). Numbering in the millions in the 1910s, the NAWSA worked to earn women’s right to vote in individual states, while at the same time lobbying President Woodrow Wilson and Congress to pass a women’s suffrage Constitutional amendment. This group was a moderate organization in word and action, as opposed to the NWP, the more radical activist group, who sometimes used civil disobedience to draw attention to their cause. The NWP organized receptions, protests, marches, picketed the White House, and wrote dozens of press releases. Led by Alice Paul, the NWP organized a massive suffragette parade in Washington, DC, in March, 1913. Members, including Paul, were arrested and jailed for their “unpatriotic” acts and Paul was placed in solitary confinement, while the other members went on a hunger strike! Public sentiment swung to the side of the activists, and they were eventually released. Although these two organizations did not always agree on strategy, due to their combined efforts, and because of the sheer grit, determination, and courage of the women that led the fight and the activists that supported it, the 19th Amendment was finally ratified on August 18th, 1920, after a 70 year battle! There is a long list of women leaders who championed the cause, women of resilience and commitment, including Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, Lucy Stone, and many others, too numerous to list here.
It is important to note that although African American women were not excluded from membership in NAWSA at the national level, state and local organizations chose to exclude them. Conventions were segregated and NAWSA required black women to march separately during the 1913 parade in DC. Even within this socially progressive movement, racism persisted. The first and second generation of Black American suffragists, of which Mary Ann Shadd, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Sarah Parker Redmond are a part, had strong ties to the abolitionist movement and believed in universal suffrage – voting rights without regard to race, gender, education, or economic status. Scholars and historians have recently uncovered complex histories of African American women in the suffrage movement, but there is still much work to be done. There are lessons to be learned from the suffragette movement, especially because securing equal rights for women is still a struggle that continues into the present day.
Our takeaway is that these brave women, in community, lifted their voices together to guarantee and protect women’s right to vote. In the words of Judy Perry Martinez, President of the American Bar Association, it brought forth “the largest expansion of Democracy in the history of our country.”