And still they persisted
A struggle for women’s suffrage
Bottles flying through the air. Men spitting on and slapping the women. Pushing and shoving mothers and their children. Men beating them, yelling terrible insults at working women, nurses, doctors, academic women in their robes, the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority from Howard University, librarians, state delegations. Twenty floats, nine bands and four mounted brigades, over 8,000 respectable women led by Inez Milholland dressed in white, riding a white horse, leading the Washington, D.C., parade for women’s right to vote, were attacked. The police did nothing. The U.S. cavalry was called in to restore order.
In 2020 we honor the women activists who toiled for over 72 years to secure the right to vote for women with the passage of the 19th Amendment:
“The right to vote in the United States or any state, shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex” — ratified Aug. 19, 1920; signed into law Aug. 26, 1920.
Abigail Adams advocated for women’s rights in 1776, in a letter to her husband, John Adams, second president of the United States, to “remember the ladies.” John’s reply treated her request as a joke, referring to the “Despotism of the Petticoat.” The first World Anti-slavery Convention was held in England in 1840. Women attended with their husbands, only to be forced to sit in the balcony. They were not permitted to speak. They returned to America with fury. They began organizing. In 1848, they held the Seneca Falls Convention. It addressed women’s rights to own and inherit property, keep their wages and enter into contracts. Suffrage was barely included. It was simply too radical. The persuasive endorsement by Frederick Douglass helped pass the resolution by a small margin. The women persisted.
The Civil War brought about the passage of the 13th,14th, and 15th amendments. The 13th ended slavery, the 14th granted citizenship regardless of color, and the 15th stated “the right to vote shall not be denied … on account of race, color, or condition of previous servitude,” leaving out women. It was clear. Women did not have the rights of citizens. The failure of these amendments to extend suffrage to women caused tremendous anger, disappointment, and divisiveness within the movement. Women were devastated.
Still they persisted.
On Nov. 5, 1872, Susan B. Anthony, one of 15 women who voted for president in Rochester, was arrested, convicted and fined $100. She never paid the fine. She never asked for pardon. Her crime was voting. Wyoming applied to enter the union in 1890 and was denied because it had granted women the vote. Wyoming telegraphed Congress it would wait 100 years before entering without the women. It entered the union with women voting in 1890. Between 1869 and 1914, nine western states granted women suffrage. Momentum for suffrage was growing.
Black suffragists were active at the state and local levels, though not included in national leadership. Leaders feared women from southern states would not work with Black women, and therefore not support the 19th Amendment. The risk was too great. Frances Watkins Harper, an African American abolitionist and suffragist, in her address at the 1866 suffragist convention, said, “White women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs.” Harper also proclaimed, “We are all bound up together.” And so they persisted, both Black and white.
With millions of women advocating for suffrage, who opposed it? Women. The anti-suffragists were white, educated middle- and upper-class women who did not want their comfortable boat rocked. They had no need to work outside the home, trusted their husbands to take care of them, and were quite content with their domestic duties and charitable work. Other women believed in the superiority of men based simply on the difference in physical size and strength. Men who opposed it fell for the romanticized, domestic female who kept a comfortable home, raised the children, were the keepers of morality and gentility, filling their days with reading, needlework and bringing tranquility and calm to life. Voting led to politics and politics was considered too unladylike. Women would be sullied by such endeavors.
The 20th century brought the inclusion of the 8 million employed women, the parades, the Silent Sentinels who were the first to picket the White House, and the Night of Terror, when women were beaten, leading to hunger strikes and forced feeding. If these did not lead to passage of the 19th Amendment, ultimately changing women’s role in society, what would? War.
World War I changed everything. Women stepped up to serve in every capacity. They worked in factories; they ran the farms. Over 25,000 women went to France. Twelve thousand women enlisted in the Navy as yeomen, non-commissioned officers. Over 3,000 nurses served in 750 British hospitals in France, and women doctors, rejected by the military, organized and went to Europe on their own. The Hello Girls were middle- and upper-class women who spoke French. They were sent to Europe to answer the telephones and translate. Women died, more than 600 in service to their country. It was women’s service during WWI that changed President Wilson’s position on suffrage. He addressed Congress on Sept. 3, 1918:
“We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege?”
On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee was the last state to ratify the amendment. It passed by one vote. A young representative, Harry T. Burns, changed his vote after receiving a note from his mother. One vote. Congress signed the 19th Amendment into law August 26, 1920. Twenty-six million women became voting Americans.
Today, 2020, we remember and we honor our great grandmothers, our grandmothers, our aunties. We honor the brave and bold women who came before. And we will persist as we move the women’s rights movement forward into the third century of seeking our equals rights under the law. We will persist.
Dianne Fortado lives in Saranac Lake.