Katy Burns: The women who seized the vote

  • In this September 1916 file photo, demonstrators hold a rally for women’s suffrage in New York. The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 is widely viewed as the launch of the women’s suffrage movement, yet women didn’t gain the right to vote until ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. AP

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/9/2020 7:00:13 AM

When my mother was born, American women were barred from voting. Today her daughters and granddaughters vote regularly – and with enthusiasm. At least one has been an elected office holder herself, and there are great granddaughters in the voter pipeline.

We can draw several conclusions from this. One is that, yes, I am old. Which you already knew. But the second is that American women haven’t really had the right to vote for very long.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1920 – when my mother was 6 – that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution extending the right to vote to American women was ratified, a monumental achievement that we celebrate this Aug. 18.

It’s not that American women hadn’t wanted to vote. In fact, had it occurred to her, I would guess that Abigail Adams – some call her one of our Founding Mothers – would have asked her devoted husband, John, to consider it when he and his fellow revolutionaries began writing the country’s constitution.

Even today, her strong admonition to John as he and his fellow patriots gathered in Philadelphia to design the new nation is routinely taught in American history classes.

“In the new code of laws . . ., I desire that you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

And she added prophetic words: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

By the mid-19th century, American women – Abigail’s successors – had begun to seek the vote, even to demand it. And little by little, state by state, women began to make modest inroads into hitherto male voting sanctuaries. Particularly in the new western states, there developed a willingness to consider extending the franchise to females, particularly if it helped to convince women to move to the harsh frontier.

Calls for women’s suffrage started early in the l9th century, and by 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York gave the movement gravitas. Across the nation women increasingly fought for a right they believed they deserved. Abigail’s rebellion was underway, even if she wasn’t around to see it.

After the Civil War, the women’s suffrage movement was joined (and to a certain extent overshadowed) by an urgent campaign to extend the vote to Black men. In the aftermath of war, the country had adopted constitutional amendments to abolish slavery and provide citizenship and equal protection under the laws to former slaves, but states in the former Confederacy had proved adept at devising technicalities to deny them the vote.

This, it was widely (if reluctantly by some avid white suffragists) agreed, took precedence over extending the franchise to women. So, after considerable effort, an amendment to ban voting restrictions on the basis of race, color or previous servitude was passed by the Congress. And after ferocious campaigns, the 15th Amendment was certified on March 30, 1870.

The fight to ban franchise restrictions on the basis of sex, though, still had a long way to go.

That included in New Hampshire. While in 1871 women were deemed eligible to serve on school committees in the Granite State – education of children presumably being an appropriately womanly concern – they were not even permitted to vote in school elections until 1878. And when a bill was introduced into the legislature in 1887 to allow women to vote in town and city elections, it was soundly defeated.

And our state’s male-only legislature wasn’t women’s only obstacle. Women successfully campaigned to remove the word “male” from the state constitution’s voter qualification requirements during a 1902 state constitutional convention. But when the question was put before the state’s all male voters in 1903, they defeated it! Other attempts to advance women’s suffrage legislation fared no better.

By the early 20th century, women suffragists were convinced that going after enfranchisement state by state, piecemeal, was impossible. And so the final fight – to amend the U.S. Constitution – was underway.

And so women began marching. When that didn’t work, they heckled. They pioneered civil disobedience. When jailed they engaged in hunger strikes which resulted in horrifying episodes of forced feeding – a disgusting sort of gruel was forced down iron pipes into their stomachs while they were forcibly restrained.

And over and over, they petitioned their national lawmakers. Especially President Woodrow Wilson, who was initially lukewarm to their cause. A Virginian and a vehement racist who in fact reinstated segregation in the federal government’s employment policies after it had been abolished, he initially ignored the suffragists’ pleas.

In fact, he once called women who campaigned for suffrage “totally abhorrent.”

But – after ignoring the pleas for recognition by suffragists during his entire first term – Wilson broke his silence and, in a 1918 speech before the Congress, firmly and finally supported the cause of women’s suffrage. And even with his support, it took yet another year for the Congress finally to approve passage of the amendment.

It was with the vote of Tennessee’s legislature – with the support of a wavering member who said he voted for the women’s suffrage amendment because his “mother told him to” – that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified. American women – finally – had the vote, 100 years ago this month.

Cynics said that women would only vote like their husbands. Cynics were wrong. And this November women will likely prove that.

(The PBS series on women’s suffrage can be found on the PBS website by looking for “The Vote” or “One Woman, One Vote.” It seems to have both names. It is amazingly gripping, even if we do know the ending.)

(“Monitor” columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)




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