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The Woman Suffrage Movement
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Thinking Questions

Fight for Suffrage

The official start of the woman’s suffrage movement kicks off in a small podunk town in upstate New York called Seneca Falls, where in 1848 five women came together to do the unthinkable: they gave speeches to the general public. Scandalous!


Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann McClintock, Martha C. Wright, and Jane Hunt decided the time had come to bring the issue of women’s rights into the public spotlight. They placed a brief notice in the Seneca County Courier asking the general public to show up to hear Mott and Stanton—both semi-famous abolitionists—speak.  Hopes of a big turnout were low. After all, the whole idea had been thrown together with five days’ notice.


When the five women arrived at the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Seneca Falls, NY there was already a crowd of three hundred men and women waiting to get in. About half of these folks were serious about debating the topic. The other half were there to see the curiosity of women holding their own convention. It was a pretty strange sight in the days when women, out in public, were expected to be seen and not heard. Stanton unveiled to the world the Declaration of Sentiments— a list of twelve grievances against the current male-dominated culture.


Using the Declaration of Independence as their model; complete with “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident that All Men (And Women) are Created Equal…” the Declaration  of Sentiments argued that women had been unjustly made to be second class citizens in a country whose founding principles were based  on equality. The speakers were quick to point out too, that it was a bit hypocritical to deny them the right to vote even though they paid taxes. Does the phrase “No Taxation Without Representation ring a bell?” Among their other complaints: married women were not allowed to keep their own property, their wages, or even in cases of divorce, their own children. Women were denied access to colleges and universities. And after marriage she is in the eyes of the law “civilly dead”. Meaning that she lost all political rights.


But the biggest shocker was resolution #9: women should have the right to vote. This last idea was seen as being too far fetched for most folks to take seriously. The dirty world of politics was seen as being too rough and tumble for a woman’s “delicate nature”. But here these women were, standing proudly in front of a crowd and proclaiming that women were equal to men in every way. Stanton’s husband—as progressive as he was—walked out of the meeting.


The women's rights movement took a backseat as slavery and the Civil War tore the country apart. But by the turn of the 20th Century the movement for women's equality was gaining steam. Before 1900, only four states— Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah, granted women full suffrage. Men outnumbered women in the western states by such a huge margin that they would do anything (even allow them to vote) to attract some respectable ladies to move there.


Up until this time the suffragettes had been trying to win state-by-state, but this turned out to be a slow and tedious process, which frankly wasn’t getting anybody any closer to the ultimate goal of universal suffrage at the national level. No longer willing to wait another century, a new generation of militant suffragettes had taken the stage. Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and Harriet Stanton Blatch had recently returned from England which was fighting its own battle for women's suffrage. During their time across the pond, these women had learned to use aggressive techniques such as marches, hunger strikes, and disrupting sporting events to gain attention for the movement. Once back in America Paul and Burns came out swinging when they launched the nation’s largest suffragette parade in Washington D.C. The date was set for March 3, 1913 to coincide with the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, guaranteeing that they'd have a large captive audience, plenty of reporters, and lots of publicity.


Over a half a million people lined the streets to watch 8,000 women march complete with suffragette banners, floats, and a band. But things got ugly as the crowd pelted the marchers with trash and shouted insults at them. The women were tripped, slapped, and spit on as the police stood idly by. But fortunately for the women, among their ranks were wives of powerful Congressmen. An inquiry was held and the police commissioner was fired. Undeterred, Paul organized an automobile rally on July 31st where thousands of suffragettes converged on the capitol. Their goal was to pressure an all-male Congress to take up the issue of giving women the right to vote. Woodrow Wilson, remained on the fence about women’s rights. He told the suffrage movement that he would support their cause only if they could win over enough states to get a constitutional amendment passed. The movement now had to be focused on a two-pronged state and national front to win.

Race to the 19th

American women had come a long way since the days of the Seneca Falls movement. Thanks to the persistence of the suffragettes many 20th century women now worked as doctors, lawyers, and in other formerly male-only careers. 25% of American women worked outside of the home in 1910. But the only way that the suffragettes were going to win the right to vote was if men voted to give them that right. How do you win against those odds? Simple: many wives began making their husbands and fathers miserable


New educational opportunities for women had sprung up all over the country and more females were graduating high school than ever before. The nation was slowly changing the way it viewed its women. World War One had a lot to do with this too. As hundreds of thousands of men marched off to fight and die in the trenches of Europe, women stepped in to work in factories and business offices to keep the economy running. Once the war ended in 1918, the men wanted their jobs back and women went back to being homemakers. But this short-lived experience became a key argument against women being too frail to compete in a man's world.


On January 10, 1918 Congress held its third vote on women’s suffrage. The previous two sessions (1868 and 1915) ended in failure. The House barely passed the bill with the two-thirds votes necessary for a Constitutional Amendment. The more conservative Senate debated the bill for a full year before they finally got around to passing it on June 4, 1919.


Now the hard work had begun: three-fourths of the 48 states (Alaska and Hawaii would have to wait until 1959) were needed to ratify the amendment in order for it to become a part of the U.S. Constitution. The amendment was on a time crunch as well—it had seven years to pass or it would be dead in the water; although seven years may seem like a long time think about who we’re dealing with here—politicians.


The suffragettes launched into high gear stumping around the country to win the necessary votes. The anti-suffragettes also came out of the gate determined more than ever to kill the bill. Their argument was simple, the 19th Amendment had to be defeated because voting was “unwomanly” and “unpatriotic”. Ironically, they said that American democracy was at stake if women were allowed to vote.


Just four days after the Senate passed the 19th amendment; Wisconsin became the first state to ratify it. By September the number of states was at seventeen—about half of what was needed. Suffragettes gave speeches and train tours, wrote letters to politicians and visited governors urging them to support suffrage. Their work was long, tiring, and thankless, but it paid off when thirty-three of the necessary thirty six states were won by 1920. Eight states—mostly conservative, southern and democrat—defeated the bill. The final state came down to Tennessee which wasn’t exactly " in the bag”. Both suffragettes and anti-suffragettes pounded the Tennessee pavement trying to win over voters and legislatures to their side.


On August 18, 1919 the state legislature took up the vote. The vote was so important that some state legislatures came in from the hospital or a funeral just to vote. In a plot straight out of a made for TV movie, the vote was a tie. The tie breaker came down to a Representative named Harry Burn whose own mother had written him a strongly worded letter, the gist of which said ‘don’t let me down, son’. Unlike John Adams one hundred years before, Representative Burn remembered the ladies and cast his vote in favor of suffrage. On August 26, 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote in all state and federal elections. The fight of the century had been won.

Why it Matters

The passing of the nineteenth amendment came just in time for the 1920 presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James Cox. Excitement was high and many of the suffragettes now turned their energies to informing the millions of newly enfranchised women on how the voting process worked.  A new organization—the National League of Women Voters— was created for this purpose.  But on Election Day the turnout was disappointing, only 35% of eligible women voters even bothered to show up to the polls. The same thing happened in state elections the following year. The reason? Many women had either grown up believing that a voting booth was an inappropriate place for a lady or many felt intimidated to enter a place dominated by men—many of whom would be hostile to their presence.


Many folks wrongly assume that the nineteenth amendment was the end of the Woman’s Movement but in reality things were just getting started. As you can tell from the turnout at the 1920 election, societal attitudes needed to be changed. Women had cleared the suffrage hurdle but many states still barred them from running for office, serving on juries, inherit property. Women would have to work especially hard to make “the first female…” milestones that would come after the Nineteenth Amendment.


Another big issue has been that of equal pay for equal work. In 1920, women earned less than half of what a man earned. Even though the gaps between the sexes have narrowed over the last ninety years, this is one area that still is a thorn in the side of feminists. In 1963 Congress passed the Equal Pay  Act which was supposed to prevent wage discrimination but so far has not lived up to its promises. In 1967, women earned 58 cents for every dollar a man made. Today in 2012, that gap has shrunk to about 77 cents per every dollar. There is still room for improvement. The Equal Rights Amendment, written by Alice Paul in 1923 was intended to get rid of all inequality based on sex. The amendment has been debated by every Congressional session until 1972 when it finally passed the House and Senate and went on to the states for ratification. But intense conservative opposition—ironically led by a woman, Phyllis Schlafly, led to the bills defeat. The ERA nearly passed but fell short by five states. The bill lay dormant until in 2013, the ERA was again taken up by Congress and again failed to get the necessary two-thirds votes.

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women suffrage opposition
ant suffrage propaganda

Anti-Suffrage Propaganda

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End Women's Suffrage Gag---

Hilarious and Scary!

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