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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

TAKING A NEW LOOK AT THE WOMAN SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT

Courtesy of the National Women's History Project

1995 was the 75th anniversary of the woman suffrage movement's great victory, ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, guaranteeing for all American women the right to vote. This victory had been a very long time in coming, and it is fitting that it be recalled with pride and with hope for the future. Women vote and actively participate in all levels of government today because of the woman suffrage movement.

That courageous and persistent political campaign took over 72 years, involved tens of thousands of women and men, and resulted in the enfranchisement of one-half of the citizens of the United States. The campaign was inspired by idealism and grounded in sacrifice. It is of enormous political and social significance - yet it is virtually unacknowledged in the chronicles of American history.

If the suffrage movement had not been so ignored by historians, women like Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul would be as familiar to us as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, or Martin Luther King, Jr. We would know how women were denied the right to vote despite the lofty words of the Constitution. We would know how women were betrayed after the Civil War, defeated and often cheated in election after election, and how they were forced to fight for their rights against entrenched opposition, with virtually no financial, legal, or political power of their own. If the history of the suffrage movement was better known, we would understand that democracy, for the first 150 years of our nation's existence, excluded more than half of the population. And we would realize that this situation changed only after one of the most remarkable and successful nonviolent efforts the world has ever seen.

Women won the vote. They were not given it or granted it. Women won it as truly as any political campaign is ultimately won or lost. And they won it by the slimmest of margins, which only underscores the difficulty and magnitude of their victories. Take the successful California referendum campaign of 1911, for example. The margin of victory there was just one vote per precinct!

In the House of Representatives, suffrage passed the first time by exactly the number of votes needed, with one supporter being carried in from the hospital and another leaving his wife's deathbed to be there to cast their votes. In the Senate, suffrage passed with just two votes to spare. When the Nineteenth Amendment was sent to the states for ratification, Tennessee, the last state, passed it by a single vote, at the very last minute, during a recount!

Consider this for a moment: Women were a poor and disenfranchised class when they first organized to gain political power in the mid-1800s. Their struggle for the ballot took over 70 years of constant, determined campaigning, yet it did not take a single life, and its success has endured. Compare this with male-led independence movements. Without firing a shot, throwing a rock, or issuing a personal threat, women won for themselves rights that men have launched violent rebellions to achieve. The suffragists' deliberate rejection of violence may be one of the reasons the movement has not received the attention that is lavished on other, more bloody periods of American history. But this neglect should not deceive us; this struggle was waged every bit as seriously as any struggle for equality. We would do well to consider how women were able to do what men have rarely even tried to do, change society in a positive and lasting way without violence and death.

The suffragists' nonviolent approach was a logical strategy since a remarkable number of the movement's prominent leaders, including Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Alice Paul, were Quakers and pacifists. They were committed to peaceful resistance and they were opponents of war and violence. And, they were clear about their goal: not victory over men, but equality with men.

Like the Black civil rights movement, the woman suffrage movement is a record of the experiences of ordinary citizens forced to fight for their own rights against tremendous odds and social inequities. Knowing about suffrage history gives us wonderful models of political leadership, of women organizers and administrators, activists and lobbyists. The movement involved the first women lawyers, doctors and ministers, the first women political candidates, the first officeholders. Suffrage history is an exciting story of achievement, of ingenious strategies and outrageous tactics used to outwit opponents and make the most of limited resources. The suffrage movement included many American women whose talents and abilities would have made them prime candidates for national office had their opportunities been equal. Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Frances Willard, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Carrie Chapman Catt, Mary Church Terrell, Alice Paul and others proved themselves to be politically important, enormously competent, highly influential and widely respected leaders with few equals among their male contemporaries.

The 72-year-long suffrage movement offers us a unique window on the emergence of women into American political life. Since they were denied the right to participate directly in national politics, this is where most of the intelligent, active, and politically oriented women of the time went. They put their energy into attacking social problems directly and organizing among themselves, locally and nationally, for their own rights.

But despite all of this, the suffrage movement has been routinely and consistently ignored by mainstream historians. And when it has not been ignored it has been substantially misrepresented. The result is our mistaken notion that the suffrage movement was an inconsequential cause, one hardly worthy of our attention, much less our respect. The woman suffrage movement is often treated as a lone curiosity with nothing much to teach us, or worse, as a target for clever academics to critique. Fortunately, there have been some notable exceptions, but this attitude lies at the heart of the problem. But when we take a closer look at the history of the American woman suffrage movement we can see something very different. What we can see is definitely not a dour, old-woman cause benevolently recognized by Congressional gods. We can see a movement of female organizers, leaders, politicians, journalists, visionaries, rabble rousers, and warriors. We can see an active, controversial, passionate movement of the best and the brightest women in America, from all backgrounds, who, as we say today, boldly went where no women had ever gone before.

It is important to remember that men were suffragists, too. The suffrage movement both included men as supporters and depended on the votes that only men could cast. Even when state suffrage measures were lost, the question often received tens of thousands of male votes of approval. And, of course, it was a virtually all-male Senate and House that approved the amendment, along with 36 virtually all-male state legislatures that ratified it. Many courageous men risked ridicule and worse to actively support women's rights. In my opinion, those men are far better role models for us today than many better-known political and military figures in American history.

The story of the woman suffrage movement is a dramatic one, filled with intrigue, dedication, frustration, commitment, failure, and, ultimately a hard-won victory. Carrie Chapman Catt, the last president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, summed up this essential struggle to amend the Constitution with this report:

"To get the word 'male' ... out of the Constitution cost the women of this country fifty-two years of pauseless campaigning.... During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get State constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses."

"Millions of dollars were raised, mainly in small sums, and expended with economic care. Hundreds of women gave the accumulated possibilities of an entire lifetime, thousands gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could. It was a continuous, seemingly endless, chain of activity. Young suffragists who helped forge the last links of that chain were not born when it began. Old suffragists who forged the first links were dead when it ended."

And, thinking of the impact of the campaign on the women of America, Carrie Chapman Catt added this: "It is doubtful if any man, even among suffrage men, ever realized what the suffrage struggle came to mean to women before the end was allowed in America. How much of time and patience, how much work, energy and aspiration, how much faith, how much hope, how much despair went into it. It leaves its mark on one, such a struggle. It fills the days and it rides the nights. Working, eating, drinking, sleeping, it is there. Not all women in all the states of the Union were in the struggle. There were some women in every state who knew nothing about it. But most women in all the states were at least on the periphery of its effort and interest when they were not in the heart of it. To them all, its success became a monumental thing."

It is clear that the American suffrage movement stands as a lasting affirmation of our country's democratic promise for it re-emphasizes the importance of the most fundamental democratic value, the right to vote. In 1975, prominent suffrage historian Eleanor Flexner drew this analogy:

"Recently there has been a tendency to low-rate the winning of woman suffrage as something less than the great achievement it seemed to those who carried on the struggle. . . Yet full political citizenship was, for women - as for any other group arbitrarily deprived of it - a vital step toward winning full human dignity. [It is] the recognition that women, too, are endowed with the faculty of reason, the power of judgment, the capacity for social responsibility and effective action. As a matter of fact, the opposition to woman suffrage itself bears witness, in a perverse kind of way, to its significance. Nothing unimportant would have been so bitterly resisted. If one thinks of those, White and Black, who laid down their lives only a few years ago in order that southern Black men and women could register to vote... it seems clear that their efforts and sacrifices were no idle exercise in gallantry. ... Without the vote, no social or legal reform was either possible, or lasting."

You do not need to be female, consider yourself a a feminist or even political, to enjoy learning about the suffrage movement. For while the subject is woman suffrage, the larger story is about democracy, and how a powerless class of Americans won concessions and guarantees from those in power without the use of violence. In learning about the suffrage movement, you will find a new view of American history, brimming with new heroes.

Next to George Washington and his cherry tree we can set young Carrie Chapman Catt driving a wagon across the prairie by "dead reckoning" or brave Lucretia Mott trusting her own safety to a member of the mob roused against her. Let us honor Sojourner Truth no less than Patrick Henry, and Alice Paul no less than Woodrow Wilson.

The celebration of the suffrage movement victory holds a particular relevance now, as it has helped lead us as a country and a people to where we are today. It celebrates a substantial milestone on the road to equal rights for women, and it honors those who helped win the day. It puts women back into our national history as active participants. It reminds us of the necessity of progressive leaders, organizers, and visionaries in every local community. It is the origin of the yet-unpassed Equal Rights Amendment. It exposes the misplaced fears and prejudices of those who oppose equal rights for women, and offers a sobering reminder that too many of these same foolish, reactionary attitudes from 100 years ago still exist today. Clearly, the wider goal of women's full equality and freedom has not yet been achieved, but the victorious woman suffrage movement offers a new generation of activists a solid base on which to build for the future.

Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of the lifelong suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, summarized the movement's legacy best when she wrote these words: "Perhaps some day men will raise a tablet reading in letters of gold: 'All honor to women, the first disenfranchised class in history who unaided by any political party, won enfranchisement by its own effort alone, and achieved the victory without the shedding of a drop of human blood. All honor to the women of the world!'"

Provided by the National Women's History Project.

 

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