Suffrage: Get in Formation

By Puja

A friend of mine asked me to respond to this reaction she had shortly after the recent election:

Memo to all the women who say stop protesting/whining/crying about the election, you only have that right because better women than you did whine/cry and protest

What does my friend want? She wants women to understand that the privilege of even having an opinion, let alone freely expressing it, was won by women and woke men fighting for it; and she wants it now. My friend is frustrated that there are some women do not understand the irony in decrying the very vehicle of change (social activism) that allows them to complain about those exercising their rights; that if it were not for the protections towards expressions of free speech such as protesting, women may not have raised awareness and support for the right to vote.

That is it, the end. Easy-peasy. Except there is a lot of nuance and subtext in those sentiments. If you are satisfied with the above response, skip down to the last paragraph, the meat of this reads like a term paper. It’s a think piece ya’ll!


First, let us start with the obvious, the 19th Amendment itself:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Second, a brief history lesson of the amendment:

What would eventually become the 19th Amendment was first introduced in 1878 by Senator Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA). The 19th Amendment was introduced every subsequent year until it was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified by the states on August 18, 1920. That’s right, women have only had the right to vote in federal elections* in this country for 96 years. The 19th Amendment overruled a Supreme Court ruling (Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1875)) that specifically stated that women were not included in the 14th Amendment’s “Privileges and Immunities” clause. This case originated out of Missouri in 1872 when Virginia Minor (suffrage leader) attempted to register to vote. Chief Justice Waite penned the UNANIMOUS opinion of the court:

“If suffrage was one of these privileges or immunities, why amend the Constitution to prevent its being denied on account of race, &c.? Nothing is more evident than that the greater must include the less, and if all were already protected why go through with the form of amending the Constitution to protect a part?” (88 U.S. at 175)

So basically, women are citizens, but because the Constitution does not affirmatively provide or abridge a woman’s the right to vote, too bad so sad.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Women’s/Universal Suffrage Movement needs to be contextualized:

A lot of us may be operating under the public school version of the Woman’s/Universal Suffrage Movement. That version goes a little something like this: women’s rights activists split from the abolitionist movement when the 14th and 15th Amendments did not discount gender as a pre-qualification to vote; a meeting was held in Seneca Falls, the Declaration of Sentiments were published; the movement [apparently] took a break for the Civil War and Reconstruction; there were some marches, and eventually the 19th Amendment was passed. Something I don’t think we do enough of is try and understand the zeitgeist of the era history occurred in.

If it was affordable, the industrial revolution freed up a woman’s day (meaning she didn’t have to do everything by hand from scratch). Once women had more free time, they started thinking (oh no!), and taking up interests outside the home (double merde), usually at church (oh, that’s ok then).  This often translated to an increase in charity work or activism for a cause, an example of this would be the Temperance Movement. Hey you know who was a Temperance worker? Susan B. Anthony. Once women are outside the house getting all socially active and trying to fix things, they start to realize ‘hey I can really make a difference, I can affect change in the world around me. If only my voice had weight…hey if I had the right to vote, it would mean my opinion matters, and my representatives would be representing me and my interests and not just those of men. I should register to vote.’ But what happens? The patriarchy. Well, not entirely, the notion of suffrage for women was controversial when proposed to the women at Seneca Falls. Why? Because most women accepted that they were dependent on men, possessed no decision-making power in the ‘real’ world, and believed it when told they were not qualified to do so. We will not get into the chicken (women’s role in society) and egg (the patriarchy) argument here today.

Still third, because the country was emerging from the last shift in social conscience (i.e., Abolition and the Civil War), additional progressive movements attempting to initiate a paradigm shift, probably weren’t welcome with open arms. We are going to examine some of the activities that women took part in to forward the notion that women are independent citizens capable of making our own decisions, thus equally deserving the right to vote, and the consequences for those activities. So, what exactly transpired between the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 to 1919?

  • American Equal Rights Association – Established Post-Civil War to gain Universal suffrage for ALL citizens, but was undermined by the passage of the 15th Amendment, which did not expressly eliminate gender as a pre-qualification to vote. There were several failed campaigns to include Universal suffrage in state constitutions.
  • 1868 – 1870 Revolution – a newspaper dedicated to advancing woman’s suffrage and other social reform issues helped the movement gain public exposure.
  • In 1869 the Wyoming Territory passes a bill allowing females aged 21 and above the right to vote; the territory’s citizens later approved a constitution that included Universal suffrage. When Wyoming sought statehood, Congress threatened to keep Wyoming out of the Union if they didn’t rescind the provision. Wyoming called the US Government’s bluff and entered the union in 1890 as the first state to grant women the right to vote.
  • Testifying in front of Congress – After Senator Sargent introduced the first iteration of the 19th Amendment in 1878, Susan B. Anthony testified in front of Congress. During her, and other’s testimony, Congressmen read the newspaper.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton published “The Woman’s Bible” in 1895 – which concluded that the Bible degrades women. This led to several Women’s Rights Organizations to reject the book and distance themselves from Stanton, who was the organizer of the 1848 Seneca Falls Conference. As if women weren’t being undermined enough, we did it to each other.
  • The National Association of Colored Women was founded in 1896, and included a department that worked to advance women’s suffrage.
  • The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade – organized by the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), 8,000 marchers participated in this parade (there were floats too), it took place the day before Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. When the parade route bottlenecked on Pennsylvania Avenue, the mostly male mob [physically and verbally] assaulted the marchers resulting in 300 injuries. Helen Keller was so overcome by the atmosphere that she could not speak later that evening. How terrible was that scene that a blind and deaf woman could feel how unsafe it was?
  • Ida B. Wells founded the first Black women’s suffrage organization in 1913, Alpha Suffrage Club. It is important to note that African American women experienced the dual discrimination of racism and sexism; and while the 19th Amendment franchised ALL women, Jim Crow really prevented franchise of non-white women.
  • In 1916, Alice Paul founded the National Woman’s Party (NWP) specifically to hold President Woodrow Wilson accountable for the lack of Universal Suffrage. The silent protestors outside the White House were largely ignored until WWI, when anything that drew attention away from the war was deemed as unpatriotic (HOW FLIPPING IRONIC). The peaceful protests were met with mob violence, led to the arrest, and jailing of the protesters. Those sent to workhouse-prison in Virginia would stage hunger strikes and were beaten, lived in unsanitary squalor, and forcibly fed through tubes shoved down their throats. Bad publicity over these conditions tipped the hand of the jailers, and the prisoners were released. After release, Woodrow Wilson had a “change of heart” and supported the suffrage amendment.
  • Also in 1916, Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) became the first woman elected to federal office when she was elected to the House of Representatives (Montana granted women the right to vote in 1914). In 1918, after about 40 of the states had already passed some form of Universal suffrage law, Congresswoman Rankin introduced discussion so Congress could debate the topic (sigh). Yadda, Yadda, we covered the constitutional process above.
  • In 1920, when the 19th Amendment making the state ratification rounds, anti-suffragist TN House member Harry Burn changed his vote to support suffrage (TN became the 36th state – the state that secured national ratification of to ratify the 19th Amendment – by ONE vote). Congressman Burn had to hide until the anti-suffrage crowd dispersed for fear of retribution.

Here is where I would like to draw your attention that the advent/rise of the flapper girl, the first iteration of a woman with ‘modern’ American values, is coterminous with women’s franchise. Wait you mean there is a direct correlation between getting the vote and feeling independent and empowered over your own damn self? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying.

Finally, the takeaway here is that the lessons of the Women’s/Universal Suffrage Movement should not be forgotten. It was a very long road, it led to a paradigm shift in American culture and society regarding the role of women (not all women as the Civil Rights Movement will illustrate), and without the personal sacrifices of the women who fought for the benefit of all can you imagine what world would be like if it never happened? Would Hillary Clinton’s 1995 declaration that ‘it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights’ have fallen on deaf ears if America continued to drag its feet on gender equality? Luckily, we will never know. Once women received Universal suffrage, women began to seek and attain leadership roles. Women began to affect change on larger scales, women got a seat at the table (women of color have an additional layer of struggles). This was all possible because our foremothers assembled, organized, and sacrificed. The least we can do to honor their memory, is respect the right of those who disagree with the state of our country. Literally the least. Did the 19th Amendment solve all problems for women kind? You damn well know it didn’t. We should not let the privilege we have of expecting universal suffrage let us forget that a major legacy of this nation’s founding is civil disobedience; to call it whining borders on un-American.

*Wyoming was the first US Territory to grant women the right to vote in 1869, Utah in 1870, and Washington in 1883. Wyoming is justly called the ‘Equality State’ when it entered the union in 1890.**
**Ahem…Wyoming’s three (3) electoral votes will go to him, as he received 70% of the votes.

Because I am a nerd, here are some additional resources:

  • I recommend the 8.18.16 episode of the National Constitution Center’s “We the People” podcast discussing the history of the 19th Amendment with actual Constitutional Scholars, if you are into that sort of thing.
  • 11 countries (including the WWII Axis of Evil countries) granted women the right to vote prior to the United States. You read that right, the Axis of Evil nations were slightly more progressive than the United States.
  • You can read more about the Constitutional Process at the National Archives.
  • If you would like to read the mental acrobatics the 1875 SCOTUS went through to justify their Minor v. Happersett decision, you can read it here. But I wouldn’t.
  • Contextually, how women (of a certain class) were treated and viewed during the Reconstruction Era can be derived from literature of the time (exs: Little Women (1868) and The Scarlett Letter (1850)). The Library of Congress has a splendidly curated list. It is worth noting that “Women’s Fiction” was considered an alternate genre term for “sentimental fiction.”
  • An interesting read about violence during the British Suffrage Movement (British and Irish women attained the right to vote in 1928).
  • Here are some wonderful photos of the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade.
  • I don’t even know what to say about the fact that there were no Suffrage leaders present when the proclamation of the 19th Amendment had passed except that maybe photo-ops and optics weren’t really a big thing in Woodrow Wilson led government.
  • Please don’t confuse the Women’s/Universal Suffrage Movement and the 19th Amendment with the Equal Rights Amendment.
  • Watch then First Lady’s Hillary Clinton’s full address to the United Nations 4th World Conference on Women.

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