Woman's Suffrage: Humans Not Angels Seek the Vote

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Many commentators have treated the woman's suffrage movement as an interesting, but minor theme in the history of the United States. First introduced in 1878, this amendment was the second such proposed—the first woman’s suffrage bill was sent to Congress in 1868 during the debate over the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The eventually successful amendment reads:  "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex. The Congress Shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

The Rhetoric of Rights

Though the national bills came after the American Civil War, the fight for women to receive the full rights of citizens has been part of this nation's political culture from before its founding. Perhaps the most frequently quoted early request for political rights for women was that of Abigail Adams in a March 31, 1776 letter to her husband John. She wrote:

I long to hear that you have declared an independancy—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar 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.
Her husband seems to have perceived this comment as a joke, responding:

We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.

Abigail, in a less jovial tone, replied, "I cannot say I think you very generous to the Ladies, for whilst you are proclaiming peace and good will to Men, Emancipating all Nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over Wives."

The rhetoric of the American Revolution concerning the rights of citizenship was prominent in the first wave of the woman’s movement in the United States. This is clear in the wording of the Declaration of Sentiments written in Seneca Falls NY in 1848. The Declaration of Sentiments unequivocally declares: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. . . ."

The women and men at Seneca Falls launched a political movement to gain citizen rights for women that would overturn the legal notion of "coverture"—which basically held that women and all they possessed were legally under the control of first fathers and then husbands.

Were They Heroines?

It is difficult for us to now imagine what the suffragists went through to accomplish their goal. Carrie Chapman Catt, last President of National American Woman Suffrage Association and native of Charles City, Iowa, declared after 1920,  
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.

This might draw us to see these reformers as persons of heroic stature and might. Indeed, there are many dramatic stories that could seduce us into hero worship. Susan B. Anthony was arrested and found guilty of illegal voting. Carrie Chapman Catt sold her jewelry to fund the suffrage campaign. 

Women who marched in Washington D.C. in 1913 on the occasion of Woodrow Wilson's inauguration were attacked, some beaten by the crowd as the police, in the best cases, merely looked on and in the worst cases, assisted their attackers. In 1917 Alice Paul, Lavinia Dock, and others blockaded the White House to remind President Wilson of his promise to support the suffrage amendment. They were arrested, jailed and force fed after going on hunger strikes to protest their treatment as political prisoners. It took a public outcry to get their release.

Ordinary People with Political Savvy

I think it would be a mistake to get caught up in these sensational stories. These incidents drew public attention to the cause, but the heart of the suffrage movement was in the actions of ordinary people with extraordinary commitment and a lot of political savvy.  The leaders of the suffrage cause were human beings, not angels.

After losing the fight to include women in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution, suffragists shunned old allies such as Frederick Douglass who accepted limiting voting rights to black men as the best they were going to get at the time. After the split with the abolitionists, Suffrage leaders could not agree on how to approach getting the vote for women.  Disheartened and squabbling, they divided into two warring camps the National Woman Suffrage Association, which sought a national Amendment, and the American Woman Suffrage Association, which sought state by state legislation.

The State by State Campaign

In each of the states, suffrage advocates fought hard and clever campaigns using pageants, suffrage songs, postcards, stump speeches, and parades to draw attention to their cause. Before 1920 there were woman's suffrage amendments proposed in every state in the union. But at least twenty states rejected woman's suffrage, including Iowa. In Iowa, woman's suffrage legislation was considered 25 times between 1866 and 1916. 1915 was a hotly contested year for suffragists with state campaigns in New Jersey, Iowa and Massachusetts. In Massachusetts suffrage was rejected by 133,479 votes; in Iowa by 10,341 votes. 

The experience in Iowa and Massachusetts illustrates the problem with the state by state campaign, it was always necessary to ask men to vote to give women the vote. And in regions where women were equal to or outnumbered men in the population, this cooperation was hard to come by. Historians of suffrage do not think it coincidental that those states which gave women the vote earliest were those states with the lowest percentage of women in the population.

The state by state campaign may have been a necessary, but insufficient, step in obtaining the passage of the national amendment. First, women who could vote because of state legislation made their votes felt in national elections. Indeed, a popular tin-pan alley song of the period "Be Good to California, Mr. Wilson" reminds the then president that he was narrowly re-elected in 1916 by California women's votes. When the national amendment narrowly passed the Congress May 21, 1919, it had to be ratified by 36 states before it became law and only 16 states allowed women to vote. 

The ratification vote was close in all states, but especially in hotly contested Tennessee where it passed by a single vote during a recount--the amendment was first passed August 18th but the recount postponed the decision until August 24th. Legend has it that the single vote was cast by a 24-year old man after receiving a telegram from his mother which read:  "Hurrah and vote for suffrage!...Don't forget to be a good boy...." Even after the ratification vote had been validated, the question of women's voting rights continued to be contested. And as late as 1925 a widely republished newspaper article still claimed that no man in his right mind would favor women voting.

No Angels Here: Race and the Woman’s Vote

A shameful part of later suffragist strategy, which may have played an important role in winning over southern state legislatures, was the move from claims about inalienable rights to blatant political manipulation around issues of race. By the turn of the twentieth century, many white suffrage advocates had abandoned African Americans to obtain southern support for the rights of white women. National leaders such as Catt made public statements about using white women’s votes to counter those of "unworthy" (read as black and immigrant) men. Historical research has shown that the women’s auxiliary of the KKK was active in southern states in getting support for ratification. And, what this meant, in the end, is that white women did get the vote while the franchise for African Americans continued to be unconstitutionally suppressed.

The Challenge of Suffrage in a Small Community

It is worth keeping in mind that the women and men of the Suffrage movement were like you and me, persons rooted in time and place, frequently unable to overcome their culture and its prejudices. They lived and worked for full citizenship in such obscure places as Decorah, Iowa. In 1915 at a meeting of the Decorah Fire Department, a motion was made in support of the Iowa Woman's Suffrage Amendment. The resolution to the Decorah Fire Department was defeated by a 26 to 4 vote with Dennis Horan, Parnell Shea, Frank Arneson and Ben Vine voting in favor and being named in the newspaper as susceptible to the influences of women by the rabidly anti-suffrage editor of the Decorah Journal, Fred Bierman. Participating in these activities could not have been easy, the pro-suffrage editor of the Knoxville paper was referred to repeatedly in the Decorah Journal as "Sister John Carrie." 

Working Together as a Democracy

Still these and other people in cities, small towns, and uncelebrated hamlets across the nation were undaunted by the taunts and threats. And they proved to us in their actions and accomplishments that ordinary people, willing to work within the democratic process can achieve extraordinary things.

Hunger strikes drew public attention to suffrage, but it was petition drives, local fundraisers, sponsored speeches, letters to the editors, and husbands and wives sharing household responsibilities so their spouses could march in suffrage parades which eventually worked. These are rights not intended for heroes, but for ordinary people, living average lives, women and men alike.

In winning the right to vote, women in the United States also earned the right to agree and disagree with each other and with men, to contend as full citizens. It is this accomplishment of ordinary women that we celebrate, and it should stand as a lesson to us all that such rights should not be treated lightly because they can so easily be lost.

Hy Mayer, "The awakening". New York : Published by Puck Publishing Corporation, 295-309 Lafayette Street, 1915 February 20.
"Votes for WHITE women.”New-York Tribune", March 1, 1913, p. 9.

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