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A History of Suffrage

A History of Suffrage

In 2020, the nation will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution recognizing a woman’s right to vote.

How it began.

Officially, the suffrage movement in the United States began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, convened by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Over 300 people, men and women, attended this historic meeting where they discussed, debated and adopted a revolutionary “Declaration of Sentiments” based on the Declaration of Independence. In it were listed the many inequities women suffered under the legal and political systems, including:
>No voice in the law
>No independent rights after marriage
>No custody of children in case of divorce
>No right to a college education
>No opportunity to enter most professions
>AND — of course — no right to vote!

The Seneca Falls Convention framed a national discussion about women’s rights in America and marked the beginning of a massive civil rights movement that would span the next 70 years. The right to vote was seen as the first step to change the traditional and unjust systems that existed.

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Women worked for equal rights.

Throughout the 1800s and into the early 1900s, national suffrage organizations were established, dedicated to advancing women’s rights through a federal amendment to the constitution that would give all women the right to vote. They also worked for reform on issues that included divorce and child custody laws, women’s property rights, employment opportunities, education, and increased social freedoms. Advocates for women’s rights traveled throughout the country giving speeches, organizing lobbying efforts, and discussing strategies with local groups.

After the Civil War.

When the amendments that gave suffrage to African American men were ratified, but excluded women, it became clear that an amendment to the Constitution was the only realistic way to win the right to vote. The movement was split: some wanted to continue the state legislative approach; others, like Susan B. Anthony and Stanton, wanted to work for a national amendment. The two groups each worked their own strategy…

The unification of the movement.

In 1910, the primary suffrage organization in the United States was the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Working at a state and local level, NAWSA organized dozens of state referendum campaigns, appealing directly to the male voters, and led hundreds of campaigns to get state legislatures to consider suffrage amendments. Only a few had been successful. Between 1910 and 1913, the vote for women was won in 6 states through hard-fought campaigns. These victories, however, brought the movement back to life!

The new generation.

It was around this time that Alice Paul entered the scene. Paul was a well-educated, Quaker woman working and studying in England in 1907 when she became interested in the issue of women’s suffrage. She met Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Christabel and Sylvia, who were causing controversy throughout England with their militant tactics to secure the vote for women. Paul’s participation in meetings, demonstrations and depositions to Parliament led to multiple arrests, hunger strikes, and force-feedings.

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Alice Paul rises to leadership.

Paul returned to the United States in 1910, and after completing a Ph.D. in Economics at the University of Pennsylvania  in 1912, turned her attention to the American suffrage movement. After the deaths of the two great icons — Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902 and Susan B. Anthony in 1906 — the suffrage movement was languishing, lacking focus and support under conservative suffrage organizations that were concentrating only on state suffrage. Paul believed that the movement needed to focus on the passage of a federal suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

After joining NAWSA and assuming leadership of its Congressional Committee in Washington, DC, Paul began by organizing the famous suffrage parade of March 3, 1913, on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as President. One of the largest protests ever held, the parade brought the suffrage movement to much greater prominence as masses of suffragists from many states filled the streets around the U.S. Capitol, White House, and Treasury Building. The entire city ignored Wilson’s arrival at Union Station in favor of watching the parade make its way down Pennsylvania Avenue. However, Paul’s tactics were viewed as too extreme by NAWSA’s leadership causing the Congressional Union to split from NAWSA in 1914.

Alice Paul forms the National Woman’s Party.

Following the split from NAWSA, Paul worked for suffrage through her own organization, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), which she had founded with Lucy Burns in April 1914 while still serving on NAWSA’s Congressional Committee. The CU became the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916. The NWP was organized to persuade women who lived in suffrage states to elect legislators who favored a federal amendment.

The new militant strategy.

In 1917, the NWP also began a new tactic that proved to be extremely powerful in changing public sentiment: picketing the White House. For over 2 years, Paul coordinated an ongoing demonstration in front of the White House gates. Thousands of women from across the country stood quietly in front of the White House, everyday, no matter the weather. They held banners, asking: “Mr. President: How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?” and “Mr. President: What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?”

Arrests and imprisonment.

The quiet demonstrations began to change when the United States entered World War I. Any criticism of the President during war time was considered unpatriotic, and members of the public — upon seeing the suffrage protesters outside the White House — became aggressive. Beginning in June 1917, until early 1919, over 200 women from 26 states were arrested on charges such as “obstructing traffic.” Refusing to admit guilt or pay any imposed fines, the women were imprisoned in Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, and the District of Columbia Jail.

While imprisoned, the women demanded to be treated as political prisoners. Instead, they were met with violence, forcibly handled by guards, pushed and thrown into cold unsanitary and rat-infested cells.

A turning point.

In response to this treatment, Paul led the women in protest, refusing to eat. Hunger strikes became a normal occurrence as more and more women were imprisoned. Not wanting to allow any woman to become a martyr for the cause, prison officials forced food down their throats. The brutality reached its peak on the night of November 14-15, 1917 — what is now known as the “Night of Terror.”

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This harsh treatment was reported widely in newspapers, raising public awareness of what the women were enduring in order to win the right to vote. In late 1918-1919, picketers began using the President’s speeches on the need to establish democracy in Europe while American women did not have it at home. They burned copies of the President’s speeches in “watch fires” as they picketed.

The triumph of suffrage…

In 1920, the 72-year struggle ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment — the “Susan B. Anthony” Amendment — granting American women the right to vote.

…but the struggle for equal rights continues.

Paul believed that the vote was just the first step in women’s quest for full equality. In 1922, she reorganized the NWP with the goal of eliminating all discrimination against women. In 1923, Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) — also known as the “Lucretia Mott Amendment” — and launched her life-long campaign to achieve full equality for women. The current version of the ERA reads:

Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex.

Congress passed the ERA in 1972, but the amendment remains 3 states short of ratification. For over 50 years, the ERA has been introduced in every session of Congress. The struggle continues

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