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Suffragist History

Suffrage was a full-fledged political reform effort that took five generations of activism and commitment to achieve. The movement had its own philosophers, its generals, its organizers, its foot soldiers, its writers – and its own separate political press. Because women had been omitted from the political process, they had largely been left out of the abundant political visual imagery of American politics. With the exceptions of the Goddesses of Liberty and Justice – famous since the Revolutionary era — one finds almost no political imagery appealing to women or reflecting their concerns and aspirations. Never mind, the women invented and developed their own. The suffragists, and their cohorts in the wider women’s movement at the turn of the century, developed a powerful political imagery that, until relatively recently, was used effectively to champion causes that concerned women’s life experiences.

In addition to using political tactics indigenous to American political life – political parades, protests, cartoons, campaign buttons, clothing, and lobbying, the suffragists added tactics borrowed from the “Votes for Women” drive in Great Britain – most notably the concept of holding the party in power responsible for lack of action on the woman’s vote question, and going to jail rather than paying fines for the “crime” of wanting to vote. The suffragists crafted a political movement that was powerful and ultimately effectively and – importantly – non-violent. These women were extremely proud that there was no violence used by the women. The only violence was TOWARD the women by the male-dominated political system.

Because of the tactics used by the women, and their effectiveness, the suffrage movement became THE POLITICAL MODEL for social and political reform movements for the remainder of the 20th century – most notably the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movements. Suffrage is rarely thought about in this context. The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial is the perfect place to teach that important historical fact.

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.” The document was based on the Declaration of Independence, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a main author. In it were listed the many inequities women suffered under the legal and political systems, including:

  • No voice in the laws
  • 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, 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 seventy years. The right to vote was seen in the first step to change the traditional and unjust systems that existed.

Throughout the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s 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 toward reforms on a 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

With the adoption of amendments that gave suffrage to African American men but excluded women, it became clear that a separate amendment to the Constitution was the only realistic way for women to achieve their right to vote. The movement became split: some wanted to continue the state legislative approach, but Anthony and Stanton wanted to work for a national amendment. The two groups each worked their own strategy.

Unification of the Movement

Around 1890, the two groups joined to form the primary organization in the United States, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Working at a state and local level, the NAWSA organized dozens of state referendum campaigns, appealing directly to the male voters, and had 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 six states through hard-fought campaigns. And these six victories brought the movement back to life.

The New Generation

It was around this time that Alice Paul entered the scene. Alice 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.

Alice Paul Rises to Leadership

She 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 of the movement—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 the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and assuming leadership of its Congressional Committee in Washington, DC. Paul began by organizing the famous suffrage parade mounted on March 3, 1913, on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as President, in which masses of suffragists from many states filled the streets around the U.S. Capitol, White House, and Treasury Building. One of the largest protests ever held, this parade brought the suffrage movement to much greater prominence than ever before since the entire city ignored Wilson’s arrival at Union Station in favor of watching the parade make its way down Pennsylvania Avenue. Paul’s tactics were seen as too extreme for NAWSA’s leadership and the Congressional Union split from NAWSA in 1914.

Alice Paul forms the National Woman’s Party

From that time on, Paul worked for suffrage through her own organization, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU), which she and Lucy Burns founded in April 1913 while still serving on NAWSA’s Congressional Committee. The CU became the National Woman’s Party in 1916. The NWP was organized to persuade women who lived in suffrage states to elect legislators who favored the federal amendment.

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 two years, Alice Paul coordinated an ongoing demonstration in front of the White House gate. Thousands of women from across the country stood quietly in front of the White House, no matter the weather. They held banners for the President and everyone else to see. “Mr. President: How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” one pointedly asked. Another read, “Mr. President: What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?”

The White House Picketing and Turning Point

The quiet demonstrations began to change when the United States entered World War I. Any criticism of the President was considered unpatriotic and the spectators passing by became aggressive. Beginning in June, 1917 until early 1919, over two hundred women from twenty-six 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 or the District of Columbia Jail. They 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. In response to this treatment, Alice 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 brutally forced food down their throats. Their harsh treatment was reported widely in the papers, raising the public’s awareness of what women they had admired were willing to endure to win the vote. In late 1918-1919, when the President was not making progress on the woman suffrage amendment in Congress, the pickets used the President speeches on the need for democracy in Europe while American women did not have it at home, and burned the speeches in “watch fires” as they continued to picket.

The Triumph of Suffrage and Push on for Equal Rights

In 1920, the 72-year struggle ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the “Susan B. Anthony” Amendment, granting women the vote. 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 what would be for her a life-long campaign to win 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. Virginia became the 38th and final state to ratify the amendment in 2020, but it has not yet been formally adopted as part of the Constitution. For over fifty years, the ERA has been introduced in every session of Congress.