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Women fought for right to vote

By Sophia Peterson

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

19th Constitutional Admendment

This year, we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the day women finally received the right to vote in national elections, such as for president and members of Congress, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

That was no mean achievement. To amend the Constitution, two-thirds of both houses of Congress had to approve, and 36 of the state legislatures had to ratify, or approve, the bill.

To achieve their goal, which women had been deprived of since the birth of our country, they faced years of steadfast opposition and even violence.

 Even when success in Congress was close in 1913 and 1917, two parades organized by supporters — known as suffragettes — of the voting bill were scenes of violence.

The Women’s Suffrage Parade took place in 1913 and the Night of Terror in 1917.

In 1913, one observer reported, “They spit at the marchers and grabbed  their clothing, hurled insults, threw lit cigarettes, and police didn’t hold the mobs back.” There were 100 marchers taken to the hospital. Black women felt especially vulnerable because of prevalent racism.

The 1917 parade was even more vicious. The marchers, called Silent Sentinels, circled the White House in silent protest because President Woodrow Wilson failed to support the suffrage amendment, though he eventually did.

On Nov. 17, 1917, 33 Silent Sentinels were jailed, attacked, beaten and tortured. A friend in the White House arranged for their release and   their imprisonment was declared unconstitutional by the court.

Tradition and prejudice

Cultural tradition and prejudice change slowly. Powerful anti-suffrage interests of society, including some women, regarded a woman’s role foremost as domestic — confined to the home and responsible for child-bearing and childcare. Laws reflected these views. Women were discouraged from a college education, had no opportunity to enter most professions, had no claim for custody of children in case of divorce and limited property rights.

Many, including academics and scientists, defended traditional gender roles with these arguments: Politics are improper concerns for women, which might stimulate growth of beards; women were physically “not made for it”: Their reproductive organs would be weakened; women would become infertile if their brains were strained.

As late as 1914, just a few years before the 19th Amendment was passed, a noted professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, William T. Sedgewick, asserted in The New York Times: “It (voting) would mean a degeneration and a degradation of human fiber, which would turn back the hands of time 1,000 years.”

Suffragettes organize

It was against such entrenched views and traditions that, in 1848, suffragettes began to organize the first formal women’s suffrage convention with the Senaca Falls Convention, attended by 300 women and some men dedicated to work for the social, economic and political rights of women.

The convention produced a document, “The Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” modeled after the original Declaration of Independence. It listed women’s grievances: Their unequal treatment by the laws as compared with men and all the rights they deserved as equals of men, but did not have, including the vote.

To organize the long struggle they knew was before them, the suffragettes founded two associations in 1869 — the National Woman’s Suffrage Association (NWSA), which sought a universal suffrage amendment to the Constitution, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which focused on the right to vote for African American men, who should have been granted the right to vote at the end of the Civil War, but had not.

The members of the AWSA thought the women’s vote was more controversial than that of the African American mens’s and that if both were on the same bill, both would be defeated.

 History proved AWSA correct — the right to vote was granted to African American men in 1870, when the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, but Jim Crow law in the South prevented many of those men from voting.

It took 50 more years, until 1920, for women to get the right to vote — an indication of how strong opposition to the women’s vote was.

The two associations united in 1890 to create a  new association — National American Woman Suffrage Association — strengthening the suffragettes’ organization.

With an organization established, the suffragettes pursued endless avenues to strengthen their cause over many decades. They filed lawsuits in support of voting through many courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.

They availed themselves of all the tools of a major campaign: Disributed written materials and petitions, erected billboards, provided train tours of speakers, picketed the White House, marched in parades and endured hunger strikes.

A changing world and suffragettes’ cause

The suffragettes were encouraged by basic economic and social changes in the latter part of the 19th century as the economy was becoming more urban and industrial.

Many families could not afford to limit women’s responsibilities to the purely domestic.

Information about job opportunities spread in social clubs, farm workers went to the cities to be maids and dishwashers, factories were being built, public education was slowly developing and, since teaching was a job considered suitable for women, more women wanted more education to become eligible to teach.

This led to greater interest in civic affairs and frustration at not being able to vote in federal elections and influence public policy.

The United States’ entry into World War I accelerated changes. It contributed to the changing roles of women beyond purely domestic, and society at large began to question the traditional sexist stereotypes.

At the beginning of the war, the U.S. lacked the manpower and materials to fight a major war 3,000 miles away. Men were needed on the war front and women took their places in the factories.

The competence of women in the factories developed their sense of independence and confidence leading to a change in their roles, not only in the family, but in the world outside the family.

Just the beginning

This piece of history demonstrates the long struggle to attain voting rights for women. As we celebrate this momentous centennial, we should also note the struggle for women’s equality did not end with the 19th Amendment.

Equality in employment was not enshrined into law until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Similarly, while Blacks technically grained the right to vote in 1870, Jim Crow laws in the South prevented them from voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As we have seen in recent events, many contend additional efforts to achieve “a more perfect union” — as the founders asserted in the preamble to the Consitution — are necessary in our country.

Moreover, additional pages to our history continue to be made by people like the suffragettes.

Sophia Peterson  is professor emerita in the Political Science Department of West Virginia University. She is a member of the  League of Women Voters of Morgantown-Monongalia County, and researched and wrote this piece for The Dominion Post.