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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 but remains three states short of ratification today. For over fifty years, the ERA has been introduced in every session of Congress.
Women's History Month
By Presidential Proclamation, March is National Women’s History Month. (March 8 is celebrated as International Women’s Day.) Since President Carter issued the first such proclamation in 1980, efforts to acknowledge the extraordinary achievements of American women have expanded to encompass congressional acknowledgement, school curricula, recognition by local governments and media, and exhibits, publications and performances by public and private entities across the country. Fairfax County issued its own proclamation, and honored the achievements of women at a public event representing women from every county department and agency.
For more general information on Women’s History Month, visit the National Women’s History Project website: http://www.nwhp.org/. There are many excellent websites that deal with this month’s observances and with women’s history in general. Two particularly good ones are http://www.womenshistory.about.com/ and http://www.infoplease.com/ . Look at just the first page of the latter...there are dozens of fascinating links through which to explore any aspect of women’s history, such as the history of women’s history, activities, interactive quizzes, trivia -- a lot of material!
The first female member of Congress, Jeanette Rankin of Montana, was sworn in in 1917. That same year marked an escalation of efforts to achieve women’s suffrage, including picketing the White House by “The Silent Sentinels,” their repeated arrests, and the “Night of Terror” at the Occoquan Workhouse, which proved to be a turning point in the struggle for the right to vote. National Women’s History Month provides an inspirational opportunity to reflect on the courage and determination of the Silent Sentinels, and their ultimate success. Much of what we celebrate this month reflects the achievements of those brave women--not just in achieving ratification of the 19th Amendment, but in expanding opportunities for women in general. And as we celebrate the milestones reached, we need to reflect, as well, on the battles yet to be waged and won to provide women with true equality in every sphere of American life.