On Aug. 18, 1920, the ratification of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Not all women, though, because the history of voting rights is not equal to voting access. Nevertheless, it was a start and had a context of its own, a context that rhymes with the present.
Though women voted en masse in New Jersey in 1789, they organized for the right to vote, formally, after the 1840s when Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting. It took 80 years, multiple women’s associations and three major conventions. It took the lobbying of Frederick Douglass on behalf of women’s suffrage. It required persistence more than patience, and agitation, activism and finally coordination between conservative and more militant women.
After 2020 and as the COVID pandemic strings out into another year, the context feels relatable.
The decade when women’s activism finally resulted in universal suffrage (the right to vote) was that of World War I and the Flu Pandemic which began in 1918 and lasted for two years. Even then, with the deaths of 675,000 Americans, mask wearing was a matter of contention, though war-era Red Cross signs said un-maskers were slackers, implying they were shirking their civic duty. The era was fraught with protests, from the Anti-Mask League that formed after the war ended in November 1918 to the protests of women all over the country, agitating for suffrage.
Starting with a parade on the day before President Wilson’s inauguration, and for 18 more months, women paraded, picketed and stood as “Silent Sentinels” outside the White House. For 18 months, onlookers harassed the women, police arrested them and President Woodrow Wilson said that the right to vote was a states-rights issue.
This decade was the climax and ended by bringing women of different worldviews together, but not before tumult. In 1909, Emma Smith DeVoe proposed the National Council of Women Voters at a Seattle Convention of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She formed it in 1911. In 1912, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were appointed to the NAWSA congressional committee and then formed a separate group in 1913. By 1919, Carrie Chapman Catt proposed a merger of groups to form the League of Women Voters to ensure that conservative women would participate.
Throughout Woodrow Wilson paid lip service to women’s suffrage. His daughter was a suffragist, so he said he was sympathetic, but held out too long on the claim of states-rights, ignoring that it should be a universal right, therefore one for the federal government to tackle.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns’ National Women’s Party persisted using tactics learned from British suffrage the anti-slavery, temperance and the labor movements. When women protesting outside of the White House were arrested and imprisoned, they went on hunger strikes and were force fed in prison. According to the Wilson Center, this torture of women, as well as womens’ efforts during the war, persuaded the president to champion universal suffrage late in the year. By 1919, an amendment was in the works, and Carrie Chapman Catt’s League of women voters united conservatives and liberals to help its ratification.
For 80 years, women persisted when they were told to wait, to lobby their states, to advocate in more genteel ways. Often they were told to stay home and focus on family, that they were not fit for the responsibility, as if equal representation in a democracy was “unnatural.”
When Alice Paul asked President Wilson, “How long must we wait?” the words echoed in 1963 when Dr. King wrote to white ministers in his letter from a Birmingham jail saying that black Americans had long been told “wait!” To white people who wanted to kick the can down the timeline of history, King responded, “This ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never.’ ”
When black American voter registration was throttled so that 600,000 registered voters dwindled to less than 4,000, when the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Dawes Act prevented Asians and Native Americans from voting, when 2020 statehouses are enacting more voter restrictions that result in lower turnout, it’s hard not to ask, how is this not suppression?