100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage – The Fight for the 19th Amendment

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The 19th Amendment, which guarantees women the right to vote, was ratified on August 18, 1920. It passed in Congress on June 4, 1919. It prohibits the federal government from denying American citizens the right to vote based on their sex.

Women’s Suffrage, as it was known, comes from the Latin word “suffragium,” meaning the right to vote. A women’s suffrage bill was originally introduced to Congress in 1878 by Senator Aaron Sargent (R-CA). It simply stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The bill was rejected in 1887.

Ironically, women had the right to vote in the colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. But by 1807, every state had passed legislation denying women their right to vote.

ORIGINS OF WOMEN’S SUFFRAGETTE MOVEMENT

The Women’s Suffrage movement was born soon after. It came to fruition in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention in New York. About 300 women and men attended the convention to “discuss the social, civil, and religious rights of women.”

The convention culminated with the Declaration of Sentiments, which was signed by 68 women and 32 men. One of the 12 clauses read, “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”

Early leaders in the suffrage movement were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (National Woman Suffrage Association) and Lucy Stone (American Woman Suffrage Association). They lobbied Congress for voting rights for women in the late 1860s. The two groups merged in 1890 to form the National Women Suffrage Association.

The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, passed in 1865, 1868, and 1870 respectively, granted rights to former slaves. Of particular interest to Suffragettes was the 15th Amendment, which prohibited discrimination in voting rights based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But it did not address voting rights based on gender. In other words, black men had the right to vote in 1870, but women didn’t.

The women’s suffrage movement continued to lobby state legislatures and Congress, march in protest, and hold conferences for the next four decades. But to no avail.

SUFFRAGETTE MOVEMENT IN THE 20TH CENTURY

In the early 20th Century, the Women’s Suffrage Movement took an unexpected turn. It turned violent. After the original Sargent proposal of 1878 was reconsidered in Congress in 1914 and 1917, and rejected both times, suffragettes started protesting in front of the White House.

By 1917, more than 1,000 women known as the Silent Sentinels had taken turns standing in front of the White House. They carried signs supporting voting rights for women and directly lobbied Congress.

Between June and November of that year, 218 protesters were arrested. Almost 100 of them were incarcerated at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia or the Washington, D.C. jail.

Some of the women in the Workhouse went on a hunger strike to protest prison conditions. These women were brutalized by guards by being force fed with feeding tubes. Others were beaten, shackled, and bound by ropes from the ceiling. All were denied legal counsel. The prison superintendent even called in the Marines to guard to prison.

News of the mistreatment eventually reached outside the workhouse. Federal authorities finally agreed to release the suffrage prisoners in late November, following intense public outcry.

The D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in early 1919 that the women had been illegally arrested and imprisoned. Shortly thereafter, President Woodrow Wilson, who had opposed women’s suffrage, began calling on Congress to act on an amendment to address it.

Between 1918 and 1919, Congress voted on the amendment five times, and rejected it five times. Opposition was led by Southern Democrats. During a special session called by President Wilson in May 1919, the amendment finally passed.

But the battle was only half won. Now the 19th Amendment had to be ratified by 36 states. The suffragettes mobilized to lobby state legislatures to ratify the amendment. Twenty-two states had ratified it by the end of 1919. Thirty-five states had ratified it by June 1920. Tennessee held it in the balance.

On August 18, 1920, following intense debates and strong lobbying, Tennessee approved the 19th Amendment by a vote of 50-49. It had taken 26 months to ratify. It was 50 years after black men were granted the right to vote.

SUFFRAGETTE MONUMENT INJUSTICE

The following year, the images of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott (suffragette and abolitionist) were carved on a monument by Adelaide Johnson. The monument was a gift from the National Woman’s Party and was accepted on behalf of Congress in 1921.

The very next day, Congress ordered the sculptor’s inscription be removed. It read, “Woman first denied a soul, then called mindless, now arisen, declaring herself an entity to be reckoned.”

To add insult to injury, the monument was placed in the Washington, DC Capitol Building Crypt (the basement), where it stayed for 75 years. The Crypt was used essentially as a service closet. The room was finally cleaned up and opened to the public in 1963. It was the first time people had seen the monument in over 40 years.

Then, in 1995, the 75th anniversary of the 19th amendment ratification, women’s groups and female members of Congress renewed efforts to bring the monument out of the basement and into the Capitol Rotunda. Since Congress refused to approve the funds to move the monument, money was raised from private donors.

The suffragette monument was finally moved up to the Rotunda in 1997, where it was viewed by the general public for the first time.

After having women’s voting rights taken away in 1807, it took 113 years to get it back. It took another 77 years for the suffragette movement to be properly honored by moving its monument to its rightful place in the Capitol Rotunda. It took 190 long years of struggle and sacrifice.

Women weren’t given the right to vote, they fought for their right to vote.



Image from: nps.gov

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