Women’s Suffrage at 90
Posted August 18, 2010on:
Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “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.” (For the story of the amendment, click here. The vote passed on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920.)
This landmark ruling is less than 100 years old. It is less than a lifetime–there are women alive today who remember the time before women had the right to vote in this country. I recall my own great-grandmother sharing her memory of the first time she was ever allowed to vote.
Because we do not have the video evidence that we have of the civil rights movement or the feminist movement of the 1960’s, we tend to forget the hardship and struggle those women endured to earn rights for women. When I was growing up, the only image I had of what a suffragette looked was Mrs. Banks, the mother character in Mary Poppins, who was portrayed as so self-absorbed and wealthy and concerned for her own rights that her children were misbehaving terribly to get any attention at all. She was the contrasting foil to Mary Poppins, the woman who did not care for herself, her pay, her image—only for the poor, neglected children. Mrs. Banks’ image matched the photos I saw of the suffrage movement, pictures of wealthy women dressed in full Victorian attire, marching with signs and pausing to pose for photos. It gave me the impression that the suffrage movement was more like an outdoor ladies’ tea than a brutal struggle for equality under the law.
It is true that many of the participants and leaders of this movement were privileged white women. There is a legacy of prejudice within the feminist movement that persists today against working class women and women of color. Those of us who are passionate about the ongoing struggle for women’s civil and social equality must continue to fight against this prejudice with all our strength. But the status of early suffragette leaders as wealthy and white does not negate the difficulty of their struggle or the cost of their sacrifice. Their portrayal as indulgent flakes like Mrs. Banks is not only false, but it diminishes their intelligence, commitment and determination, along with the importance of their movement.
The struggle for women’s rights was intense, disruptive and even violent, just like any other civil rights movement. Women with no other source of income than their husbands were thrown out of their homes and separated from their children. Single, working women lost their jobs for attending a suffrage rally. Women were denied the right of free assembly and jailed for their protests. While in jail, they were abused. They staged hunger strikes and were force-fed. They sacrificed their families, their security, their bodily safety, their income and more. For a striking portrayal, I encourage you to watch Iron-Jawed Angels, a film made in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.
And yet somehow we forget their sacrifice in the long litany of civil rights heroes. This erasure took place within a generation of the suffrage movement. Robert Cooney, director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project, writes:
Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:
“As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted–retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother–and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women.”
So on this anniversary day, let us do three things.
Lucy Stone, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Willard, Julia Ward Howe—these women and all their anonymous companions deserve a prominent place in our pantheon of justice heroes. Let us remember their sacrifice, courage and dedication, and the true cost of civil rights.
My life today would not be possible without the women’s movements of days past. My ordination, my career choice, my family, my equal pay, my partnership with my spouse, my legal protection from rape and domestic violence, my reproductive freedom, my political activism, my hyphenated name, my degree in Women’s Studies, my protection from sexual harassment and so many more things that are an intimate part of my daily life and my identity would never have been possible even a generation or two ago. I give thanks to God and to those women who made my life possible.
Even here in the United States, there is much work yet to be done for women to overcome discrimination and stand on an equal footing with men. Women still make only $.76 for every dollar a man earns. Domestic violence still takes the life of a woman every single day. Girls can grow up to be anything they want to be—but there is still a dearth of women in top leadership positions in the social, political and corporate sectors. The right to birth control and access to abortion are still hotly debated, and rights are being lost rather than won. Sexual harassment is still ridiculed and date rape is still rampant on college campuses. Women still fight enormous expectations about their bodies, their demeanor, their sexuality and their freedom.
Beyond the United States, many of the world’s women find an even harsher reality. There are still many countries where women do not have the right to vote, to divorce, to leave an abusive husband, to be heard in court, to drive, even to be seen in public without a male escort. Women across the world are poorer than men and more likely to be victims of violence.
We who benefit from the privilege of earlier generations of the women’s movement must recommit to standing together and continuing the struggle, for we still have a long way to go.
Those three acts—remembering, giving thanks and recommitting—are intertwined. Remembering the struggles of the suffragettes moves me to give thanks for the rights I have as a woman in 21st century America. Remembering their courage and sacrifice inspires me to courage and sacrifice of my own, that all women and girls of this earth might have a chance at life, health, self-determination, peace and justice.