Aug 10, 2020
This summer marks the 100th anniversary of women gaining the legal right to vote in all U.S. elections. By June 4th of 1919, the House and Senate had passed the 19th Amendment. But for it to become part of the Constitution, the supposed “supreme law of the land,” three quarters of the then-existing 48 states then had to vote to ratify the amendment. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify.
It took women decades of struggle for this basic democratic right to be legally recognized. As Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, put it, “To get the word male in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country 52 years of pauseless campaign... conducting 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters; 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments; 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions ... and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses ... thousands of women gave years of their lives, hundreds of thousands gave constant interest and such aid as they could.”
The struggle of women to win the vote was entwined with other struggles of the new United States. The men of property who wrote the U.S. Constitution in 1787 denied the vote to all women, who were considered the property of their husbands or fathers; denied it to all black people enslaved as property of the plantation system; and denied the right to vote to most white men, because they didn’t own enough property. People who fought over one of these issues often saw their fight as part of a bigger struggle.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, some of the first leaders of the struggle for women’s right to vote, started out in the struggle to abolish slavery. And when they worked to convene a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, they were supported by two well-known abolitionists. Frederick Douglass, former slave and leading abolition speaker, attended and spoke in favor of the right for women to vote. William Lloyd Garrison, editor of an abolitionist newspaper, also attended Seneca Falls and spoke for a woman’s right to vote.
In 1863, in the middle of the Civil War, Susan B. Anthony led some 2,000 women to collect over four hundred thousand signatures on a petition to President Lincoln, the equivalent of four million today. It said, “There can never be true peace in the republic until the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women are practically established.”
But neither the abolition movement nor the suffrage movement could completely overcome the prejudices of their time. In 1840 Cady Stanton and Mott were part of the U.S. delegation at a conference to end slavery in London, England. A majority of men there voted NOT to seat the women as delegates. Even at Seneca Falls in 1848, the majority of men did NOT vote for Cady Stanton’s proposal giving women the right to vote.
Conversely, those attending women’s rights conferences were usually upper middle class white women, who carried over their milieu’s prejudices. In 1853, when Sojourner Truth, a former slave and abolitionist in New York, spoke at a women’s rights convention, some jeered at her for speaking. She replied, “I know that it feels a kind o’hissin ... to see a colored woman get up and tell you about things and woman’s rights. We have been thrown down so low that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but ... we will come up again ... we’ll have our rights, see if we don’t; and you can’t stop us from them; see if you can. You may hiss as much as you like, but it is coming....”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton reflected her class’s disdain when the post-Civil War amendments giving the right to vote to male ex-slaves did not give it to women. She wrote, “American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters ... demand that women too shall be represented in government.”
Nonetheless these vast social movements influenced each other and reinforced each other.
It took more than social movements to end slavery. It took a second American revolution, the Civil War. What it accomplished was embodied in the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments added to the Constitution.
Yet the limits of what amendments to the constitution can achieve, in the absence of a continuing struggle, were quickly shown by the situation of the ex-slaves. One after the other, the rights enshrined in those amendments were snatched away. The Southern agriculture system became a kind of debt slavery; Jim Crow laws pushed black men into Southern jails, where they were forced to provide free labor for the plantations. Black people—men, women and children—faced ever-increasing violence, torture and lynchings by white men in Ku Klux Klan robes. The judicial system gave a pass to this new form of servitude in the ruling, Plessy v. Ferguson.
The growth of industry required a growing labor supply, so-called “free labor.” When the railroads were built, Irish and Chinese men were brought in to build them, under often deadly conditions. After the Civil War, rapid growth led to the demand for more labor, so thousands and then millions of immigrants, mostly from among the poorest people in Europe, were dragged in. The men of property, having made fortunes on the railroads, formed new companies to gain further fortunes in manufacturing, mining, and construction. The new arrivals, the people without property, faced dangerous, low paid work and crowded, disease-ridden slums in all the larger cities. More than a million children under 16 had to work.
Such conditions led to resistance, and these struggles were often joined by people who had been active in the abolition and women’s movements. By 1864, New York City union activists had gotten at least 200,000 men and women to join unions. The Knights of Labor had organized 50,000 women workers and perhaps 800,000 men workers by 1886. Workingmen’s parties, socialists and anarchists, all tried to organize, and usually they favored equal rights for all, despite ongoing prejudices.
Some women active for the right to vote joined these many struggles. Susan B. Anthony, a woman who had to go to work, protested the lower pay for women teachers compared to men teachers. She and many other women were active in the “temperance” movement, seeing it as a way to prevent women and children from bring brutalized by drunken men. Many working women joined the fight to make birth control legal despite sometimes vicious male opposition.
Immigrants crowded into run-down city dwellings were accused of bringing diseases into the country, deadly diseases like cholera and tuberculosis. Some reformers attempted to demand new laws that all buildings rented out rooms with windows, that multi-story buildings have fire escapes, indoor water and plumbing. Women were active in all these efforts, culminating in the passage of the New York Tenement Act of 1899 and the Hull House movement for immigrants in Chicago, led by Jane Addams.
When a New York politician argued publicly that women organizing interfered with their “feminine nature,” he was answered by textile union organizer Rose Schneiderman: “Women in the laundries ... stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam ... these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round.”
The denial of the right to vote for women and for ex-slaves was not universal throughout the U.S. during the 19th century, thanks to the settlement of the Western territories. The frontier needed laborers in the mines and on the farms. And it needed women if the settlements were to grow. Former slaves found work in the West, and women often were able to vote.
Wyoming Territory granted women the vote in December of 1869, followed by Utah in 1870. In some places male politicians, judges and business leaders overturned that right; in other places, women continued to vote, regardless of what the law proscribed.
Suffragists, black and white, organized campaigns for the vote across the Western territories. By 1915, eleven Western states had granted full suffrage.
As in all struggles, those standing up faced many forms of attack. A new generation of women fighting for suffrage in the early 20th century saw what happened in England. English suffragists who demonstrated were beaten, arrested and tortured. Alice Paul, an American woman, helped organize a silent protest at the White House in 1913 against President Wilson, who had opposed women’s suffrage. A march of 500,000 for suffrage followed. She and other organizers faced not only verbal abuse, but physical attacks and arrest. The women went to jails, enduring crowded filthy conditions and force-feedings, like their sisters in England. Afterward, some of those jailed put together a train to carry them across the U.S. They talked about suffrage and their experiences at every town they came to, winning supporters.
President Wilson, looking for a way to gain support for U.S. entry into World War I, shifted his position, publicly supporting a 19th amendment for women’s right to vote in 1916. The next year saw revolution in Russia. Then, the year 1919 saw social explosions in the U.S.—in February a five-day general strike in Seattle involving 60,000; February was the beginning of thousands of immigrant textile workers on strike for better wages and the 8-hour day, starting in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In April steel workers met to form a union, with a September strike involving 350,000; thousands of miners struck in April in Pennsylvania.
Faced with these social upheavals, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives both passed approval for a 19th Amendment, for women’s right to vote. It still needed passage from at least 36 states, but the 11 Western states had already opened that door.
With the August 1920 vote in Tennessee, women finally gained the legal right to vote.
Helen Keller, like other radicals of the time, had sounded a warning to women in 1911 when she wrote to suffragist friends in England: “Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between ... Tweedledum and Tweedledee.... You ask for votes for women. What good can votes do when ten-elevenths of the land in Great Britain belongs to 200,000 and only one-eleventh to the rest of the 40 million? Have your men with their millions of votes freed themselves from this injustice?”
A few rights were won, after years of struggle and bitter social explosions. That was also true of civil rights legislation passed in 1964 and 1965, after a long and hard-fought campaign during which black people demanded the same rights as white people. But amendments were not enough, laws were insufficient.
For all practical purposes, today these reforms seem to have been lost. Only half the population votes, apparently realizing they have nothing to vote for. Union membership is almost as low as when organizing began. Women remain second-class citizens, first, because some men continue to use and justify violence against them; second, because wages remain lower for women than for men. For black people, the stains of racism remain, with deadly physical attacks continuing; unemployment is higher for black people than it is for white people; wages are lower.
And yet, every one of these fights was worth making. Without them, imagine where we would be. But it’s important that those who fight don’t carry with them the illusion that it is enough to fight to be able to permanently overcome the evils of this system. To do away with them permanently means to do away with the system that has engendered them, today’s capitalist system.