The year is 1913. A new president has been elected and is about to take office. But when he arrives at the train station in Washington, DC, few people are there to meet him.
“Where are the crowds?” he asks.
They are already on Pennsylvania Avenue, watching something the American public has never seen before: thousands of women, marching in the streets.
What do they want? The right to vote.
“The U.S. Constitution didn’t say one thing about who could vote in its initial form. All of the power over who could vote was left to the states.”
Robyn Muncy is a history professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
She explains that in America’s political system, power is divided between the federal government and the states.
“That meant that suffragists in the late 19th century had a choice: They could either try to get a federal amendment … or, they could work state by state, where in a lot of cases, women had a lot more power at the state level.”
Women decided to do both. The struggle for woman suffrage took place at the federal and state level from the 19th century through the 20th. “Suffrage” means the right to vote.
The 19th century: grassroots campaigns in the states
At first, only a few women were asking for suffrage. They said women had the same value as men, so they should have the same political and legal rights, too.
These women traveled across the U.S., giving talks about equal rights and meeting with lawmakers in town after town.
But Jean Baker, a historian from Goucher College in Maryland, says their ideas were not always popular.
“There are stories of the women being chased after they finished their lecture, and they might be going back to a home to spend the night. And people would be peppering them with all kinds of rotten eggs, et cetera, et cetera.
“But they also suffered from the opposition of the majority opinion.”
At the time, most people – including women – thought that women voting just wasn’t natural. They believed that men and women were fundamentally opposites.
“That men were competitive, they were aggressive by nature, they were self-assertive by nature. And they belonged — they were fitted – for public life.
“While women were by nature nurturing, cooperative and thrived really within the confines of their own homes.”
Historian Robyn Muncy says that, nevertheless, suffragists operated grassroots campaigns across the U.S. They worked town by town, persuading their neighbors, persuading people in their churches, and then trying to persuade their state legislators to enfranchise women.
By 1900, they had persuaded lawmakers in four states to give women the right to vote in all elections.
They had also succeeded in getting more women to support their own suffrage.
One big reason women were more willing to listen was industrialization. Things that women use to make in the home were increasingly being made in factories or sold in stores.
“If you’re not producing the milk or going to collect the eggs in the morning that you’re going to feed your family, you don’t know if those eggs and that milk are pure, if they’re not contaminated in some way.
“If you’re depending on drug companies to make drugs for your family rather than brewing things at home, you don’t know what’s in those drugs, you have no control over that.
“And so as production moved out of the home, a lot of women began to think, whoa, if we’re going to guarantee the well-being of our families – if we’re going to do what women are supposed to do, care for our children, care for our families – we have to have public power.”
The 20th century: A federal amendment
In 1913, the suffrage movement took a dramatic turn. A 28-year-old American named Alice Paul decided to engage the president himself on the debate.
Woodrow Wilson was not inclined to support woman suffrage, but Alice Paul knew the newly elected president had a lot of power. His party, the Democrats, controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. President Wilson could move forward an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee the right to vote for most women across the country.
So Alice Paul began to get Wilson’s attention.
Historian Jean Baker says:
“She decided that she would have a parade the day before Woodrow Wilson arrives for his inauguration. So somehow she is able, almost single-handedly, to get 13,000 women to come to Washington.
“The parade begins down Pennsylvania Avenue, and the women are immediately assailed.
“Not just by the people – the males – watching, but by the police.”
Alice Paul and her group changed the campaign for women’s votes into a more radical movement. But at first they did not get very far in changing political or public opinion.
So four years later, after Wilson was re-elected, they decided to do something really wild.
Nora Hoffman-White is with the National Woman's Party at the Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument.
“The National Woman’s Party was the first organization to ever picket the White House. And they really targeted President Wilson. They held out banners and signs directly focused at him. So a lot of them began ‘Mr. President.’
“’Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?’ ‘Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?’”
Women picketed the White House all day, five days a week.
“There were hecklers. Lots of people would come to the picket. They started to attack the women, pull down their banners, destroy them. And when this fight would break out in front of the White House and police arrived, the women picketers were arrested.”
Suffragists were sent to a prison in Virginia. There, the picketers were beaten. They were fed rotten food and denied medical treatment. When some women protested and went on a hunger strike, the jailers put tubes in their noses and forced them to eat.
“The imprisonments and then the force feedings were obviously very, very harsh, and really affected the women in many ways.
“But it did get them, again, a lot of media attention, and it started to change public perception.
“People didn’t see them as these crazy ladies out on the picket line agitating for something that wasn’t right. But instead, people started to see them as women who were willing to die for their cause.”
World War I
Another factor in all this was World War I. President Wilson said the U.S. was fighting for democracy abroad. So, the suffragists asked, why doesn’t the U.S. have democracy here at home? How can the government continue to deny women the vote?
Historian Jean Baker says the last straw comes when some Russian ministers arrive in Washington, DC.
“And the women put up a sign saying ‘Help us!’ to the Russians. ‘Help us! Free us! We are not free citizens of the United States. We cannot vote.’”
Finally, President Wilson cracked. He appealed to the Senate to support a constitutional amendment that said no citizen could be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex.
The next year, Congress passed the 19th amendment. But in order for the amendment to become law, a majority of states had to approve it, too.
The struggle for woman suffrage all came down to the state of Tennessee. On the first vote, lawmakers there split, 50/50. Half said no, half said yes.
Then, says Nora Hoffman-White, something unexpected happened.
“On the second vote, a very young state representative named Harry Burn changes his vote. So he had voted no, and he changed his vote to yes.
“So of course everybody wants to know what, what would change his mind on something that’s so important.
And he shows a note from his mother that he had received. And she in essence said, ‘Don’t keep them waiting, get ratification done. And, ‘Be a good boy, and take my advice.’
He said, ‘You know, you should listen to your mother’s advice,’ and he changed his vote.
“So with his vote, Tennessee ratifies, and the amendment becomes law.”
The 19th amendment
The 19th amendment enfranchised most – but not all – women.
Women in Puerto Rico and American Indians on reservations could not legally vote yet.
And African-American women had the same problems that black men had at the polls. People used all kinds of barriers to prevent them from voting.
But in the presidential election of 1920, more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted for the first time.
Almost immediately, U.S. policies began to change. In 1921, lawmakers supported an act to improve the health of mothers and babies. In the 1930s, women voters helped push through the Fair Labor Standards Act, and part of the Social Security Act.
While women do not always vote as a bloc in the U.S., there is no question that women voters have shaped the 20th and 21st centuries.
At the same time, historian Robyn Muncy says that suffrage has helped change women’s roles in American society.
“As women gained the vote in the states, they were changing the very meaning of what it was to be a woman. They were changing the meaning of womanhood. They’re changing the meaning of democratic citizenship for women. That is no small thing.”
That is our flashback to the fight for woman suffrage.
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly
Words in This Story
suffragists - n. people in the past who worked to get voting rights for people who did not have them
grassroots - n. the ordinary people in a society or organization : the people who do not have a lot of money and power
enfranchise - v. to give (someone) the legal right to vote
bloc - n. a group of people or countries that are connected by a treaty or agreement or by common goals