The turn of the century brought about a new era of suffragists. The previous generation attempted to fight for their suffrage rights while still trying to fit into the roles that society made for them. They wanted to fight for progress, but also could not afford to stand out in ways that may look badly on the cause as they would lose support. For this reason, the old generation of suffragists did not encourage street speaking, marches, or acts of civil disobedience. Victoria Woodhull (a woman who I profiled two years ago: historynavigator.org/2018/06/18/victoria-woodhull-first-female-presidential-candidate-and-activist/ ) was a woman ahead of her time and was a very popular figure. She was bold and headstrong. She even announced her candidacy for president in 1870 (prior to women receiving the vote!). Woodhull was a divorcee and lectured about women’s rights and their sexual freedom. It was the free love portion and her spiritualism beliefs that cause the suffragists to want to disassociate from Woodhull’s brand. They knew that this would be a discouragement to any politician who may have sided with their cause. Society was not ready to accept women’s suffrage AND their sexual freedom. Just like with the temperance movement, the women of the older generation were still very concerned with appearances despite their activism.
Yet, in the wake of the 20th century, the world was changing. In Great Britain, the “suffragettes” were making loud scenes to get what they wanted. The suffragettes held parades, gave speeches, performed skits, participated in hunger strikes , and , sometimes, even performed acts of violence. American suffragists, like Harriot Stanton Blatch (daughter of Cady Stanton) , traveled to Great Britain and were influenced by what they saw there.
There was also a change in the type of woman that was involved in the cause. In the wake of the industrial revolution, there were more working class women than ever before. These women who worked daily in the factories and quickly began to realize that they were extremely unprotected with the current labor laws due to their sex. As a result, over 20,000 female shirtwaist factory workers went on strike in New York in 1909. As of 1909, this was the largest female run labor strike that had ever been held. The workers wanted improved wages, reduced hours, and safer working conditions. They eventually got the factory owners to concede to many of their demands (though there was still much work to do). Their success brought about a new inspired woman in America. This new woman was aggressive, ambitious, and determined to get what they deserved. The success during the labor strike quickly spread to the suffrage movement.
There was also pressure as other countries were slowly granting women’s suffrage. Some of the early adopters were as follows: New Zealand (1893), Finland (1906), Norway (1913), Denmark (1915), Iceland (1915), etc. Great Britain suffragettes gained the right to vote in 1918.
Harriot Stanton Blatch brought new ideas back home after observing the suffrage movement in Great Britain. She helped to include all types of women in the movement. She encouraged the working women to use their spirit to fight for the right to vote as they would now have a political voice to improve their working conditions. She also connected with wealthy women who would provide the needed donations/financial support they would need to expand their operations, create offices, and pay the women who worked for them full-time. Blatch introduced lobbying politicians to get the suffrage agenda on the plank. The movement had a cash flow for the first time ever and they could use it to their advantage.
This period also introduced Alice Paul, the PR genius for the suffrage campaign during the early 20th century. She had also lived in Great Britain for a time and experienced the militant tactics of those suffragettes. After she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she began to organize marches and constructed the image that she wanted the media to pick up of the movement.
Suffrage State by State
After the failure to kick start a movement in Congress for a federal amendment to the Constitution, it became necessary to take the fight state by state and amend the state constitutions. Susan B. Anthony and others of her faction did not favor this method as they would prefer the stability of a constitutional amendment, but with the federal government pushing it off again and again as a state issue this was their only choice.
You many have not known that Wyoming actually granted women the right to vote in 1869 and they maintained this through the 19th amendment passing. The northwest of the United States was actually very progressive in this regards with Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) , Idaho (1896), and Montana (1914). Montana elected the first congresswoman to the U.S House of Representatives. Her name was Jeannette Rankin and she served as a Republican representative from 1917-1919 and again in 1940. Incredibly, she served in Congress prior to women gaining nationwide suffrage.
In 1896, California also held a vote and the suffragists suffered a heavy lost. By 1910, a more progressive Republican administration took power in the state legislature and suffragists used this to their advantage. They began to lobby the state congress. They mobilized a variety of supporters including teachers, wage earning women, and college students. Maria Guadalupe Evangelina Lopez was a suffragist and was key to the movement. Latina women were key as they made up a large part of the population in California. Lopez was a professor at UCLA and, as of 1902, was their youngest professor. Lopez translated many of the speeches given during the suffrage movement in California from English to Spanish. She also recited these speeches in both languages to the masses. She spread the movement to communities who may have otherwise been excluded and was actually the first to give suffrage speeches in Spanish.
The suffragists in California did not hold back and took their thousands of supporters to the streets. They held rallies and parades. They had meetings were they addressed anyone who would listen. This included legislatures, unions, factory workers, clubs, etc. They also creates propaganda in order to spread the word of their movement. They created buttons, posters, playing cards, and even utilized large electric signs/billboards. They spread their word far and wide and did not just keep it in the city. The Equal Suffrage passed by the narrowest of margins and in 1911 California women gained the right to vote.
Washington DC March
The Washing DC March took place on March 3, 1913. Alice Paul , using her expertise with the media, was able to create one of the most important events for women’s suffrage. The famous march on National Capitol captured a more favorable public image and finally got the media on the side of the suffragists. The march created a revival in the push for a constitutional amendment as the state by state approach was not making fast gains.
Paul planned this event to the minute. It occurred the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration. She knew that thousands of people would be coming from all over the country for that purpose. Women were no longer going to stand by demurely, but they were going to get out there and demand the rights they deserved. Thousands of marchers were to march down Pennsylvania Ave and end at the Treasury building where a performance/rally would take place. She organized the women marching by the groups which they represented. The whole parade was going to highlight the history of the suffrage movement and the many types of women that made up America. They were color coded and there were bands, floats, chariots, etc. The parade was led by Inez Milholland dressed in a crowd and long cape on a white horse. She was chosen by Paul as she was an attractive figure, an image of an “ideal” woman that the media would instantly pick up on. Yet, Milholland was also a very successful woman in her own right. She had well graduated from Vassar and NYU school of law and was working as a lawyer.
Next in the parade came marchers from countries where women already had the vote. After came floats of historic scenes from the suffrage movement and floats representing nurses, mothers, lawyers, artists, business women , and the Womens Christian Temperance Union followed. President Wilson is said to have asked where all the people were to greet him as he arrived in the city that day, but (he quickly learned) all the crowds had gone to the suffrage rally.
Alice Paul had this event set up for the most media gain they could get, but that often excluded other groups of women. African American women were discouraged from participating as segregation/equal rights were still such controversial topics. Paul did not want any bad publicity to ruin this event. This was a very ignorant and racist point of view, yet it still did not stop African American women from joining and participating in the march and following the floats that were most important to them. Ida B Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell were two who arrived in Washington DC anyway and marched down Pennsylvania Ave despite what any one else said.
Everything was going well, until the unexpected happened. As the suffragists arrived at the Treasury Building, a mob (majority men) attacked the suffragists. They heckled and yelled insults at the women. The marchers could not even move forward as they were trapped by the mob. They were being pushed, shoved, spit upon, and even trampled. Yet, the police that had been surrounding the parade did very little to control the crowds. It was not until the U.S. Army came over an hour later they were able to clear the streets of the throngs. The women stayed strong during this episode of violence and banded together to continue despite the pain they were facing.
This would be a hot story in any media outlet the following day. Women marchers are attacked by an unruly crowd! Prior to this event, media coverage had been mostly negative in regards to women suffrage, but now there was a shift. The media seemed to sympathize with the women and found it wrong that the police took no action while a peaceful protest was in danger. Alice Paul capitalized on this moment and to talk to anyone who would listen about how the police were enablers to the opposition to their non-violent demonstration. She collected statements from suffragists who had marched that day and would highlight what they had experienced in the media. She used these statements to make press releases and gained more publicity for the movement. Donations were also coming in even faster after this event. Paul used these media stories to request Congressional action against the Chief of Police in DC. He was found innocent, but his reputation was ruined forever. The headlines the next day were of the parade and the heroic women, not the new president’s inauguration.
This event brought the suffrage movement back into the spotlight and in a more positive light. They finally had the media on their side and not long after the parade, the amendment (which Susan B. Anthony had begun so long ago…) was brought back to the floor of Congress. Unfortunately, President Wilson did not favor the movement for many years to come.
Paul and over a thousand other hardcore suffragists (they called themselves the “Silent Sentinels” ) would picket the White House daily for over 18 months. They began in 1917. Their banners asked, “Mr. President, How Long Must Woman Wait for Liberty?” and “Mr. President, What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?”. Like the parade, they had to endure verbal abuse and even physical attacks from the spectators. The protesters were arrested on multiple occasions (despite their right to free speech). Paul was sent to jail for months, but she organized a hunger strike to continue the fight. She was arrested on November 9th and continued the hunger strike until the 11th (when she was force fed by her jailers). Paul describes her experience to the newspaper:
“During this operation the largest Wardress in Holloway sat astride my knees, holding my shoulders down to keep me from bending forward. Two other wardresses sat on either side and held my arms. Then a towel was placed around my throat, and on doctor from behind forced my head back, while another doctor put a tube in my nostril. When it reached by throat my head was pushed forward.
Twice the tube came through my mouth and I got it between my teeth. My mouth was then pried open with an instrument….”
Doctors threatened to send Alice Paul to the insane asylum. Yet, her story and the story of the other women who were unfairly arrested spread quickly through the media and turned public favor towards supporting women’s suffrage. It put a lot of pressure on the government. It was an embarrassment that our government were the ones preventing their own citizens right to protest and to free speech. They were also the ones torturing them in order to prevent this.
With the pressure heating up for the government, it seemed that this time the movement had a chance. With the United States entering World War I, women began to join in the war effort. The female image had been changing in the 20th century as they proved they could take on more roles outside the home. They needed the right to vote to voice their concerns for society.
In 1918, President Wilson finally endorsed suffrage, “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
In June 1919, the 19th Amendment, which stated that a United States citizens right to vote should not be denied due to their sex, was passed by Congress. Yet, the battle was not done for our suffrage heroines, as each state had to ratify the amendment in their own constitutions. The hardest fight was in the southern states where the South Democrats still held to their ignorant beliefs. Only 36 states were required to adopt the amendment for it to pass and the 19th amendment was signed into law on August 26, 1920.
There was still a long way to go for gender equality, but finally after 72 years of struggle there was finally a victory for women.
Therefore, it is so important to not take our right to vote for granted and to use it as much as possible. Only 100 years ago were women able to formally voice an opinion in politics. There is still a long way to go for increasing women’s voices in politics (especially when it comes to elected office), but using our right to vote will help us to get there. Our suffragist predecessors proved that it was possible.
She Votes! Our Battle for the Ballot podcast https://www.shevotespodcast.com/
Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote by Ellen Carol DuBois
“On Account of Color or Sex: A Historical Examination of the Split between Black Rights and Women’s Rights in the American Equal Rights Association, 1866-1869. Whitney Hampsonhttps://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtID=2&psid=3203#:~:text=After%20the%20Civil%20War%2C%20women’s,its%20own%20strategies%20and%20goals.