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Constitutional Amendment: How Women Won the Right to Vote

Source: Library of Congress Suffrage envoys from San Francisco on their way to petition Congress in 1915.

By Anjiline Sirsikar

November 1, 2019

It took 72 years, countless campaigns and hundreds of thousands of people mobilizing for women to win the right to vote. For me, it is a celebration and a reminder of the- great gift the suffragists left us, an empowering heritage of pride, momentum, and purpose. We celebrate their example of never relenting, and yet so determined. American women won the right to vote in 1920. I believe we should look back and be reminded each day of the challenges and struggles faced by the suffragist’s women.

Historically, from the moment the United States gained independence [1]various religious groups were sought to be included. Firstly, religious qualifications were abolished as a prerequisite for voting. This then followed the elimination of property qualifications. Simultaneously, the enfranchisement of former slaves was in the aftermath of the civil war. Unfortunately, the nation’s largest potential voting group the women of America remain disfranchised.

Paradoxically, race discrimination is more entrenched than gender discrimination. African American men were given the right to vote through the 15th amendment a full 50 years, nearly half-century ahead, before any women white or black. Women of that era argued that the 14th amendment equality guarantee should have been enough to give the women the right to vote, however, the court did not interpret it that way.

The struggle on behalf of women’s suffrage or gaining the right to vote began early in the Jackson administration the early victories were small. In 1838, Kentucky allowed women to vote in school elections this action was later copied by a number of other states. Subsequently, in 1887 Kansas allowed women unlimited right to vote in municipal elections.

The first notable victory occurred in 1869 at the first territorial legislature held in Cheyenne, Wyoming it was in this state for the first time that women were given the right to vote in all elections. This right was confirmed by an equal rights suffrage clause in the state constitution. Thus, Wyoming was the first state to grant universal women’s suffrage. However, further progress proved to be allusive.

The idea of a constitutional amendment became a controversial issue progressing forward in the next forty years. Simultaneously, the women’s rights movement became increasingly militant through the organizing of campaigns and demonstrations for congressional approval of the amendment, and then for ratification by the states. In the senate voting on the amendment followed a regional pattern, senators of South voted against the amendment while the west supported the amendment, east remained equally divided.

Susan B Anthony’s Contribution towards Women Right to Vote Movement

Susan B. Anthony was a Massachusetts Quaker, she spent 60 years of her life as a spokesperson, and leader in the women’s rights movement, and was considered one of the most outspoken women of her time. Notably, she spoke in public more than any other woman at the time. Anthony was very pragmatic in her approach calling for a change in the moral atmosphere of the society. By the 1850’s she was recognized as being a prominent force in the nation.

Susan later met Elizabeth Cady Stanton and formed a lifelong friendship. These two women were known to have led numerous temperants, abolition, and suffrage organizations. Susan was quick to realize that without political power many of these changes would never occur. She decided to advance her mission further by focusing exclusively on suffrage by taking the petitions door to door.

In 1880, Susan traveled to Europe and began an international women’s rights movement. A month before her demise she attended the women’s suffrage convention and stated, “failure is impossible”. She passed away in 1906 fourteen years prior to the ratification of the 19th amendment.

Initially, the Amendment proposal failed to pass congress in 1914, was widely known as the Susan B Anthony amendment. On May 21, 1919, the Susan B Anthony Amendment passed 304 -89 in the House of Representatives then on June 4th it cleared the Senate by a vote of 56-25[2] it was then submitted to the states for ratification. Notably, Tennessee was the last of the 36 states required to secure the ratification.

On August 18, 1920, the House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. This was and will forever be considered a big milestone for women’s rights.

Many states found the news to be unwelcoming, and thus a further attack on their sovereignty. This was litigated before the supreme court, states argued the 15th amendment gave the former male slaves the right to vote and was applied as precedence that is not infringing on the rights of the state.

Why women were not allowed to Vote

It is essential that all men and women from all walks of life, particularly women of all present and future generations understand why women weren’t allowed to vote. This paper seeks to examine the context of the evolution of the meaningful perception of women and their presence at the time in the United States, and why women were not initially afforded the right to vote.

When it came to making voting decisions women were considered incapable. Virtuous women were sullied if they chose to participate in politics.[3] During the summer of 1917, the “Silent Sentinels” picketed the White House, policemen arrested the suffragists on counts of unlawful assembly, and disorderly conduct.

Source: Library of Congress “Silent Sentinel” Alison Turnbull Hopkins stands guard near the White House on January 30, 1917.

Many Americans don’t know the level of brutality faced by these suffragists. These women were treated horribly. For instance, when they staged hunger strikes, they were forcefully fed. The women participants also faced fines but refused to pay. In fact, the suffragist grew more aggressive in their action and faced harsher levels of punishment sending these women of too Occoquan Workhouse and Penitentiary in Virginia.

President Woodrow Wilson and the Women’s Suffrage Movement

On March 3, 1913, a day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in Washington D.C. The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), in collaboration with activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, organized a suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The march began at the Peace Monument near the Capitol, passed alongside the White House, and ended with a rally at Memorial Continental Hall[4]

Over 5,000 women marched for suffrage, however, their peaceful procession was quickly disrupted by the Washington Police. Army cavalry stationed at nearby Fort Myer restored order brought by parading women. The chaos prompted a senate inquiry in the mishandling of the crowds. Legislators questioned policemen and their tactics, dozens of women testified, reporting on the insults and injuries they incurred at the time.[5]

Past gruesome experiences did not hinder the suffragists they wasted very little time. True to their cause the women met President Wilson within two weeks after he was sworn into office. The five women provided several valid reasoning to support their cause. One of them named Ida Harper, referenced Presidents' earlier 1912 campaign promise of “ The New Freedom,” reasoning that “ perfect new freedom cannot come until women, as well as men, are given the right to vote.”

The President failed the expectations of the suffragist, declining to commit, informing the women that the focus of his domestic policies centered around tariff, banking, and business reforms. The suffragists undeterred continued to schedule meetings with the President insisting the President publicly support a committee on women’s suffrage. Wilson continued to assure his uninvited guests that such a committee was under consideration.

Clearly, the President was lip singing failing to answer the request of the suffragist. Despite setbacks, the women propelled forward by making scheduled visits to the White House to remind the president of their mission.

The suffragists were at one point questioned about their party followers being anarchists to that Alice Paul had replied, “It makes no difference to us what a woman’s political tendencies may be. We are working for a common cause – that of equal suffrage for women- and when we get the vote it is immaterial to us whether the women are Republican, Democrats, Progressives, Socialists or anarchists. We have nothing to do with their politics.”[6]

Alice Paul was later sentenced for six months on charges of picketing. Alice was later subjected to physical and mental examinations by five physicians, obviously being held against her will. This ill-treatment did not stop Alice who trumpeted forward despite the suffering, igniting a hunger strike for which she was forcibly fed twice through a tube.”[7]

President Wilson found the treatment appalling he immediately pardoned the prisoners and joined the suffrage crusade. Alice Paul who had previously suffered appalling treatment at Occoquan celebrated the news by ruffling a ratification banner at Cameron House. The banner was said to be decorated with thirty-six stars, each representing a state that had approved the 19th Amendment, the banner was symbolic highlighting both the national and state-level successes achieved by the suffragists.

Critics in the past have argued, indicating how some of the tactics applied by the suffragists were considered radical at the time. Arguably, the perseverance of the suffragists their struggles with members of Congress, angry crowds, policemen, guards, anti-suffragists, and of course President Wilson, created immense momentum for the movement, drawing an increased number of supporters to their causes.

Today women vote and hold elected offices throughout the country without controversy as there right to do so. However, full equality and law and social matters is still not officially recognized by the constitutional amendment. The federal court has acted on issues related to gender discrimination cases, by citing rights present elsewhere in the document.

In 1970, a proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) failed to be ratified, although it has been introduced in the Senate, we are still waiting for the 38th state to ratify this amendment.

Many women believed that advocating for the suffrage would bring an end to the struggle for equal rights. Unfortunately, this ideology has not proven to be the case. In fact, there was a failed attempt to add the so-called equal rights amendment to the constitution this would have expressly made clear that equal rights could not be denied or abridged on the basis of gender.

Equal rights amendment should be ratified. Women have continued to make great strides in politics, business and society. We still need the Equal Rights Amendments to be ratified.

We owe a great debt to those early suffrage women who had the courage to defend what they believed in. Pioneering, and forging a pathway for women, moving forward and instilling the belief that “failure is impossible”

[1] Amendment 19: women’s right to vote; Films for the Humanities & Sciences (Firm); Films Media Group.; Cambridge Educational (Firm); 2007, copyright 1998.

[2] Washington Post, May 22, 1919; Washington Post, June 4, 1919.

[3] Washington Post, June 26, 1917. Washington Post, August 15, 1917.

[4] Washington Post, March 3, 1913. Washington Post, March 4, 1913.

[5] Washington Post March 7, 1913.

[6] Washington Post, June 26, 1917, Washington Post August 15 &19 1917. Alice Paul was later arrested for picketing

[7] Washington Post October 22, 1917. The hunger strikes continued during the war and thereafter for quite a while.

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