Valiant Women of the Vote
We love celebrating Women's History Month. We love sharing stories of courage, sacrifice, perseverance, and triumph. Stories like those of our early suffragette's - women who fought valiantly for the right to vote, for the privilege to lead, and for the freedom to not just raise their voice, but to be respected and heard.
So in honor of these women and in celebration of the 19th Amendment Centennial, we wanted to share a bit of history of how the amendment came to be, and the hard-fought battle it took to get there.
"Some mornings, President Woodrow Wilson would shut his eyes as he rode past the women who had assembled once again outside the White House. Occasionally he tipped his hat to them. He didn’t want a confrontation, but by the spring of 1917, it was clear that they weren’t going away. Wilson had claimed earlier in his presidency that he wasn’t aware women even wanted the vote. Plausible deniability was no longer an option.
The women had first appeared in the chill of January, silently holding banners that said:
'Mr. President, you say liberty is the fundamental demand of the human spirit. How long must women wait for liberty?'
Bouts of miserable weather and jeering passersby came and went. The protests continued. June brought chaos.
After months of fragile peace, police started loading the women into paddy wagons. By autumn, hundreds of women had been arrested for obstructing the sidewalk outside the White House. Many of them were sent to prison. Newspapers reported that women were tortured at Occoquan, the Virginia workhouse where several prominent suffragists served time.
'The idea was to break us down by inflicting extraordinary humiliation upon us,' Eunice Brannan told The New York Times after her release, in November.
Brannan and others described being beaten repeatedly, dragged downstairs, thrown across rooms, kicked, manacled to prison-cell bars, denied toothbrushes, and forced to share a single bar of soap. Drinking water came from a dirty pail that sat in a common area. The guards warned the women they’d be gagged and put in straitjackets if they spoke. The bedding was never washed, and the beans and cornmeal served to prisoners were crawling with maggots. 'Sometimes the worms float on top of the soup,' one woman wrote in an affidavit. 'Often they are found in the cornbread.' It wasn’t until the following spring that the D.C. Court of Appeals deemed the arrests unconstitutional.
By then 26 women had departed for a railroad tour of the United States, all the way wearing replicas of their prison garb—blue calico tunics with washrags pinned to belts. Their message was the same from Chattanooga to New Orleans; Denver to Milwaukee; San Francisco back to Hartford, Boston, and New York:
'We just want to vote. Please help us. How long must women wait for liberty?'
On June 4, 1919, these women and dozens of others poured into the U.S. Senate gallery to watch the final vote on the Nineteenth Amendment, which would guarantee them the right to vote. When it passed, they broke into a roaring applause. For two full minutes, senators made no attempt to quiet them. After that, they got back to work. At least 36 states had to ratify the amendment for it to be made official. This took 14 months, just in time for women to vote in the 1920 election.
Before women could win the right to vote, they had to convince people to take them seriously. In the discombobulated decades after the Civil War, American men occasionally found themselves making public arguments against suffrage—brushbacks that were issued casually, even lazily.
Girls aren’t smart enough to make a big decision like this.
All you’ll do is cancel out your husband’s vote.
You’re too pure for politics.
Most women don’t actually want this.
It’s just too expensive to have this many voters.
Um, we’re all out of voting machines.
Or, as The New York Times declared in 1913, 'all the rumpus about female suffrage is made by a very few of our disoriented sisters.'
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, so wrong. But understandable. The powerful are often blind to the stakes and momentum of a political revolution until it’s too late.
When it became clear that suffragists wouldn’t back down, the arguments against them took on an apocalyptic hue. The men and women who opposed the movement issued grave warnings. Banner-making and clubhouse meetings upstate may have been tolerable, even cute, but earlier stirrings had given way to more radical behaviors. During the time women could be found picketing outside the White House, they were also lighting liberty bonfires, parading in the streets, and refusing to eat. By the eve of World War I, suffragists weren’t just a political nuisance that could be dismissed with a newspaper column. Newspapers described them as “undesirable militants,” “unwomanly,” “shameless,” “pathological,” and “dangerous.” Women’s political power—whether they have it, how they get it—has never been about elections alone." - ADRIENNE LAFRANCE, The Atlantic
A woman's right to vote has always been about a woman's voice.
Our voices, our unique perspective, is one of our greatest gifts. Having a voice gives us equality but exercising our voice gives us power and power to those without one - the most vulnerable among us.
That is why, as women, it is our duty to stand up, speak out, and stand strong against a culture that says:
Some lives or worth less than others.
Some people do not deserve the same liberties.
Some lives are not valuable.
Some people do not deserve a voice.
Because we know better.
And although women have been using their voice and their vote to promote education,
to improve the lives of children and families, and to speak out against oppression and injustice for nearly a century now - there is still so much more we can do, should do.
Let's get to work.