Women’s Suffrage Movement – It’s the Centennial year!

By Cherry Sokoloski

On this date in 1920, most women in the United States were still not allowed to vote. But they didn’t have much longer to wait.  On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was finally ratified by the 36th state, Tennessee – by one vote. And, that happened only because one legislator read a note that his mother had put in his pocket, and changed his vote from nay to yea.

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When the next election was held in November of 1920, one-third of all citizens who went to the polls were women.

The 19th Amendment was also called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, honoring one of the pioneers of the movement.

The women’s suffrage movement has a history that is complicated and fascinating, and to mark the centennial of women’s right to vote, the North Forty News will publish one article per month in 2020 on aspects of the movement that we hope you will find interesting and inspiring – and perhaps surprising.

In learning about the movement, one conclusion is easy to draw: the suffragists were a bold, brave and tenacious lot. The early suffragists never made it to the polling booth. It took a second generation of activists – and more than 70 years – for women to enjoy that right. Along the bumpy road, suffragists were scorned, spit at and tortured in prison.

The Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 is often considered the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement, but the ideas that fed the movement were developed long before that. There are many examples, and here’s an interesting one: In 1776, Abigail Adams, wife of our second president John Adams, challenged her husband to consider women’s rights when forming the new nation. However, the idea of women’s equality failed to gain traction with the founding fathers.

In fact, the establishment of the United States marked a serious setback for women. While women of property had voted in the American colonies, the new Constitution allowed the states to determine who voted. Gradually, each state passed laws denying women the vote.

Other social reform movements

Early women suffragists got their start in other social reform efforts, notably the temperance and anti-slavery movements. They also developed their speaking and writing skills while working in those movements. 

Women championed temperance because they had seen women and children beaten by drunken husbands and fathers – while laws of the time supported the men. They worked for abolition because many saw a parallel between slaves and women: both were treated with contempt by white men. And, they abhorred the sexual victimization of black women by their white masters.

Some feminists became paid traveling speakers for these two causes, even though public speaking by women was frowned upon. In the course of their work, they became more aware of discrimination against their sex. 

For instance: In 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and other women attended an anti-slavery convention in London. The women were forced to sit in the gallery behind a curtain, with no opportunity to speak or vote. This insult provided the momentum for Stanton and Mott to begin planning the first women’s rights convention, which was held in Seneca Falls eight years later. Women also formed their own anti-slavery society.

When it came to women’s rights, feminists in the mid-19th century had many complaints. They spoke out concerning property discrimination (once women married, their property transferred to their husbands), marital rape and battering, divorce laws, equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights and the right to have custody of their children.

They also decried the lack of access to higher education. Oberlin College was the first to admit women, in 1837. One of its first female students was suffragist Lucy Stone, who earned her own tuition because her father did not believe in higher education for women.

Eventually, many women came to believe that the only way to win equality in all these areas was through the right to vote. Some even refused to pay taxes because they believed it was not fair to pay taxes when they could not participate in the nation’s democracy.

Why did it take so long to win the vote? 

Women who demanded the right to vote were considered radical and heretical. They challenged the existing hierarchies of society, including those in religious institutions, and their ideas were seen as threats. Interestingly, while the suffragists were supported by many men, they were also opposed by some of their fellow women.

Future articles in the North Forty News will feature some of the brave suffragists and also some of the movement’s challenges. We hope you will enjoy this glimpse into an important part of our history, and that it will serve as inspiration to women who are still fighting for equality today.

Cherry Sokoloski is dedicating this series of articles to her mother, Burnette Young, who was born in 1920 and has always stood up for the rights and well-being of women. Burnie is celebrating the suffrage centennial this year – as well as her own.