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American Women’s History: Suffrage Movement

It was 3rd March 1913, the day when Woodrow Wilson arrived at Washington to paradoxically find very little crowd for his welcome. It was the occasion of his inauguration as the President of the United States. Later he found that people instead had assembled to witness the greatest ever history remaking at Pennsylvania Avenue where five thousand women had gathered to take part in a woman suffrage parade. Adorned with purple and violent golden banners, they were all united under the leadership of suffragist Alice Paul. They took whole America in their stride by taking out March through the streets of Washington to make demands for their right to vote. Facing hostility from the angry crowd, they proceeded forward shouting and jeering with full confidence and at the same time garnering publicity for the cause.

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The women had been making their presence felt in the public as well as a political sphere and demanding suffrage since 1848; this culminated in the movement of feminists. In the following essay, I would delve into the movement when the women in full spirit created the waves for the whole world to open all the doors for women. One of these women was Alice Paul who was a feminist, suffragist, and political strategist. It is due to the efforts of those enduring women that now women from all fronts are witnessing the light of freedom.

The suffrage movement was started by the Seneca Falls Convention, which brought around two hundred women and forty men under one umbrella, including feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. They advocated for the women to come out from the domesticity of the four walls to emerge in all the spheres of nation-building. This convention was the official beginning and a motivator factor for women to enter into public life. This movement was the result of the education that was spread all over the world for women’s rights. The spread of the colleges all over the country resulted in the enrolment of the eleven thousand female students at the institutes and received an education that motivated them and enthused in their spirit for fighting for their rights. Many of these college’s educated women never got married and instead joined married women to help them take their domestic role in the public sphere. They formed associations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, numerous settlement houses, and a revitalized suffrage movement. During their movement of struggle, women had to make several efforts to enter into public life. In fact, in 1890 there were scientific reports, which revealed that too much education could be harmful to the reproductive system of women. In 1905, the former president Grover Cleveland in the “Ladies’ Home Journal” veraciously said

“This particular movement is so aggressive and so extreme in its insistence that those whom it has fully enlisted may be incorrigible…I think that it should be boldly declared that the best and the safest club for the women to patronize is her home.”

As opposed to it, women moved ahead to prove the point that suffrage women feeling would instead maintain the balance. As the mothers and nurturers in the public arena, women would be able to impose civic housekeeping in this competition and corrupt world of males.

Rebecca West in 1913 gave her often-quoted answer to the question “What is Feminism?” “I myself never have been able to find out what feminism is: I only know that people call me feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.” Since then there have been several theories and definitions on the concept of feminism, some controversial and some recognized but for women of today, feminism was a great movement that had made women rose ahead in their lives as self-respecting individuals in the society retaining their independence and rights in all economical and political spheres.

Women’s suffrage was the first wave of the feminist movement whereas the Women’s liberation movement of 1960 was the second wave of the feminist movements. But eclipsing this thought Dale Spender said, “There always been a women’s movement”.

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The demand for suffrage was a much more advanced program to improve the position of women. This movement was accorded the greatest historical movement because it was regarded as an isolated institutional reform giving women what she was aspiring for even more than the right to vote.

Though it was also true that the suffrage movement did not get as historical importance as any other movement could get it and voting was also not considered as having much capacity to emancipate women as individuals from their inherited struggles yet it was a movement that gave new dimensions to their struggle. As said by Ellen Carol, “Approach as a social movement rather than as a particular reform, suffragism has enormous contemporary relevance. It was the first independent movement of women for their own liberation. Its growth-the mobilization of women around the demand for the vote, their collective activity, their commitment to gaining increased power over their own lives –was itself a major change in the condition of those lives”.

But the roots of the suffrage movement had been laid much before the civil war during the tenure of the anti-slavery movement. It had already laid the foundation for the many years of the feminist movement ahead by forming a separate set of demands for the rights of women and by the acquisition of skills and self-confidence necessary for offering political leadership to other women. However, the development of the feminist movement before the war was confined to the demands and statures laid in the organizational structure of their leaders for their freedom from slavery that kept the women confined around the commitment to their rights. These post-war politics gave enough reason and lessons to women to organize their power. These post-war politics had two important aspects: “One was the general flowering of radical ambitions for social change that accompanied the defeat of the slavery and encompassed demands for radical equality, social equality, and labor reform. The other was the process by which the power of the Republican Party was marshaled on behalf of only one of these reforms, the demand for black suffrage.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha C, Wright, and Mary Ann McClintock gave the call to women to gather themselves at the Seneca convention on 19-20 July 1848. This convention adopted certain “Declaration of Principles’ based on the declaration of independence, stating that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal….” Besides, The Seneca convention also maintained that women should be granted the right to preach, to get educated, and also earn a living. Delegates also passed a resolution mentioning that it was not just the right of the women but also their duty to attain their right to the elective franchise. These words instigated women to begin their struggle in full spirit and gain complete voting rights. The women who created influence for their struggle were Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But, soon they were divided into two factions after the Civil War. One group was led by Anthony and Stanton and their motive was to make amendments to the U.S Constitution. They formed the National Woman Suffrage Association in May 1869. The other faction wanted that pressure should be asserted on the state legislatures to make amendments in the state constitutions. They formed their group under the banner of the American Woman Suffrage Association and the leaders of this group were Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe. Yet again in 1890, the two organizations joined to form National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to follow both the strategies whose President was Elizabeth Cady Stanton during1890-1892 and subsequently the others followed like Susan B. Anthony during1892-1900, Carrie Chapman Catt during1900-1904, Anna Howard Shaw during1904-1915, and then Catt again during the years 1915-1920).

In 1920, when NAWSA achieved its goal of the women’s suffrage movement, the union was dissolved to be replaced by the National League of Women Voters. This union was set up in Chicago in 1920 for showing women the way to use their newly-acquired right to vote. By the passage of time, the National League of Women Voters got into a new form under the banner name, the League of Women Voters.

The efforts of the League did not move ahead without passing through the resistance and hindrances. By asserting their voice in politics, women were posing the challenge to the conventional beliefs that the proper area of women was domesticity, while the political sphere was suited for men. Even many women themselves were not in favor of gaining voting rights. In 1911, Josephine Dodge, wife of a capitalist, formed the National Association against the suffrage movement of women. Dodge advocated the view that women influence policy-making by advising men behind the screen. It is not conducive for women to enter actively into politics and meddle with political affairs, which were beyond their understanding. By involving themselves in political affairs, women would demoralize their moral and spiritual role, and also create chaos by interfering in matters. However, the suffrage movement got partial success when some states permitted widows to cast their vote in school board elections, which many people considered worth the efforts of women. It was only in 1869, that women got the first full voting rights and that too in the Wyoming Territory. When Wyoming got the space in the Union as a state in 1890, it was considered as the first-ever state to grant women’s suffrage in its constitution. It was followed by Colorado in 1893 that gave the franchise to the women, followed by Utah and Idaho in 1896. Soon after fourteen years, in 1910, the state of Washington also conformed to the above states by granting a franchise to women.

During the next eight years span, all the states began to bestow the voting rights to women with California, Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon the Alaska Territory, Montana and Nevada, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. At Illinois, women could practically follow rights at the federal level by voting in presidential elections in 1913. Later to follow were the states of Nebraska, North Dakota, and Rhode Island followed, then Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

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This process of granting voting rights to women was a slow process, and the leaders of the movement understood that even if they follow the process state by state, they should adopt it at the national level and that could only be possible if amendments were made in the United States constitution. This amendment was known as the “Anthony Amendment,” and was brought before the Senate in 1878, but could not win as it got just a vote of 34 to 16. The Amendment stated that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” 12 This same amendment was again and again introduced by the subsequent ruling parties, but could not get any headway until 1914 when NAWSA produced before the Congress petition signed by more than half a million people. Still, the amendment could not garner sufficient votes in 1914 and subsequent years.

It was to get the national support that Alice Paul took out the rally at Pennsylvania, the day of Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration of president-ship but this march, which was initially aimed to proceed peacefully turned violent when several male spectators broke the ranks of the marchers and made attempts to block their passage. But women proceeded and troops were called to restore order, yet leaving hundreds of people hospitalized. In 1913, Alice Paul formed the Congressional Union that came to be known as the Woman’s Party, to force Congress for amendments in the constitution granting the vote to women. Her organization was molded after the more militant suffragists in Great Britain. The party gave confrontation to those in power and 1917 to the much embarrassment of President Wilson picked the White House around the clock and when they were arrested and jailed, they sat for hunger strike and were forced to eat.

Their force-feeding and the abuse they suffered while in the jail created sympathy among the Americans for their cause. However, many used this sympathy to look at the suffrage movement within the framework of the traditional roles being enjoyed by women. They argued that women would bring in their maternal instincts and morality in the political sphere and this could create problems. Due to this attitude, the suffrage movement again began to soften and began to be considered not merely radicals who wanted to disrupt the natural social order.

On 13th May 1913, New York Times reported the reply of Miss Alice Paul, Chairman of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, to the charges of Mrs. Arthur M. Dodge, President of the National Association who was opposed to Woman Suffrage. Mrs. Dodge had made the statement that the women in the New York suffragist parade had made their appeal chiefly through sex. To this Miss, Paul replied, “it is absurd to believe that the thousands of women who marched with such a self possession in New York last week were all victims of sex pathology betrays an extraordinary lack of balance on Mrs. Dodge’s part.”

Soon the amendment was passed in the Senate by the House on 10th January 1918 by a vote of 66 to 30. In 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to endorse the amendment, and on 26th August attained its place in the US Constitution as the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

Though now women had won voting rights yet they could not get access to many of the political positions till 1970 and even today their ratio in the political scenario is very less as compared to men.

Works Cited

Adams, Colleen. “Women’s Suffrage: A Primary Source History of the Women’s Rights Movement in America”. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2003.

Adams, Katherine H. & Keene, Michael L. “Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign”. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2008.

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Chambliss, Joseph James. “Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia”. London: Taylor & Francis.

Dubois, Ellen Carol. “Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848-1869”. New York: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Mezey, Susan Gluck. “Elusive Equality: Women’s Rights, Public Policy, and the Law”. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.

Ryan, Barbara. “Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement Ideology and Activism”. New York: Routledge, 1992.

New York Times. “ANSWER ANTIS’ ATTACK; Suffragists Deny the Charge That They Resort Sex Appeals”. 1913. 2008. Web.

New York Times. Long Fight to Win Votes for Women. 1920. 2008. Web.

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