Guest Essayist: Carol Crossed, Owner and President, Susan B Anthony Birthplace Museum
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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
It is hard to imagine that only 90 years ago, one half of the population of the United States could not vote because of their gender. But the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 mandated that states could no longer deny women this fundamental right. It was named the Susan B Anthony Amendment, after the foremost leader for women’s suffrage.
On that first Election Day, November 2, 1920, single and married women, young and old, exercised a right they had fought for in their homes and churches, in town halls, and on the streets. Polling places swelled almost beyond capacity with voters who had never before done such a thing. Mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts proud and eager, rushed to their polling location as early in the morning as possible, as if vying for the front row seat at the theater. Flustered by the idea of a secret ballot, one woman thought she needed to sign the back of the card. Others carried their groceries on their hips, maneuvering the crowds and chatting enthusiastically over screaming children.
The New York Times reported that while approximately one in three women, who were eligible, voted, more women than men actually voted in some districts. The Chicago Tribune credited Republican Harding’s landslide victory to the woman’s vote.
Unlike some other amendments to the constitution, the 19th Amendment was hard fought. For instance, the 26th Amendment passed in 1971, which granted the right to vote for citizens 18 years of age, took only 3 months and 8 days to be ratified. As a matter of fact, of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, 7 took only 1 year or less to become the law of the land.
However, women struggled for72 years to pass the Nineteenth Amendment. Anti suffrage organizations were most popular in the New England states. Opponents claimed that the female brain was of inferior size. Others claimed that women did not possess a soul. Humorous postcards portrayed women taking too long to get all their petticoats on to get to the polls. Some newspaper editorials said that women would only vote the way their husbands told them to anyway.
But even the movement that supported votes for women was ripe with internal dissention. The passage of the 15th Amendment, giving the Negro the right to vote in 1869, caused a 20 year split in the women’s movement. Some felt that Negro suffrage should only be passed if it also gave women suffrage. Others felt that the country was not prepared to enfranchise both and therefore women had to take a back seat.
Did the rights of the Negro have to diminish the rights of women, black and white?
That question was also being asked about women’s rights as it related to motherhood and family life. Would freeing women to participate in government put at risk the care of children? In other words, could the rights of all coexist?
Against this backdrop, suffrage leaders took seriously these portrayals of power and domination by their gender. They exercised their greatest skill in combating this perception put forth by their opponents that they would abandon their children. Nowhere was this made more apparent than in their opposition to ‘Restellism,’ the term given to abortion, the most heinous form of child abandonment. It was named after the infamous abortionist Madame Restell, frequently arrested and discussed in Susan B Anthony’s publication The Revolution. Suffrage leaders saw opposition to ‘ante-natal murder’ and ‘foeticide’ as an opportunity to clear their name of unfair accusations against them by anti-vice squads, who believed the decadence of the Victorian Era lay at women’s independence.
But opposing abortion was more than a political strategy. It was support for a human right, a right that was integral to their own. The organizer of the first women’s rights convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, made these connections in a letter to suffrage leader Julia Ward Howe. Howe believed war was the enemy of women because it destroyed their sons and husbands and brothers. Stanton made this same death connection with mothers who destroyed their children: “When we consider that women are deemed the property of men, it is degrading that we should consider our children as property to destroy as we see fit.”
Not only were anti-suffrage crusaders misinformed about the care for children that was integral to the suffrage agenda, they misunderstood that women wanted the vote not so much for their own self aggrandizement but for ‘life over material wealth’ or for the good of families and children. Child labor laws, poverty, and universal education were issues for which they sought the vote. They sought the vote for themselves because they were mothers who knew the needs of everychild. It was their maternity that they saw as their greatest gift of citizenship. As political artist J Montgomery Flagg’s winning 1913 poster proclaimed, Mothers bring all voters into the world.
Susan B Anthony did not live to see the passage of the Amendment that was named for her life’s work. A radical young new woman leader, Alice Paul, was jailed with 66 colleagues for their protest at an event honoring President Wilson and the US participation in World War I. This sparked the nation’s awakening and compassion, but more importantly, weakened the President’s opposition to the justice they demanded.
Paul created a flag with the suffrage colors: gold for the sunflower of Kansas (an early state to grant women suffrage), white for purity, and purple for eminence. She sewed on it a star for each state that ratified the Amendment. Only one more state was needed, and on August 18, 1920, Paul received a telegram proclaiming the ‘yes’ vote by the Legislature of the State of Tennessee. Paul draped the flag over a balcony in Washington DC. Women now could exercise the right to shape and determine the course of history.
· Boston Daily Globe, Nov. 3, 1920
· NY Times, December 19, 1920
· Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 3, 1920
· Archive collection, Susan B Anthony Birthplace, Adams, MA
Carol Crossed is the Owner and President of the Susan B Anthony Birthplace Museum in Adams, Massachusetts.