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Good To Know

History Lesson 01: Women's Suffrage

Did you know that the first movement to get women the right to vote was in 1848? That's even before the Civil War! On July 19th the Women's Suffrage movement was launched in Seneca Falls, New York. Lucretia Mott was a Quaker and Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a young mother. They wanted to be included in the Constitution's "All men are created equal."

 

What else was happening in 1848 that might have spurred this action? Europe's most radical revolution happened, which sent many people to the USA, including a great-grandfather of mine from Germany, not then called Germany. Workers were on the uprise around Europe. This revolution included a series of political upheavals. Closer to home, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo gave the US a lot more territory, most specifically in the Southwest. The California gold rush began.

 

Possibly as a result of their early efforts, the first medical school for women opened in Boston later that year, or certainly coincidental and perhaps stirring them for more of the same.

 

But these women weren't initially successful. There were disagreements over what they should be fighting for. Stanton wanted the vote immediately but others thought that was a little too radical. They finally agreed to add suffrage when Frederick Douglass spoke in support of it.

 

Stanton met Susan B. Anthony in 1850 and the two forged a lifetime alliance. Little was found about their efforts before the Civil War but afterward, they helped the movement build and pushed lawmakers to protect their rights during Reconstruction.

 

I've often thought that the 15th amendment that guaranteed voting rights to "all persons born or naturalized" should have automatically included women but the wording elsewhere in the amendment defined citizens as male. Petitions then began to fly in objection to that word, deliberately excluding them. George Washington Julian of Indiana proposed in December 1868 than the reference to male be removed, but it never even came to a vote.

 

One would like to think this reference to woman's suffrage was extended to black women as well. Stanton denounced this extension of voting rights to black males while excluding "educated white women." This is where black women felt alienated, and that animosity extended into the 20th century. Obviously, Stanton didn't choose her words well.

 

But black voices were not silent. They simply had other fights, such as Jim Crow. In an 1898 address to the NAWSA, African-American activist Mary Church Terrell decried these injustices, while remaining hopeful "not only in the prospective enfranchisement of my sex but in the emancipation of my race."

 

The women's movement fragmented into two groups in 1869: Stanton and Anthony's the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Lucy Stone formed the other; she was a one-time Massachusetts antislavery advocate and a prominent lobbyist for women's rights. The groups united in 1890. That's when they formed NAWSA. But they were without powerful allies in Congress. For the next 20 years they worked for voting at the state level.

 

In 1869 Wyoming became the first to grant women the right to vote, the only one for the next 25 years. Colorado followed in 1893, with Utah and Idaho in 1896. Some believe it was to encourage more women to move west. Others saw women as being equally as strong as men. A third reason was to help the territory gain statehood. Wyoming, however, didn't get statehood until 1890 and remains one of the lowest population states in the Union, even lower than the current population of DC. Seven more states granted women voting rights between 1910 and 1914.

 

The impact of Jeanette Rankin as the first Congresswoman elected in Montana in 1916 cannot be overstated. She turned out to be a great orator and led successful campaigns for women's suffrage. The first day of the new Congress, with herself installed as Congresswomen, she introduced the Susan B. Anthony Suffrage amendment. California Democrat John Edward Raker proposed a new standing committee in the House—the Committee on Woman Suffrage—to consider bills related to women's voting rights, bypassing Judiciary entirely.

 

"We have as a Member of this body the first woman Representative in the American Congress," Edward William Pou of North Carolina said to applause. "She will not be the last, Mr. Speaker."

 

Raker's Woman Suffrage Committee began hearings on the voting-rights amendment on January 3, 1918. Well, you can imagine the excitement of the women, who brought sandwiches to hearings.

 

Rankin began by invoking the generations of American women who had fought for the right to vote. "For 70 years the women leaders of this country have been asking the Government to recognize this possibility," she said. She even invoked the name of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as though to make up for Stanton's mistakes decades previously. Stowe was a white abolitionist, however.

 

Opponents were, of course, feeling their status quo threatened. Federal suffrage would violate the state's rights to determine voter qualifications. Suffrage was not a "right," they said, but a privilege, to be withheld at the pleasure of the state. (Oh are we seeing evidence of that today!) Southern legislatures opposed it because it included black women -- all the more they would have to fight to keep away from the polls.

 

One Suffragette named Carrie Chapman Catt even used white supremacy to help the amendment get through: "If the South is really earnest in its desire to maintain white supremacy, its surest tactics is [sic] to endorse the Federal Suffrage Amendment." She continued, "If you want white supremacy, why not have it constitutionally, honorably? The Federal Amendment offers the way."

 

The first vote on the amendment was narrowly defeated, even though Woodrow Wilson supported it. Then came midterm elections when the Republicans ran on suffrage as a means to defeat the Democrats, especially in the South. Jeanette Rankin, however, lost her seat in that election.

 

The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote on August 18, 1920.

 

Despite the passage of the amendment and the decades-long contributions of Black women to achieve suffrage, poll taxes, local laws and other restrictions continued to block women of color from voting. Black men and women also faced intimidation and often violent opposition at the polls or when attempting to register to vote. It would take more than 40 years for all women to achieve voting equality.

 

The NAWSA prevented black women from attending their conventions. They had to march separately from whites in suffrage parades. But these women worked hard for those equal rights, too, and received little credit. Much of their activity centered around their churches, where they held political rallies and planned strategies. They faced unique challenges, being torn between the civil rights of the two groups to which they belonged, and being excluded by white women did not help.

 

This is an issue that may have lingered yet today. When there was a woman's march in Madison in 2017, I saw very few blacks in the crowd, even though Madison has a strong black population. Sojourner Truth, a name I just heard recently on Jeopardy that no contestant knew, noted that prejudice against them was even worse than against black men, and she was right. At least black men could vote, although in many states they were denied for whatever reason could be conjured.

 

Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth died in 1883 so never saw the freedom she longed for. She walked away from slavery, though, in 1827 and changed her name when she became a traveling preacher.  She gave her most famous speech at a Women's Rights convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851: "Ain't I a woman?" Here's more from that speech:

 

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

 

It wasn't until 1913 that the first black women's suffrage group formed in Chicago by Ida B. Wells. Even after the 19th Amendment passed, they fought with black men for those rights until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It seems today we're going backward in time to erase all that progress.

 

Here's an interesting statistic I found online: "If just men had voted in 2012, Romney would have defeated Obama 322–216. If just white women had voted, the spread would have grown to 346–192." The voting bloc of black women helped; their vote was 96% in favor of Obama, the largest bloc percentage of any group. It was not the white vote that got Obama elected the second time, which, we can see, is what makes the GOP so nervous about the popular vote of growing minority groups.

 

Let's compare that to the vote for Nixon in 1968, shortly after the Civil Rights Act. It's not as easy to find that breakdown, but according to Wikipedia, 94% of the vote in black neighborhoods went to Humphrey, compared to 33% of rural votes.

 

I could find no demographics for the vote for Harding in 1920. It's said that his good looks helped with women voters, but it's rumored that his wife killed him for philandering before his term was up. He also said at one point that he wasn't meant for this office.

 

Fortunately women -- especially black women -- have gotten better at making choices. In fact, it would appear that black women always had it right. The black vote overall was at 89% for Clinton in 2016, while white women were only 54% for the first female president. White men supported Trump over Clinton.

 

And isn't it interesting that we don't see a breakout of black men versus black women for the 2016 cycle? Are we indeed going backward in time?

 

References:

at https://www.marieclaire.com/politics/a33808321/how-women-vote-statistics/. 

 

https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/WIC/Historical-Essays/No-Lady/House-Supports-Suffrage/

 

https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/19th-amendment-1 

 

https://www.nps.gov/articles/black-women-and-the-fight-for-voting-rights.htm

 

https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/sojourner-truth.htm 

 

https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/voter-demographics-for-the-2012-presidential-election/ 

 

https://ropercenter.cornell.edu/how-groups-voted-2016 

 

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