No, not the Steely Dan tune. I’m talking about the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. Today marks the 94th anniversary of the passage of the amendment that enfranchised women with the same rights and responsibilities of citizenship previously afforded only to men.
Prior to that, it didn’t matter if a man was illiterate, had been in prison, or was the town drunk. He could vote. A woman, no matter who she was, could not. It was generally viewed that the only “true” woman was a pious, submissive wife. Tell that to any heroine in a Love Historicals romance and see how well that goes. It didn’t go over very well in 1847 at a meeting of abolitionists – mostly women – who met in Seneca Falls, NY at the invitation of Elizabeth Cady Stanton to discuss women’s rights. The ball was rolling.
During the Civil War the movement lost momentum. Women’s rights advocates like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were deeply disappointed when, in 1868, the 14th Amendment passed making African American men citizens, while women were still deprived of citizenship. With the proposal of the 15th Amendment giving African American men the right to vote, they saw their chance to push lawmakers to establish universal suffrage. Advocates fell into two factions. One was against the 15th Amendment, the other was for it. The 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, but women still had a long way to go.
In 1890 the two factions merged into one group. The ball picked up speed with a new approach. Now, instead of arguing that women deserved the same rights as men because they were “created equal”, they argued that women deserved the right to vote because they were different from men and they could use their domesticity as a virtue to create a more maternal commonwealth. In 1916 they began a blitz campaign to mobilize state and local suffragist groups, while a more radial faction organized hunger strikes and White House pickets.
World War I slowed the campaign, but women’s work on behalf of the war effort helped drive home the point that women were just as patriotic and deserving of citizenship as men. Apparently, it worked, because the federal women’s suffrage amendment was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate in 1919, 41 years after it was written by Susan B. Anthony and sent to the states for ratification.
The 19th Amendment to the Constitution passed by only one vote. Tennessee, the 39th state to ratify the Amendment, passed it when a young legislator changed his vote to “yes” after receiving a letter from his mother telling him to “do the right thing”. I’m just guessing, but do you think Mama was a suffragist? Anyway, on Aug. 26, 1920 the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was signed into law.
Anti-suffragist cartoons of the day, such as the one shown here, pictured suffragists as embittered old maids or cigar-chomping transvestites. The humor was cruel and uninformed. The women who advocated and fought for the right to become citizens and to vote were true heroines. They were part of a sisterhood of like minds and hearts whose monumental undertaking was filled with risk and possibilities.
Here are few interesting and maybe little known facts about the women’s suffrage movement.
- Many early suffrage supporters, Susan B. Anthony included, remained single throughout their lives because, in the early 1800s, married women could not own property in their own right and could not make legal contracts on their own behalf.
- In most states in the early 1800s women could not have custody of their own children. According to state laws, children belonged to the husband. It wasn’t until the 1840s that women began to organize to obtain legal rights and gradually the laws changed so that women could own property in their own right after marriage and obtain custody of their own children.
- In the U.S. supporters of the women’s movement were called suffragists. In Britain, militant supporters called themselves suffragettes. When the American press or anyone opposed to women’s suffrage called an American woman a suffragette, it was intended to be derogatory.
- A white rose came to symbolize the pro-Suffragists and a red rose signified the anti-Suffragists.
- American women who were jailed for demonstrating for the right to vote were force fed in prison when they went on hunger strikes.
- Susan B. Anthony voted illegally in the November 1872 election and was arrested for it.
- Women were the first protest group in US history to picket the White House. They were called the Silent Sentries because they just stood there without saying a word.
- 2 out of every 3 women failed to vote in the 1920 election.
I write about larger-than-life heroines, the courageous and spirited ones. The ones who won’t take no for an answer and who don’t take adversity lying down. The ones who know what they want and how to get it. Wait a minute! That sounds like Philadelphia (Del) Stratton, the suffragist heroine in my upcoming Native American historical romance.
BENEATH AN IRON SKY is the story of two young people, Del Stratton and Crow Eagle, a Lakota boy, who meet under extreme circumstances only to be forced apart. Years later they are reunited when Del’s fight for women’s suffrage takes her to South Dakota on the verge of statehood. There, Crow Eagle, now a strong warrior, is fighting the U.S. Cavalry to retain his people’s way of life through the Ghost Dance movement. And a forbidden love that will not be denied slowly winds its way toward a little creek called Wounded Knee.
BENEATH AN IRON SKY is due for release in 2015.