Taking a New Look - The Enduring Significance of the American Woman Suffrage Movement

by Robert Cooney

Women vote today because of the woman suffrage movement, a courageous and persistent political campaign which lasted over 72 years, involved tens of thousands of women and men, and resulted in enfranchising one-half of the citizens of the United States. Inspired by idealism and grounded in sacrifice, the suffrage campaign is of enormous political and social significance yet it is virtually unacknowledged in the chronicles of American history.

Had the suffrage movement not been so ignored by historians, women like Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul would be as familiar to most Americans as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt or Martin Luther King, Jr. We would know the story of how women were denied the right to vote despite the lofty words of the Constitution, how women were betrayed after the Civil War, defeated and often cheated in election after election, and how they were forced to fight for their rights against entrenched opposition with virtually no financial, legal or political power.

If the history of the suffrage movement was better known, we would understand that democracy for the first 150 years in America included half of the population. And we would realize that this situation changed only after the enormous efforts of American citizens in what remains one of the most remarkable and successful nonviolent efforts to change ingrained social attitudes and institutions in the modern era.

For women won the vote. They were not given it, granted it, or anything else. They won it as truly as any political campaign is ultimately won or lost. And they won it, repeatedly, by the slimmest of margins, which only underscores the difficulty and magnitude of their victories. In the successful California referendum of 1911, the margin was one vote per precinct! In the House, suffrage passed the first time by exactly the number needed with supporters coming in from the hospital and funeral home to cast their ballots. In the Senate it passed by two votes. The ratification in Tennessee, the last state, passed the legislature in 1920 by a single vote, at the very last minute, during a recount.

Without Violence and Death

Women were a poor, unarmed and disenfranchised class when they first organized to gain political power in the mid-1800s. The struggle for the ballot took over 70 years of constant, determined campaigning, yet it didn't take a single life, and its achievement has lasted. Compare this with male-led independence movements. Without firing a shot, throwing a rock, or issuing a personal threat, women won for themselves rights that men have launched violent rebellions to achieve. This deliberate rejection of violence may be one of the reasons the movement has not received the attention lavished on other, bloody periods of American history--or on the suffrage movement in Britain. But it should not deceive us; this struggle was waged every bit as seriously as any struggle for equality, and we would do well to consider how women were able to do what men have rarely even tried, changing society in a positive and lasting way without violence and death.

The movement's many nonviolent strategies deserve closer inspection particularly because they repeatedly offered suffragists the way out of strategic binds, dead ends, discouragements and immobility. The nonviolent approach was a logical strategy as a remarkable number of prominent suffrage leaders, from Lucretia Mott to Alice Paul, were Quakers and pacifists, exponents of nonresistance and opponents of war and violence. They were clear about their goals: not victory over men, but equality; not constant war, but reconciliation.

Like the now-celebrated civil rights movement, women suffrage records the recent and useful experiences of ordinary citizens forced to fight for their own rights against tremendous odds and social inequities. Here are models of political leadership, of women organizers and administrators, activists and lobbyists. here are the first women lawyers and doctors and ministers, the first women candidates, the first office- holders. Here are stories of achievement, of ingenious strategies and outrageous tactics used to outwit the opponents and make the most of limited resources. Here are new definitions and images of women in our national life which give a more accurate picture of the past and which help explain the way American woman are treated today.

The suffrage movement included many Americans whose talents and abilities would have made them prime candidates for national office had the political system, and their opportunities been equal. Women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Frances Willard, Jane Addams, Louise Bowen, Ida W. Wells-Barnett, Carrie Chapman Catt, Mary Church Terrell, Alice Paul and others proved themselves, even without the franchise, to be politically competent, highly influential and widely respected leaders with few equals among their male contemporaries.

The suffrage movement offers a unique window onto the emergence of women into American political life. This is where many of the intelligent, active, politically oriented women of the time, denied the right to participate directly in national politics, went. They put their energy into attacking social problems directly and organizing among themselves, locally and nationally, for their own rights.

The Best and the Brightest

Yet despite all of this, the suffrage movement has been routinely and consistently ignored, and when it has not been ignored it has been substantially misrepresented. The result is the misconception today-- when there is any conception at all--of the suffrage movement as being essentially an old, passive, white, upper-class, naive, inconsequential cause, one hardly worthy of attention much less respect. It is treated as a lone curiosity with nothing to teach us, or worse, as a target for clever academics to critique. Fortunately, there are some notable exceptions, but this attitude and the lack of accurate information available lie at the heart of the problem.

A new look at the American woman suffrage movement reveals an entity far different from any popular conception. Not a dour, old-woman cause benevolently recognized by Congressional gods, but a movement of female organizers, leaders, politicians, journalists, visionaries, rabble rousers, and warriors. It was an active, controversial, multi-faceted, challenging, passionate movement of the best and brightest women in America, from all backgrounds, who, in modern parlance, boldly went where no woman had ever gone before.

But rather than acknowledging this, and recognizing that women had to fight for their rights because for the first 150 years American "democracy" actually included half of the population, many academics and historians have chosen to ignore, discount, marginalize, ridicule and/or dismiss the entire 72-year, nationwide, *successful* suffrage movement. In many history textbooks, the entire movement is summed up in one sentence: "In 1920, Congress gave women the right to vote."

Eleanor Flexner noted this censorship in her landmark book Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States, and quoted the late historian Arthur Schlesinger chiding his colleagues back in 1928 for neglecting women. Schlesinger wrote:

"An examination of the standard histories of the United States and of the history textbooks in use in our schools raises the pertinent question whether women have ever made any contributions to American national progress that are worthy of record. If the silence of the historians is to mean anything, it would appear that one-half of our population have been negligible factors in our country's history...any consideration of woman's part in American history must include the protracted struggle of the sex for larger rights and opportunities, a story that is in itself one of the noblest chapters in the history of American democracy."

After Schlesinger wrote this, the civil rights movement added another "noble chapter" to American history, and helped create a new context and vocabulary with which to analyze earlier movements for social change.

Obliterated the Whole Story

The suffrage movement stands as a lasting affirmation of our country's democratic promise for it re-emphasizes the importance of the most fundamental democratic value, the right to vote. Flexner wrote of this in 1975:

"Recently there has been a tendency to low-rate the winning of woman suffrage as something less than the great achievement it seemed to those who carried on the struggle....Yet full political citizenship was, for women as for any other group arbitrarily deprived of it, a vital step toward winning full human dignity and the recognition that women, too, are endowed with the faculty of reason, the power of judgment, the capacity for social responsibility and effective action. As a matter of fact, the opposition to woman suffrage itself bears witness, in a perverse kind of way, to its significance; nothing unimportant would have been so bitterly resisted. If one thinks of those, white and black, who laid down their lives only a few years ago in order that southern black men and women could register to vote, and then actually *vote*, it seems clear that their efforts and sacrifices were no idle exercise in gallantry and that, without the vote, no social or legal reform was either possible, or lasting.

"The achievement of the vote for women was extraordinarily difficult, infinitely more so than most people realize, since those who ought to have included it in the history of this country simply obliterated the whole story."

So completely and so quickly was the story lost that it was virtually unknown to the next generation. Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:

"As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted--retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother--and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women."

The Larger Story is Democracy

You need not be a feminist, female, or even political to enjoy learning about the suffrage movement. For while the subject is woman suffrage, the larger story is about democracy, and how a powerless class in America won concessions and guarantees from those in power without threatening them with violence or death. We approach this topic not as women or men but as students of American history. We see the woman suffrage movement as a topic of its own, worthy of study and rich with content, apart from the whole field of women's history, notable women, women of achievement, feminist theory or other more general topics where it has previously resided.

Men were suffragists. The suffrage movement both included men as supporters and depended on men for their votes. Even when state measures were lost, the suffrage question often received tens of thousands of male votes of approval, and ultimately, a virtually all-male Senate and House had to approve the amendment, along with 36 virtually all-male state legislatures. Courageous men risked ridicule and worse to actively support women's rights, and they offer far better role models today than many better-known political and military figures.

The suffrage movement also offers us a new cultural heritage, covering not only historical figures and events, but extraordinary personalities, intense relationships, colorful experiences and legendary exploits. Students will find a new view of American history, fuller and richer with new heroes. Next to George Washington and his cherry tree we can set young Carrie Chapman Catt driving a wagon across the prairie by "dead reckoning" or brave Lucretia Mott trusting her own safety to a member of the mob roused against her. We can honor Sojourner Truth no less than Patrick Henry, and Alice Paul no less than Woodrow Wilson.

The suffrage movement holds a particular relevance now as it has helped lead us as a country and a people to where we are today. It celebrates rights won and honors those who helped win them. It is both an example of history suppressed and misunderstood and a lesson of history triumphant. It puts women back into our national history as participants. It reminds us of the necessity of progressive leaders, organizers, and visionaries in every local community. It is the origin of the yet-unpassed Equal Rights Amendment. It exposed the misplaced fears and prejudices of anti-suffragists, and offers a sobering reminder that too many of these same foolish, reactionary attitudes of 100 years ago still exist today. Clearly the wider goal of women's true equality and freedom has not yet been achieved, but the victorious woman suffrage movement offers a new generation of activists a solid base on which to build the future.

Harriot Stanton Blatch summarized the movement's legacy best when she wrote: "Perhaps some day men will raise a tablet reading in letters of gold: "All honor to women, the first disenfranchised class in history who unaided by any political party won enfranchisement by its own effort alone, and achieved the victory without the shedding of a drop of human blood. All the honor to the women of the world!'"

Robert Cooney is the director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project and is working on a photographic history of the suffrage movement.

Enduring Significance of the American Woman Suffrage Movement