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‘Remembering the ladies’ on the 95th anniversary of women’s suffrage

Rebecca Now (left) and Yvette Joy Liebesman (right) joined "St. Louis on the Air" in studio to discuss the history of women's suffrage.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

August 26, 2015 marks the 95th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It also marks the victory of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States: a seventy-year fight for the right to self-govern that encouraged women to continue struggling for equal rights in the following decades.

One of the earliest calls for women’s suffrage in the United States may have been issued by Abigail Adams, who told her president husband to “remember the ladies,” said Rebecca Now, a historian and speaker (and part-time Elizabeth Cady Stanton reenactor).

But Now marks the real beginning of the struggle at 1848, when the Seneca Falls convention on women’s rights convened in New York. Women at conventions like these often focused on their lack of property rights, but suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton included in the conference’s delegation the demand for a right to vote.

Saint Louis University professor of law Yvette Joy Liebesman can take it back a little further. In 1776, when America was declaring its national independence, all states had to draft constitutions. New Jersey’s, as it turns, out, was particularly open in describing who in the state could vote.

“They wrote: any person that has 50 pounds to their name…and was over age 21 and had lived in the state and the district for a certain number of years,” Liebesman said. “It didn’t actually say ‘men.’”

A statewide voting rights act later on specifically described voters as ‘he or she,’ legitimizing the legality of women’s suffrage in New Jersey.

Of course, that right was heavily restricted. Married women technically owned no property, as it all belonged to their husbands, so the only women who could vote were unmarried women or widows of substantial means. And unless those women were born into wealth, it would have been quite rare to find a widow or spinster with enough money to actually enact her property and voting rights.

In any case, New Jersey women’s right to vote was taken away in 1807, Liebesman said, when the Federalist Party came to power. Women would have to wait over a hundred years to regain suffrage for federal elections.

Nonetheless, the struggle for expanded property rights for women went hand-in-hand with campaigns for the right to vote. The expansion of property rights was more successful, largely because property rights spoke to an endemic problem in nineteenth-century America: abandoned women.

The lives of women whose husbands left them could be bleak: without support but technically still married, they could not enter into contracts or work for wages. They were completely at the mercy of their family or the community, and abandoned women and their families often became dependent on state welfare. Eventually, Liebesman said, it came to be seen that enabling these women to manage and own property was an easy way to lighten states’ burdens.

Even with that legislation, Now said, the overall message to women in that era was to stay silent and submit to husbands and families. The idea of a woman speaking in front of a mixed audience—to men and women in the same room—“was a big hurdle to get over.”

So when the suffragists marched in Washington in 1913 with sewn banners condemning President Wilson’s hesitance to push for suffrage, many were offended. And when suffragists like Alice Paul refused to stop picketing when the First World War began, the riots started.

“It was basically rowdy people who were heckling them, pushing them, ripping up their banners,” Now said. “They were thrown into a Virginia workhouse; they were beaten. They went on a hunger strike, and then Alice Paul was force-fed. And the resulting publicity from all of this turned the tide, and the nation was suddenly behind the women.

“And Wilson was tired of it, and after a year of protest he finally came out, in 1918, in favor of women’s suffrage.”

That, however, was only the beginning of the political battle. Legislators argued that women would only vote the way their husbands told them to; that the ‘hand that rocked the cradle’ should not dirty itself with the muck of politics.

The amendment passed both houses of the federal legislature all the same, leaving the next step to the millions of suffragists who fanned out over the country, convincing state legislatures to ratify it.

The final moment, Now said, was dramatic. By August 1920, 35 states out of the necessary 36 had ratified the amendment. The next vote was in the Tennessee legislature, where supporters and detractors had been lobbying fiercely.

“In the legislature, all the men wore a red rose in their lapel if they were against the amendment and a yellow rose if they were for it. A quick count of the room showed you that the red roses were going to win and it was not going to pass,” Now said. “And at the very last moment, a young man, 24 years old, from Eastern Tennessee, changed his vote.” He voted yea, and suffrage was won.

Why? “He had a letter in his pocket from his mother,” Now said, which told him to ‘do the right thing’ and secure the vote for women.

U.S. women can celebrate this moment—and the movement—as heroic and exciting. But as with all aspects of United States history, the story is not all rosy. Women’s suffrage did not negate the de facto disenfranchisement of many black women in the country, particularly in the south; and many famous suffragists used racial arguments, contending that giving women the right to vote was more sensible and appropriate than having given it to black men.

Now acknowledged that even the Washington, D.C. parades had racist undertones. “The suffragists do not have a politically correct record on African-American women. They did allow them to march in the parade, but they wanted them on the segregated unit, and that was because they didn’t want to offend Southern white women.”

“This was about white women getting the vote,” Liebesman said. “I could just imagine the horrors that would have happened to any African-American woman who had been arrested and jailed along with these women.”

Still, Liebesman said, the movement deserves study and celebration as part of the American tradition of protest. The suffragists, like many rejecting the status quo, were met by condemnation and disappointment from a society that questioned whether and why they had to protest.

“But it seems like every time we’ve had a major change in this country it’s because it got noticed. And how does it get noticed? It gets noticed because people don’t act, as we say, ‘politely,’” Libesman said. “That’s when change happens.”  

Related event

Celebrate the Vote
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
5:00 - 8:00 p.m.
Llywelyn's Pub, 17 West Moody Avenue, Webster Groves, MO 63119

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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