They were spit upon, beaten, jailed, vilified in the pulpits, and sometimes scorned by members of their own gender. They were determined and courageous risk takers who took on a government and several presidents of the most powerful nation in the world.
These women fought for a basic democratic principle. They simply wanted the right to vote in their own country. They wanted the right to participate in their own democracy.
For years, the women were politely ignored. When our nation entered World War I on April 6, 1917, their placards became more pointed and their protests more determined. Their signs taunted President Woodrow Wilson, accusing him of hypocrisy. How could he send sons, husbands and fathers to die in a war for democracy when he denied voting rights to all the mothers, wives, daughters and grandmothers here at home? Was this really a democracy worthy of these sacrifices?
They stood silently at the gates, holding signs that said "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" They wanted President Wilson to support a Constitutional amendment giving all American women suffrage, or the right to vote.
The protests became a political and international embarrassment to President Wilson. He and his powerhouse decided the women's picketing in front of the White House must be stopped.
Male spectators were allowed to assault the women picketers, both verbally and physically. Police did nothing to protect the women.
The women remained non-violent and peaceful, taking care not to break any laws. Even so, the police began arresting the women on charges of obstructing traffic, even though the women themselves did nothing to obstruct traffic.
At first, the charges were dropped and all the women had to endure was the manhandling, bruises, brief incarcerations and damage to their group's morale.
Even though morale suffered and more women were spending time in jail, the women were determined to not let up on their protests.
Consequently, the police stepped up their harassment of the women. Next, the women were sentenced to jail terms of just a few days.
As the women kept picketing peacefully and lawfully, their prison sentences grew. Finally, in an effort to break the spirit of the picketers, the police arrested Alice Paul, one of the leaders.
Alice was tried and sentenced to 7 months in prison. She was placed in solitary confinement. For two weeks, she was given nothing to eat except bread and water. Weak and unable to walk, Alice was taken to the prison hospital. There, she began a hunger strike - one which other female inmates would join. "It was," Alice Paul said later, "the strongest weapon left with which to continue... our battle ...."
In response to the hunger strike, prison doctors put Alice Paul in a psychiatric ward. Authorities threatened to transfer her to an insane asylum. Still, she refused to eat. Afraid that she might die, doctors began force feeding her.
Three times a day for three weeks, prison authorities forced a tube down her throat and poured liquids into her stomach.
Despite the pain and illness the force feeding caused, Alice Paul refused to end her hunger strike. This was her only method for refusing to give up her fight for women's right to vote.
By the time Alice Paul and the National Women's Party began their suffrage campaign in the early 1900s, the old leaders of the women's movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth were gone. The Seneca Falls Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19 to July 20, 1848, was the first women's rights convention held in the United States, and as a result is often called the birthplace of feminism.
One early women's rights activist was the woman we know as Sojourner Truth. She was born in 1797 into slavery in New York as Isabella BaumfreeIn and was sold several times as property. In 1827, she was emancipated when New York state law freed all slaves in New York. In 1843, she took the name Sojourner Truth and became a traveling preacher.
In the late 1840s, this amazing woman connected with the abolitionist movement, becoming a popular speaker. In 1850, she began speaking on woman suffrage.
Sojourner Truth's most famous speech, Ain't I a Woman?, was given in 1851 at a women's rights convention in Ohio.
There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before. So I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring; because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.Sojourner Truth, Equal Rights Convention, New York, 1867
The intellectual and organizational partnership of Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony was the driving force of the American women's movement and dominated its existence from the mid-19th to the early 20th century.
Elizabeth had conceived the idea for an International Council of Women interested in suffrage. She and Susan founded the National Women's Suffrage Association in 1869 and called a council in 1888 in Washington D.C.
That 1888 council was extremely effective and well-attended, with delegates from literary clubs, purity societies, labor leagues, missions, and professional associations from the United States and 49 other nations.
In the half century or so prior to Alice Paul, support for the suffrage amendment had grown. by World War 1, women were already voting in twelve western states.
And in 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first women elected to Congress. Yet, the U.S. Congress was no closer to passing the suffrage amendment than before and the majority of American women had no democratic rights covered by the U.S. Constitution.
In 1917, after 5 weeks in prison, Alice Paul was set free.
The strong armed attempts to stop Alice and the other women picketers had backfired politically on President Wilson. The protests and fights for democracy by the brave women seemed to be very patriotic and very American. Patriotism was high, but, not necessarily in favor of President Wilson.
Newspapers were carrying stories about the jail terms and forced feedings of the innocent American women.
These stories angered many patriotic Americans and created more support than ever for the suffrage amendment and women's rights.
So it was, on January 9, 1918, that President Wilson finally gave in and announced his support for women's right to vote.
The next day, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which would give suffrage to all women citizens.
On June 4, 1919, the U.S. Senate passed the Amendment by one vote. And a little more than a year later, on August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. That made it officially the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
Prior to 1920, only men participated in elections. The 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote. Its on August 26, 1920, marked the end of a 72-year political campaign hard fought by America's women.
This was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world's first women's rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York.
American women at last had the right to vote. In 1920, Alice Paul and her colleagues did not stop their campaign for women's rights. Instead, they began to push for an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which would guarantee women protection against discrimination. Some 80 years later, the battle for such an amendment is still being fought.
Modern women are indebted to these women's rights activists and can now enjoy their 72 years of sacrifices that gave all American women that long-denied right to vote. At the behest of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), in 1971, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as "Women's Equality Day." The observance of Women's Equality Day not only commemorates the passage of the 19th Amendment, but also calls attention to women's continuing efforts toward full equality.
Gaining the right to vote was just the first step. It was seen as a necessary step - one that would allow women to enact laws and elect representatives that would further safeguard women's rights and freedoms. Still, the battles wage and the war is not yet won.
From November 18 to 21, 1977, over 20,000 female people gathered in Houston, Texas, to celebrate International Women's Year and identify goals for women for the next decade. In addition to the delegates, press, and volunteers, several thousand people came just to be at this historic meeting. Every morning they were briefed by women in the government before going to workshops, lectures, exhibits and entertainments. They came to talk with and find each other.
This was the first and only national women's conference to be sponsored by the federal government. The impetus came from the United Nations, which proclaimed 1975 to be International Women's Year -- later extended to a decade. On January 9, 1974, President Ford issued Executive Order 11832 creating a National Commission on the Observance of International Women's Year "to promote equality between men and women." Numerous events were held over the next two years. In 1977 President Jimmy Carter chose a new Commission and appointed Bella Abzug to head it.
Although the National Women's Conference was not a lawmaking body and could only propose nonbinding recommendations, it was directed to arrive at a national plan of action to help remove sex barriers and better utilize women's contributions. This plan, which grew from issues discussed at the state conferences, was to be submitted to the president and Congress within 120 days of the conference. Twenty-six major topics were considered by the delegates, including the ERA, abortion, lesbian rights, child care, minority women, homemakers, battered women, education, rape, health, and a cabinet-level women's department.
The National Plan of Action was submitted to the president and Congress in March 1978, and a month later Carter established the National Advisory Committee for Women. The Senate granted a three-year extension for ratification of the ERA within a year of the Houston meeting; this unprecedented move was viewed as a major postconference achievement, despite the final failure of the amendment in 1982.
While the National Women's Conference cannot be credited with resolving all of the complex issues defined in 1977, it is recognized as a major event in the women's movement in the U.S. (By the way, I have it on good report that Pam Pohly was a delegate-at-large to that conference in 1977... maybe she'll blog about her experience with us sometimes... hint, hint.)
Is the battle over? No, only one battle was begun in the mid 1800s, one battle was won on August 26th, 1920, and the torches were lit and carried forward in the 1970s. Many advances were made in the 1970s and early 1980s, but since then, women's rights have been steadily assailed.
Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
(Equal Rights Amendment, not yet a part of the U.S. Constitution as of 2007)
The ERA is needed in order to prevent a rollback of women's rights by conservative/reactionary political votes, and to promote laws and court decisions that fairly take into account women's as well as men's experiences.
The need for the ERA can be expressed simply as a warning. Unless we put into the Constitution the bedrock principle that equality of rights cannot be denied or abridged on account of sex, the political and judicial victories women have achieved with their blood, sweat, and tears for the past two centuries are vulnerable to erosion or reversal at any time - now or in the future.
Congress has the power to make laws that replace existing laws - and to do so by a simple majority. Therefore, many of the current legal protections against sex discrimination can be removed by the margin of a single vote. While courts in the near term would still apply skeptical scrutiny to laws that differentiate on the basis of sex, that precedent could be undermined or eventually ignored by future conservative or reactionary courts.
With a specific constitutional guarantee of equal rights through the Equal Rights Amendment, it would be much harder for legislators and courts to reverse our progress in eliminating sex discrimination.
We need the ERA because we need to move beyond the struggle for it. We need to free the energies of the women and men who have spent countless hours, years, and even lifetimes working for this basic human right of equal constitutional protection. When we can redirect that energy and those resources to work on the many other challenges we face in common, we will truly have fulfilled the vision of suffragist leader and ERA author Alice Paul.
The Equal Rights Amendment is needed to affirm constitutionally that the bedrock principles of our democracy - "all men are created equal," "liberty and justice for all," "equal justice under law," "government of the people, by the people, and for the people" - apply equally to women.
They who gave so much would shudder to learn that 22 million single women voters failed to vote in a presidential election with the potential to greatly impact their lives with steps backward on issues that affect not only of them, but of the world.
I encourage all women to be awakened to our ability to change the course of history as our foremothers have.
Let us celebrate the accomplishments of women who came before us. Let us remember, though, that we have much work still to be done in order to attain true equality and justice.
Many organizations that are still fighting the good fight for women's rights (as well as celebrating women's accomplishments), and fighting for peace and justice for all - including these: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Equal Rights Amendment, Feminist.org, League of Women Voters, MADRE, National Organization for Women, Stop Violence Against Women, Women's Health Leadership Network, and Women Watch.
Thank you for reading my blog post today and for allowing me to commemorate this anniversary of our right to vote.