The wait began in earnest on June 4, 1919.
On that date, the United States Senate passed the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Activists would wait, watch, and hope for the next 441 days that two-thirds of the states would ratify the amendment and make it official.
On August 18, 1920, their wait was over. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, and the Constitution enshrined the right of women to vote.
Women have embraced that right with gusto. According to Rutgers Center for American Women in Politics, “[women] vote in higher numbers than men and have done so in every election since 1964. In 2016, 9.9 million more women than men voted. In addition, women have voted at higher rates than men since 1980. In 2016, 63.3% of eligible female adults went to the polls, compared to 59.3% of eligible male adults. Even in midterm elections, when voter turnout is lower among men and women, women vote in higher numbers and at higher rates than men.”
It took moxie to convince people with power to share it, and the women and allies of the suffrage movement had it. Here’s how:
Moxie takes on the “experts.”
Opposition to granting women the right to vote was deeply rooted. Women were ideally supposed to be quiet and submissive, tucked away from the public sphere keeping their homes and tending children.
Justification for limiting women’s roles and influence was even made using physiology. Influential scientists believed that women’s bodies simply were not made for the rigors of thinking required by civic responsibility. Moreover, the strain of mental exertion would damage a woman’s reproductive system and harm her ability to reproduce and nurture children.
“We must not forget pregnancy and lactation, both of which are a great strain on a mother’s vitality,” posited prominent MIT professor William T. Sedgwick in 1914. “Any further strain, like the responsibilities of the suffrage, is bound to be harmful to both mother and child.”
Allowing women to vote would lead to a societal meltdown. Chaos would be unleashed.
Women are too delicate. Too flighty. Too emotional. They lack intellectual capacity. They will abandon their families.
All that messaging is clear in the cartoons, editorials, and popular imagination that opposed women’s suffrage. Activists were portrayed as cartoonish, silly, flighty, unattractive scolds who were not to be taken seriously.
And yet, despite efforts to dismiss them, suffragettes persisted. They refused to accept what virtually every person in power told them – that they, as women, were not worthy – and chose to believe the truth that was so clearly evident in their own experience. They were strong. They were capable. They were worthy.
It takes moxie to hold on to the truth, and suffragettes had it.
It takes moxie to champion the cause of others.
The women’s rights movement had a complicated relationship with the abolitionist movement. It’s arguable that without the movement to abolish slavery, their movement for women’s rights might not have gotten off the ground.
Yet it doesn’t take much effort to find glaring examples of racism among leaders of the suffrage movement. Black women were denied a place at the table in most leading organizations.
Even so, a significant portion of the women’s suffrage movement paused its campaign to get the vote in favor of getting freed black men the right to vote. The 15th amendment, which gave black men the right to vote, passed in 1869, with no small amount of advocacy from women with feet planted firmly in both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements.
“I expect to plead not for the slave only, but for suffering humanity everywhere. Especially do I mean to labor for the elevation of my sex,” said Lucy Stone.
It takes moxie to see a cause larger than your own, and many in the women’s suffrage movement had it.
It takes moxie to persevere.
It took decades of work for women to win the right to vote, and those were not easy decades.
The decades were marked by wars, including the Civil War, which both paused the movement and led to fracturing in its aftermath. Rival factions formed separate organizations, and while pursuing the same goal, they adopted different strategies and approaches. Both likely contributed to the eventual passage of the 19th amendment, but it’s tough not to wonder how much more effective the movement might have been had it been unified.
WWI gave even more urgency to the movement. As women stepped up for the war effort, it became apparent that they were more than worthy of the vote. Activists became increasingly radical, taking to the streets in protest and marching on the White House. Activists were arrested, and when they went on a hunger strike in jail, they were violently force-fed.
It takes moxie to risk arrest, imprisonment, and violence for a cause you believe to be just, and the suffragettes had it.
Which suffragette do you find the most inspiring?