We Must Have the Courage of the Suffragists
For seventy-five years American women fought for the right to be considered fully citizens of the United States. Two generations of women enlisted in the struggle, and it was a struggle.
The fight began after many women in various reform movements, like temperance and abolitionism, understood that their efforts were hampered because they lacked basic rights as woman citizens. In 1848, about three hundred mostly women and some men, met for a couple of days at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss women’s issues. Elizabeth Cady Stanton roused the crowd with the radical demand for full citizenship right with the elective franchise. The Declaration of Sentiments created at this meeting stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.”
Male allies were few and far between and many men ridiculed and eviscerated woman suffragists. In print, men wrote scathing and demeaning editorials, in person, they heckled and harassed woman suffrage speakers, and threw rotting fruits and vegetables at them.
American suffragists pressed on. They held meetings, petitioned and campaigned for votes for women in state after state campaign, with some successes, but many more losses. Suffrage speakers traveled thousands of miles and delivered hundreds of speeches in theaters, churches, union halls, outdoors, in all possible venues, in all types of weather, to large and small groups, often delivering several speeches a day in different towns. Suffragists created national organizations and gathered millions of dollars to support their efforts.
As the younger generation got involved the suffrage movement changed. They were more willing to take to the streets and actively fight for the vote. They sponsored suffrage parades, where participants dressed all in white and wore woman suffrage sashes. Some of the largest parades occurred in New York and in Washington, D.C. In 1913, about 5,000 women and men participated in a suffrage parade, dubbed a pageant, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Drunken revelers created a melee in the streets and interfered with the parade route, and verbally harassed, and grabbed at the women in the parade. This particular parade brought national attention, something that the younger, more radical suffragists desired.
The more militant suffragists formed their own organization, the Congressional Union (CU) which later became part of the National Woman’s Party (NWP). To keep national press attention the CU tried to rally western women to harness their vote against the party in power in the 1914 and 1916 elections to vote out Democrats who blocked efforts to bring a woman suffrage amendment to the Congressional floor for a vote.
In 1915, the CU sent three suffrage envoys on a car journey of thousands of miles to gather signatures on a grand petition to present to Congress demanding a constitutional amendment. In 1917, the NWP organized the picketing of the White House for the vote. These silent sentinels stood by the White House gates with large banners that read, “How long must women wait for Liberty?” -and asked for justice for 20 million American women.
At first the pickets were looked upon with curiosity, but after America joined the war in Europe in early April, the pickets became the objects of scorn and met with open hostility. Crowds gathered and began to harass and attack the silent sentinels, tearing off their sashes, destroying their banners. The police stood by and did nothing. By June, suffrage pickets began to be arrested and sentenced to days, then weeks, then months in either the District jail or to the Occoquan workhouse.
Conditions at the workhouse were terrible and by September, the suffrage prisoners demanded to be considered political prisoners. Their request was denied. They began a hunger strike in November, and faced the brutality of being forcibly fed, through a hard rubber tube. Guards at Occoquan attacked the suffrage prisoners in mid-November, the “Night of Terror,” leaving many with bruises and in pain.
Suffrage activists did not break, did not bend, and did not stop. Despite the beatings, the heckling, the brutality, they kept up their fight for the vote. We know now that they were successful. The suffrage amendment was ratified in late August 1920, not quite one hundred years ago.
We must have the courage of the suffragists, who imagined a new, radical world with empowered women voters. But your voice will be lost, unless you honor the suffragists with your vote.