Women’s Suffrage(s)– Part 1

As you probably know, we’re approaching the 100 birthday of the 19thAmendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920, which proclaims, The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Well, that seems simple enough, and a damned good thing, too, hard-won through more than a previous century of organizing, picketing, divorces and child custody losses and job firings, arrests and beatings and jails and rapes and hunger strikes! What’s not to celebrate?

Historical illiteracy, that’s what.

It’s not your fault if you don’t know something, but it’s somebody’s fault if you’ve been kept from knowing something. This subject sure as hell is going to come up a lot in the next months, and it would be nice if we were equipped with some real facts.

Historians, alert! Please don’t have conniptions! Please keep in mind that this is just a humble, superficial outline, ideally to whet readers’ thirst for more facts and deeper background. The map of American women’s suffrage is a patchwork of geography, delay, two steps forward and one back, coalitions and splits, the whole of it blotched by varying restrictive bigotries. We might begin with Lydia Taft, the first woman to legally vote in the American colonies in 1756—on behalf of her just-deceased husband in a town meeting in Massachusetts. Then, in 1777, the original 13 states passed laws prohibiting women from voting by specifying that only free, white, adult, property owning males could vote. (No wonder Abigail Adams was furious.)  In 1787, the Constitutional Convention placed voting qualifications in the hands of the states. 

Space limitations necessitate skipping over many discriminatory speed bumps along the way—such as when, in 1718, Maryland barred Catholics from voting; 1732, when the colonies allowed only taxpayers to vote, and 1737, when New York barred Jews from the ballot box. In some states, women—usually widowed property owners—could join in having certain voting rights (in school elections, for example), but by 1787 this was true only of New Jersey, because women in all other states had lost the right to vote.  Through the next decades, individual states would progress and regress on such specifics as requiring property ownership, or enfranchising free black men, or mandating poll taxes. The first US naturalization act permitted only free white persons to become American citizens. Asians and other ethnic groups were excluded and therefore could not vote. As new states joined the Union, they largely followed the prejudicial restrictions of previous states. By the 1800s, white male suffrage rights were actually expanding—fewer property requirements, for example—but other people’s enfranchisement was static, partial, or even regressing. 

Nobody was taking all this quietly. Women lobbied and protested in some states, as did free black men, and disenfranchised Jews and Catholics. Native Americans were so insistent that in 1842 Rhode Island felt compelled to formally bar the Narragansett Nation from voting. The 1837 Anti-Slavery Convention, organized by and for women, was focused on the abolition of slavery, but also buzzed with talk of women’s rights and women’s suffrage. As  Helen LaKelly Hunt has written in And the Spirit Moved Them, this was an abolitionist feminist movement bridging race, class, and socioeconomic status. Yet it was also deeply Christian, since the fight against slavery was regarded by many abolitionist women as a holy fight. Then, in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton issued her ringing, secular Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions for women at the Seneca Falls Women’s Suffrage Convention, with approximately 260 women in attendance, as well as their ally, the formerly enslaved, famous abolitionist leader, Frederick Douglass.

At this crucial point, the struggles for all women’s rights, the abolition of slavery, and the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved or freeborn black men, were one seamless fight. In fact, in 1866, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton initiated the founding of the American Equal Rights Association, pledged to win suffrage for African American men and for all women.

But from 1861 to 1865 the Civil War paralyzed suffrage activity because most suffragists were Unionists and focused on abolition and the war effort. Then the original united vision split, along with the constituencies. Anthony and Douglass had made a pact not to sell out either constituency by accepting enfranchisement for only one. But the white male establishment opposed by both Douglass and Anthony found a way to divide, if not conquer. In 1868, with Douglass’s approval, the 14thAmendment to the Constitution was ratified, introducing the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time: Section Two specified that the enfranchisement of all male citizens could not be abridged or denied. Black men could vote. No woman (or Indian) could.

Anthony felt profoundly betrayed by Douglass, and his 14th Amendment deal became an exacerbation of as well as a convenient excuse for latent racism to surface in the largely white women’s suffrage movement—while black women were, not for the first or last time, left out in the cold by both sides. All this while, by the way, groups like the Anti-Suffrage Society (1871) were celebrating their efforts to halt progress.

Still, the suffragists continued and state-by-state, women’s right to vote trickled in. Wyoming Territory, 1869. Utah Territory, 1870. Washington Territory, 1883. Women lose suffrage as proposed before the Dakota Territory legislature by a single vote. Anthony is arrested in New York for voting. Women’s suffrage fails in a Michigan referendum. Suffrage amendments are repeatedly brought up before the House of Representatives and the US Senate—and fail. In 1887 the Supreme Court strikes down the law that had enfranchised women in the Washington Territory. A Rhode Island referendum does not pass women’s suffrage.

In 1890 the newly formed National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) focuses in on state-level organizing. Its first president is Elizabeth Cady Stanton—but by 1895 NAWSA publicly dissociates itself because of Stanton’s strongly secularist position as a freethinker, and especially her ground-breaking book, The Woman’s Bible, a searing critique of Christianity and other patriarchal religions. (Religious/secular splits during the century-long women’s suffrage movement have not been explored as thoroughly as those over race or ethnicity—but they may have been just as important, and I hope some courageous historian will take it on.)

By now this fight for enfranchisement had become a full-blown movement. That meant schisms and splits within schisms, some for valid reasons like differing strategies, tactics, or priorities; others over racism or class or secularism, still others due to individual personality differences masquerading as political ones. (In other words, human beings acting like human beings.) In 1913, Alice Paul became leader of the Congressional Union, a militant branch of NAWSA. She organized a women’s suffrage procession in Washington DC on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration—the largest suffrage parade ever seen. A mob attacked the women and hundreds were injured, yet no arrests were made. By 1916, Paul had broken from NAWSA and formed the National Woman’s Party. It was the first group to picket the White House; nearly 500 women were arrested.

By 1917, the US enters World War I and again women’s suffrage gets swept aside by the war effort. In 1918 the 19th Amendment passes the House of Representatives, only to lose by two votes in the Senate. In 1919, Carrie Chapman Catt transforms NAWSA into the aspirational League of Women Voters (still alive and efficient today). In 1920 the Amendment is at last ratified, though Mississippi became the last state in the union to ratify it—in 1984.

So it was that some American women won the vote. African American men had won suffrage in 1868, remember, while African American women got the franchise only in 1920 (but see below). Native American women (and men) could not vote until 1924—and many states passed laws effectively barring Native Americans from voting until as late as 1948. Japanese American women (and men) were held back by the 1790 naturalization law and could not vote until 1952. Meanwhile, the Chinese Exclusion Act, a Federal law in place from 1882 to 1943, limited Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens, ergo no vote. 

Even after ethnic constituencies won the franchise, they all—particularly but not exclusively the African-American community—have faced consistent, repeated, even violent voter suppression, from Reconstruction through the Black Codes and Jim Crow right up to elections last year (and not only in the South). The 1964 abolishment of poll taxes and the 1965 Voting Rights Act substantially increased access for would-be voters of color. But the right-leaning Supreme Court gutted that Act as “no longer necessary” in 2013.

This checkered past—and remember, the above barely skims the surface—haunts us still. Feminists of color understandably feel hurt and outrage at being made invisible when an ill-informed though well-meaning European American woman refers to the 19th Amendment as giving all women suffrage. (It was won, not given. And it was not to all women.) Some European American feminists who repeated history by early activism in the Civil Rights Movement, feel hurt and weary of carrying guilt (which is unproductive anyway), and get defensive about wanting to honor suffragists like Stanton and Anthony–who, by the way, damned well deserve honoring. Men, sometimes even well-meaning, feed the flames. Recently, Brent Staples, a New York Times columnist whose work  I usually admire, wrote about the women’s suffrage movement having ”sold out” its principles due to racism.

News flash: that racism was present in the women’s suffrage movement over a century-long span is absolutely undeniable. There was passive racism in the form of exclusion (“We just don’t know any…”), and active racism in the arguments of some suffragists that the women’s vote was needed to counteract the radical votes of black men. Volumes have been written about this, and more should be.

 It’s also undeniable that the abolitionist movement—in which virtually every suffragist had been active—was infected with sexism. We don’t hear about that much, in fact hardly at all.

Frederick Douglass himself, a magnetic presence and electrifying speaker, was well known as a womanizer to whom no woman (reportedly) ever said No. He also had multiple lovers, mostly white female suffragists who financed his work, while Anna Murray, his African-American wife, seethed in pain and rage. Anna finally threatened to leave him if he continued to keep one white woman, abolitionist and funder Julia Griffiths, in residence in Anna’s home. Another white activist, Ottilie Assing, remained at his side for nearly three decades; it was continually rumored that Anna was about to divorce Frederick, so when Anna died, Ottilie had been given every reason to believe she would become the new Mrs. Douglass. But he married yet another (much younger) white woman, Helen Pitts, with whom he’d been involved in secret. When Ottilie learned this, she politely wished him well, then killed herself by drinking potassium cyanide—but she left  him ”a tidy sum in her will.” Brent Staples knows all this because he reviewed a major new Douglass biography. But in his column on the women’s suffrage movement ”selling out” he mentioned none of this. Perhaps he thought the personal was not political. But neither did he mention Douglass’s 14th Amendment deal—which some might say “sold out”  both black and white women’s suffrage, so black men could vote.

We all of us have to stop lying or telling half truths about this. Any honest conversation about race and sex in America will be painful. There are layers of complexity and profound insult. Anthony and Douglass were people ahead of their time though products of it. They were flawed the way all of us have been wounded by the history of sexism and racism in this country, starting with the conquest of the people who lived here.

Those of us with European ancestry have been wounded by deliberately inflicted ignorance and a bestowed sense of entitlement that has numbed parts of our souls and distorted most if not all of our perceptions. The wounds citizens of color have suffered and still suffer in this country are different; they are existential. Women of color, targets of both primal sufferings due to sex and race, bear wounds I think are worst of all. But I break my own rule there, because comparisons that rank human suffering are invidious and destructive.  I will say, though, that it sure is fitting that African American women today are leading both movements.

I’ll continue with Part Two on this subject next week, looking at the buried history of women of color who were activists for women’s suffrage and equal rights, and bringing us up to contemporary history with the need for, maybe, multiple suffrage-day celebrations. That is, I’ll continue unless Trump starts World War III in the interim. 

For now, I’ll close with the words of freshwoman Congressional representative Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts, who wore white to the State of the Union but carried a clutch purse made of kente cloth, and who tweeted, with grace and wit, “Tonight, I honor women like Alice Paul, who led the movement, and women like Ida B. Wells, who were excluded from it.”