100 Years of Universal Suffrage, a history of struggle


Over a hundred years ago, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in Tennessee in a nail-biting vote. After decades of organizing, the question of universal suffrage in the United States lay in the hands of 96 legislators, all men and all white, who filed into the room wearing red and yellow roses to indicate how they planned to vote, yellow for suffrage and red against. Twice that day on August 18, 1920, the lawmakers attempted to table the motion and failed, the vote to table tied each time. In a roll call vote, Harry T. Burn threw down his red rose and voted for the 19th Amendment. The Speaker of the House followed suit, in what became a futile machination to later undo the vote. Burn credited his vote to a letter from his mother who had been motivated to write to him when Burn’s mentor gave a particularly racist and sexist speech denouncing the 19th Amendment. 

The amendment went into effect on August 26, 1920, which is now celebrated as Women’s Equality Day. The hotly contested amendment reads, “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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”  

Contrary to what most of us learned in school, and continue to learn in school, the struggle for women’s suffrage in the United States was a fierce campaign that involved tens of thousands of diverse women who organized, took militant political action and repeatedly challenged the status quo. In a recent conversation with historians specializing in this movement, historian and curator Kate Clarke Lemay described the suffrage movement: “Women staged one of the longest social reform movements in the history of the United States. This is not a boring history of nagging spinsters; it is a badass history of revolution staged by political geniuses. I think that because they were women, people have hesitated to credit them as such.”

It literally took hundreds of years for women to win the right to vote in the United States. That struggle was deep and multi-faceted and rife with contradictions that reflected the divisions of class and national oppression that characterize women as a group. The movement for suffrage was not homogenous.

The movement faced deep opposition. It was also rich in militant action, organizing tactics and the building of political power for disenfranchised groups. There are many books, especially coming out this year, that detail the rich and varied history of the suffrage movement. There is a ton of eye-opening historical digging into the suffrage movement that has been shared, particularly in the last few months, for the centennial this year. 

However, this history continues to be told through the lens of the capitalist framework–a construction of history that denies the complex nuances of struggle and the centrality of the people’s struggle to make real change for the majority of us. The much better told and more fascinating history coming to light still fails when it accepts the status quo as the forever has been and forever will be. Because of that, key understandings of the suffrage movement are still not being told. 

There would be no suffrage movement without abolition. 

In fact, the oft-referred-to 1848 Seneca Falls Convention adopted suffrage into its program based primarily on the intervention and rhetoric of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. It was the only resolution adopted at the convention that wasn’t unanimously supported. 

But the roots are far more intertwined than that moment in history. The suffragists owe their political training, their skills and development to the struggle for abolition itself. Many abolitionists, white and Black, were suffragists and remained so after the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments. 

On December 9, 1833, Lucretia Mott, Catherine McDermott and other white Quaker abolitionists met with Black women abolitionists including Sarah Mapps Douglass, Hetty Reckless,  Margaretta Forten and her daughters Sarah and Harriet to form the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society. Five years later, the Antislavery Convention of American Women convened on May 9, 1837; almost 200 hundred women attended including a small group of Black women activists who played key roles. The first of many women’s rights conventions held until the Civil War, the National Women’s Rights Convention of 1850 was decided upon at a meeting of the American Antislavery Society.  At the convention, Sojourner Truth spoke from the platform and was joined there by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone. 

When the Civil War started, the conventions were suspended. Susan B. Anthony and Stanton founded the Women’s Loyal National League dedicated to abolishing slavery. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Mary Elizabeth Bowser had all been active abolitionists AND suffragists and now played key roles in the Civil War. 

Following the Civil War, the first National Women’s Rights Convention was held in May 1866. It established the American Equal Rights Association. 

Intense disagreement over the 15th Amendment centered on the question of awarding suffrage to Black men and not including women.  The movement split. Lucy Stone and the American Woman Suffrage Association backed the 15th Amendment. Stanton and Anthony led the National Woman Suffrage Association. Susan B. Anthony and other white suffragists employed racist language in their arguments against the 15th Amendment.  Black suffragists, like Frances Harper and Anna Julia Cooper, also expressed a diversity of opinions on the 15th Amendment but shared a commitment to continued struggle.  

Following the incredible period of Reconstruction and its defeat at the hands of the white supremacist U.S. ruling class, the suffrage movement eventually came together once again. In 1889, after much negotiating the two organizations reconciled as the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Despite the movement’s roots in the abolition struggle and Anthony’s personal relationships with Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper and other Black suffragists, the reconstituted organization remained focused narrowly on suffrage and was amenable to the demands of the white supremacists in its growing ranks.   

Racism–the insidious bedrock of U.S. capitalism–had divided the women’s movement against itself, and set yet another obstacle in the path of Black women suffragists. Yet racism never fully severed the connection between the suffrage movement and its roots in the movement for abolition. In fact, Frederick Douglass died in 1895 of a heart attack in his home just as he arrived from spending hours at a meeting of the National Women’s Council. He was very excited at the prospect of reigniting new levels of cooperation with the leadership of the suffrage movement and what it meant for the struggle. Similarly, Mary Church Terrell remained an active member of NAWSA and spoke at the 1898 conference.  

Black women continued to be passionate and skillful organizers and suffrage was a component of a surge in organizing that addressed the experience of Black women specifically. Significantly, Black women’s clubs that had varied programs but addressed education, political representation and more, became more and more popular.  In the 1890s, 5,000 Black women joined the National Association of Colored Women (which in 1904 was renamed the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs).  

Ida B. Wells personified the multi-faceted organizing of Black women of the time.  She was a prolific journalist and worked tirelessly to stop lynching. In 1913, Ida B Wells and Belle Squire started the Alpha Suffrage Club.  

Racism reared its ugly head over and over again, including in the 1913 march that was segregated at the very last moment at the request of white supremacist suffragists and acquiesced to by national leaders, including Alice Paul. Nonetheless, Ida B Wells, refusing to be relegated to the back, marched proudly with the Illinois delegation. Delegations of Black women marched despite the separation. 

The suffrage movement faced fierce opposition in its decades-long struggle for the right vote.

That same 1913 parade was attacked by an angry mob of onlookers as the police watched. It was the largest march in U.S. history to that date and was set for Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Alice Paul and others constituted a more militant wing of the NAWSA and they spent countless hours organizing the parade. 

Women were mocked, arrested, beaten, incarcerated, tortured and force fed in the course of an incredibly long struggle to win the right to vote. Anti-suffrage forces from the late 1850s to the early 1900s utilized many means at their disposal. Cartoons, comics and sexist bigoted speeches against suffrage were widespread. But, according to historian Susan Ware, the antisuffrage movement became more dominated by men and particularly intense after 1917. She writes, “Antiradical, antisocialist rhetoric has been nonexistent in the early years of antisuffragism, but as wartime hysteria gripped the country feminism, socialism and woman suffrage were increasingly portrayed as enemies of the state. 

Lucy Burns shared Paul’s disagreement with the NAWSA leadership’s conservatism. They differed over both tactics and strategy, leading the women to start the National Woman’s Party in 1916.  The NWP focused heavily on passing a federal amendment and targeting Woodrow Wilson, having proved himself both deeply racist and sexist, as he began a second term. 

The NWP escalated tactics by organizing pickets against the backdrop of the White House, posting what they called ‘Silent Sentinels” at the gates. The first pickets were held in freezing cold January. For six months, they met Wilson everyday with a changing display of banners that called him out for refusing to support the right to vote for women. 

In June, the arrests began. Between 1917 and 1919, 500 hundred women were arrested on the picket lines. Almost 170 of them were incarcerated for different periods of time. They were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse and regularly subjected to inedible food and humiliating treatment and refused communication with the outside world. The suffragists began a hunger strike when denied political prisoner status and were forcibly fed three times a day for weeks. 

November 15, 1917 marks one particularly brutal night, dubbed the Night of Terror. Occoquan guards manacled Lucy Burns’s hands to the bars above her cell so she stood all night. Dorothy Day’s arm was twisted behind her back and she was slammed twice over the back of an iron bench. Dora Lewis was thrown into her cell, smashing her head against the iron bed. Her cellmate Alice Cosu suffered a heart attack thinking Lewis was dead and was denied medical care all night. 

In August of the same year, suffragists organized a protest at Lafayette Square. They were arrested, freed on bail and returned to Lafayette Square repeatedly Eventually,  they were tried for “holding a meeting on public grounds”  and “climbing a statue,” were found guilty and were sentenced to between 10 and 15 days. Instead of being imprisoned at Occoquan, they were held in an abandoned jail building with no heat and only straw pallets. They were exposed to toxic water in a jail that had been declared unsanitary years before. After five days, the pressure to release them was too intense and they were freed. Some had to be transported in an ambulance because they were so sick. 

There are many more examples throughout the decades of suffrage organizing, from its roots in the struggle for abolition to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, of the intimidation and violence suffragists were subjected to as they organized and built a movement. 

The 1917 Russian Revolution and the general upsurge in working class struggle significantly impacted the gains of the suffrage movement 

The final wave of suffrage activism sits amongst another period of intense organizing and agitation, particular on the part of the labor movement and the working class. Annelise Orleck described the period from 1909 to 1915 as  “arguably the most intense period of women’s labor militancy in U.S. history.” 

One of many labor leaders and suffrage activists, Leonora O’Reilly argued in front of a Senate Committee in 1912, “You men in politics are not leaders, you follow what you think is the next step on the ladder. We want you to understand that the next step in politics, the next step in democracy, is to give to the women of your nation a ballot. We working women want the ballot, not as a privilege but as a right.” 

The rise in working class struggle was not unique to the United States, as the imperialist world war contributed to intensifying contradictions and suffering for working people.   The suffrage movement was linked to similar movements in other parts of the world. The movements of different countries interacted, collaborated and learned from each other. Furthermore, the suffragists of the National Woman’s Party were decidedly antiwar, refusing to stop picketing as the patriotism machine ratcheted up as the United States entered World War 1. Many suffragists were dedicated internationalists. 

Nor were the enemies of suffrage immune from the global political context and world events.  Not coincidentally, the arrests of the Silent Sentinels did not begin until after  Woodrow Wilson was thoroughly embarrassed in front of a visiting Russian delegation (after the February revolution but before the socialist October revolution) in June 1917. The suffragists greeted Wilson and the delegation with banners saying “To the Envoys of Russia: President Wilson and Envoy Root are deceiving Russia;” “They say “We are a democracy. Help us win a world war, so that democracies may survive.” We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy.”  “Twenty million American Women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement. Help us make this nation really free.” “Tell our government it must liberate its people before it can claim free Russia as an ally.” The first six suffragists were then arrested. 

The Russian Revolution, just months later, drastically changed the global political landscape, and exerted significant social and political pressure on the advanced capitalist countries that had failed to provide similar political and social rights to their workers. Russia enacted universal suffrage before the United States, England, France, Spain and every European country, except Finland. It did so because of the socialist revolution, a revolution that shook the capitalist ruling classes to their core. 

The 19th Amendment secured universal suffrage in the United States because of the dedicated and militant struggle of a diverse movement, with a supporting push from the stunning victory of the Russian people over tsarism and for socialism. But that struggle was by no means concluded by the victory of August 1920. Indigenous women did not secure the right to vote until 1924. Suffragist Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, or Zitkala-Sa, a Yankton Sioux tribal member and dedicated activist and suffragist, played an important role, along with others in winning this victory. 

Universal suffrage was almost immediately denied to Black women. Some Black women did succeed in registering to vote. However, Black women quickly faced enormous obstacles to voting, and not just in the South. Liette Gidlow writes the account of Susie Fountain who in Virginia was given a “literacy test” consisting of a blank piece of paper, that the registrar then claimed she failed.  Indiana Little, a teacher in Alabama, was arrested and sexually assaulted after leading a large crowd to the registrar’s office. As Little said in a sworn affidavit, she was “beat over the head unmercifully and … forced upon the officer’s demand to yield to him in an unbecoming manner.” It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Movement, following many more decades of intense class struggle under the leadership of Black people, that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be won. 

Today, voting rights are still threatened. In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated important parts of the Voting Rights Act. The decision allowed states to change election laws without prior federal approval. From 2011 to 2012, 27 measures were passed or implemented in 19 states that make it harder to vote

These attacks have overwhelmingly, although not exclusively, disenfranchised Black people. Black Americans of voting age are more than four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population. In total, 2.2 million Black citizens are banned from voting, and they constitute thirty-eight percent of the disenfranchised population in the United States. 

The history of voting rights in this country is one of organized groups of people marching, taking action, shouting, waging court battles and suffering intense repression to win a basic democratic right. This history should serve to open our eyes to the sordid sexist, racist and anti-worker history so often obscured in this country. It can remind us to renew our commitment to struggle, and our understanding that what can ultimately overcome that history and build a new one based on solidarity is the people’s struggle.

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