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Our Vote is Our Voice—A Celebration of Courage and Persistence

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
February 17, 2020

Ten Suffragists Arrested While Picketing at the White House – 1917
“The first picket line,” Library of Congress

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees and protects women’s constitutional right to vote. Voting is central in a democracy, and this historic centennial provides an opportunity to recognize those who played a pivotal role in our current democracy.

Ordinary Women Doing Extraordinary Things

It began when five wives and mothers organized a meeting about the rights of women. It was 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York—a time when women were prevented from attending college and barred from all professions. They couldn’t sign contracts, own or inherit property, keep or invest their own earnings, and they had no rights in divorce.

Frustrated with the state of things, these five women decided to hold a convention to discuss the rights of women. Over 300 attended and together they drafted a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments that identified ways to improve gender equality. One item called for women to vote—which some considered too ambitious. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the original five organizers, argued, “How can women change biased laws if they cannot vote?”

What began as five eventually lead to hundreds of thousands of women and men who joined in and petitioned state legislatures to change laws unfair to women. They made speeches, wrote letters, published news stories, and argued for their beliefs. In 1878, the U.S Senate finally considered a women suffrage amendment, but waited nine years before taking it up for a vote—which failed 76-16. It was 27 years later until the vote came before the Senate again, only to be met with the same fate.

Nevertheless, They Persisted

The women who had started the movement back in 1848 died without ever having the chance to vote. After 69 years, organizers realized that a new strategy was needed. Starting on January 10, 1917, a dozen, “Silent Sentinels,” mounted the first ever picket line in front of the White House. Instead of continuing to try and talk with President Wilson, they would sew their messages on cloth banners for him and everyone else to see, “Mr. President, How long must women wait for liberty?” The idea was to be unobtrusive but visible. They returned to their posts almost daily, simply standing there, letting their message be conveyed through the banners they held. Eventually as many as 2,000 women from all over the country took turns picketing, as young as 19 and as old as 80.

These picketers became viewed as unpatriotic, dangerous, unwomanly, even treasonous. They faced ridicule and rejection. Some lost their jobs and others were evicted from their apartments, disowned and divorced by their families. Many were arrested and sent to jail. Over time, the jail sentences became increasingly severe. The condition of the workhouses where the women were sentenced were deplorable. As prisoners, the women were beaten, choked and chained. When the women continued their protests through hunger strikes, jailers retaliated with aggressive force feedings. Family members and supporters became vocal against the harsh treatment and the unreasonable jail sentences. After 70 years, public opinion and media support was starting to shift.

In January 1918, their persistence paid off when President Wilson gave suffragists his support. The following year the 19th Amendment finally passed and was formally adopted in 1920—72 years after that first Seneca Falls Convention. But it would take another 44 years for all women to be fully enfranchised. Several states implemented a, “Poll tax,” to keep voting out of reach for many women of color and poor women. That practice was banned in 1964 with the passing of the 24th Amendment, finally allowing all women the right to vote.

The Largest Expansion of Democracy in a Single Day

This persistent, non-violent, grassroots effort lead to the largest expansion of democracy on a single day that our nation has ever known. There were active suffragists in every state, often spanning generations. Although every state eventually ratified the 19th Amendment, few state activists are remembered, and the state stories are barely known. This year to honor their efforts, public administrators at all levels can celebrate the suffrage centennial by:

  1. Learning more about what happened in your own community.
  2. Recognizing the women and men in your state who played pivotal roles.
  3. Using this opportunity for public involvement and civic pride, highlighting public buildings where suffrage events occurred.
  4. Honoring the historic importance of the multicultural efforts of our American suffragists.

To learn more about the history of suffrage in your state, visit The National Women’s History Alliance.

“We shall someday be heeded, and everybody will think it was always so, just exactly as many young people think that all the privileges, all the freedom, all the enjoyments which woman now possess always were hers. They have no idea how every single inch of ground that she stands upon today has been gained by the hard work of some little handful of women of the past.”
—Susan B. Anthony

Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding top leadership and management positions. As a practitioner and a scholar, her focus is on leadership development, organizational effectiveness, and financial accountability. She is the owner of Townsend Consulting and can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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