Herstory of U.S. Women’s Right to Vote

Second article in Secular Woman's Women's History Month Series.

by Toni Van Pelt

Adapted from NY Times story by Judy Pehrson 2001

The struggle for enfranchisement in the United States, a woman’s right to vote, actually began in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, led by Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony (Judy Pehrson NY Times 2001). The Declaration of Sentiments adopted at the convention demanded the right to vote, as well as equal rights in education, industry, the professions, political office, marriage, personal freedom, control of property, guardianship of children, making of contracts, the church and in the leadership of all moral and public movements.

The Suffrage Amendment was introduced into Congress a generation later, but it remained on the shelf. By 1912 it had only once been voted on in the Senate in 1887 and never in the House of Representatives. It had not received a favorable report from the committee of either house since 1892, and had not received a report of any kind since 1896. Suffrage had not been debated on either floor since 1887. To add to the bleak outlook for the amendment, incoming President Woodrow Wilson opposed it.

It was into this vacuum that feminist Alice Paul came. Paul, a well educated Quaker from NJ, who had participated in the British Suffrage Movement while studying in England set about bringing the issue of votes for women to the attention of Congress, the President and the country as a whole. After years of trying friendly persuasion, the National Woman's Party, which she founded, and it's 50,000 members decided to change tactics and took to the streets. They marched, picketed the White House, held rallies and publicly burned speeches by President Wilson about freedom abroad, protesting that women had no freedom at home. For their trouble they were harassed by onlookers, beaten by the police and arrested and force-fed when they went on hunger strikes.

Through it all Paul and her followers stood fast with the dedication described by one of them who told a judge "So long as you send women to jail for asking for freedom, just so long will there be women willing to go to jail for such a cause."

Paul also used quieter tactics, such as education. She eventually convinced Wilson to support suffrage and he included it as an issue in his message to Congress in 1918.

Finally, in June 1919 the Senate passed the 19th amendment and Paul and the National Woman's Party went on the road to assure ratification by the states. After ONE year of strenuous maneuvering, 36 states finally ratified the amendment - Tennessee was the last to ratify on August 18, 1920. The final proclamation granting women the vote was signed August 26, 1920 - ending a four-generation struggle.

Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, three years later. It took 72 years from the time women's voting rights were envisioned and written down to became a reality. It has been 90 years since the Equal Rights Amendment was envisioned and written down. How much longer will it be before women are written into the U.S. Constitution with complete human rights equal to men?

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