Women’s Suffrage And The Importance of Voting

Because we are on the eve of a national election, I think it is important to remind ourselves, as women, of the sacrifices made by earlier women who worked and sacrificed to secure this basic right for women–the right to vote.

My grandmother, Mary Lewis, was an early feminist and suffragist.  My grandfather, Frank Mesle, being a wise man, wooed her by respecting her beliefs and making them his own.  One of his early letters to her in 1910 included the following quote from an unknown source:  “When the husband gets ready to regard his wife as an equal partner…when he will grant her the same privileges he demands for himself; when he is willing to allow his wife to liver her own life in her own way without trying to ‘boss’ her, we shall have more true marriages, happier homes and higher civilizations.”

It was ten years later, when my own mother was one years old, that women gained the right to vote.  I was born a mere 26 years later.  Not a very long period of time in the history of this country.  But worlds apart in our understanding and expectations of women’s role in society.

Until the  mid to late 1900’s, women were, in many significant respects, under the legal control of husbands and fathers from birth to death, without the right to own property, vote or participate meaningfully in business or government.  The obstacles to equality for women are nowhere better illustrated than in the Supreme Court’s 1873 decision in Bradwell v. Illinois. [1]

Born in 1831, Myra  Bradwell’s husband was a successful lawyer, judge and member of the Illinois General Assembly.  Myra was a teacher, respected citizen and active in the community.  She founded a legal newspaper and supported women’s suffrage reforms, in addition to  engaging in a wide variety of other activities of no small import. She undertook legal training with the hope of being admitted to the Bar of Illinois.  Her application for a license to practice law was rejected by the Illinois State Supreme Court because, as a married woman, she could not enter into any legal contracts–a basic requirement of practicing law [2].  Ultimately Bradwell appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court claiming a violation of the 14th Amendment.  In writing the decision adopted by the  Supreme Court, in language feminists can quote to this day, Justice Joseph Bradley wrote: “The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many occupations of civil life…[T]he paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the creator.”

Undeterred by the Supreme Court’s ruling, and presumably rejecting the notion that  God believed women should be so limited, feminists continued to press for Constitutional protections, primarily focused on the right to vote.  Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others, dedicated their lives to the struggle for women’s rights: woman’s suffrage, the right of women to own property, retain their own earnings, and to have access to academic opportunities.  From as early as the 1850’s, Anthony and Stanton traveled throughout the United States and Europe in support of women’s rights.  On July 4, 1876, in Philadelphia, Anthony presented on behalf of the National Woman Suffrage Association the  Declaration of  Rights of Women of the United States [3]. Her lengthy speech, while compelling, [4] is particularly powerful concerning the denial of a woman’s right to vote:  “ Universal manhood suffrage, by establishing an aristocracy of sex, imposes upon the women of this nation a more absolute and cruel depotism than monarch; in that, woman finds a political master in her father, husband, brother, son….”  Stanton died in 1906, 14 years before her vision of universal women’s suffrage became a reality.  In 1979, in honor of her role in the struggle for women’s rights, the U.S. Mint issued a dollar coin with her image.

The final struggles and success of the so-called suffrage movement is well described in the powerful movie, Iron Jawed Angels[5].  This movie focuses on the period immediately leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment. It tells the story of the relentlessness of women leaders like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who through the early years of World War I fought tirelessly to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to endorse their right to vote.

As the U.S. was entering World War I, some 35 years after the Bradwell decision, suffragists began to picket of the White House.  Their theme was questioning why we should be fighting a war abroad in defense of Democracy when women at home did not experience Democracy.

Despite romantic descriptions of women’s delicacy and timidity, women engaged in the feminist movement behaved, and were treated, without regard to any such perceptions. Their leaders were fined and then imprisoned for 60 days for “obstructing traffic”. They continued to picket.  Alice was sentenced to 7 months in prison.  She was ultimately placed in a solitary confinement and began a hunger strike. Attempts were made to have Alice declared insane. [6] Ultimately she was  force fed by her jailers, who repeatedly fed her through a tube down her throat.  Denied access to the public, their families and even lawyers, it was the husband of one of the leaders of the movement who ultimately advised the press of the treatment of these women.

Learning of the treatment of the suffragists, on January 9, 1918, President Wilson reversed his opposition to women’s right to vote. He urged  Congress to vote in favor of a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing women’s right, stating:  “we have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

On June 4, 1919, the U.S. Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote, by one vote.  On August 26, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment.  The Amendment became law.

The sacrifices of women like Alice Paul were life changing. Without her bull-headed resistance to the status quo, women’s suffrage may well have been delayed for years.  Her sacrifices and the sacrifices of women before her, secured the beginnings of real change for women’s status as full members of society.

It is important that all women honor and acknowledge the sacrifices from the past.  Please vote on November 6, and every election.  Vote for the candidates of your choice, but vote.

[1] Bradwell v. Illinois, 83 U.S. (16 Wall.) 130 (1873).

[2] It is not to be ignored that she was denied a license because legislatures controlled by men denied her, and all women, basic rights to own property, enters contracts, keep their own earnings and otherwise control their own destinies.

[3] The original Declaration of the Rights of woman and the Female Citizen was written by Olympe de Gouges a French patriot, in 1791.  It is modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, adopted in 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly during the French Revolution.

[4]  This speech also includes a quote from Abigail Adams, who said: “We will not hold ourselves bound to obey laws in which we have no voice or representation”.

[5]  Released in 2004, the movie starred Hillary Swank.

[6]  Historically,  male doctor, refused to find her insane, stating that bravery in women has sometimes been mistaken for insanity.

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