On August 18, 1920, the day that Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment, clinching its passage, suffragist leader Alice Paul unfurled the National Woman’s Party ratification flag from the balcony of the organization’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Each time a state ratified the amendment, Paul sewed a star on the banner, until she had 36 and women had gained the right to vote. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (LOC)
‘WELL I HAVE BEEN & GONE & DONE IT!!’
SUSAN B. ANTHONY WROTE TO A FRIEND ON NOVEMBER 5, 1872.
THAT DAY ANTHONY and her three sisters managed to vote in Rochester, New York. Nearly a century after the nation’s founding, seven years after the end of the Civil War, and two years after the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to African-American men, it was still illegal for most women to vote. Anthony and her sisters had been sure they would be denied. Indeed, that’s what they had hoped would happen. They wanted grounds for a lawsuit.
But Anthony, a well-known and intimidating figure, couldn’t help herself. A few days earlier, she had browbeaten the young officials who were registering voters at a local barbershop into putting the women’s names on the voting rolls. When that proved an unexpected success, she spread the word.
On Election Day, some 15 women in Rochester voted. “We are in for a fine agitation in Rochester,” wrote Anthony to her friend and fellow campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although she hadn’t expected to vote, she knew her defiant act would have ramifications.
Two weeks later, the opportunity she’d been aiming for arrived on her doorstep in the form of a well-mannered federal officer. He was there to arrest her.
By that point women had been campaigning to get the vote for decades. They’d begun to question their subordinate role in society, rallied to improve women’s rights within marriage, and called for universal suffrage. They’d ventured beyond the domestic sphere of their homes and neighborhoods, into spaces where no “respectable” women would go, and had spoken in public before mixed crowds, which no respectable women would do. They’d inserted themselves into a political process that made no room for them. They’d insisted on what they believed were their rights as citizens. They’d elevated women’s voting rights to an issue that national politicians could no longer ignore.
Great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and co-founder of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton Trust
Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton always looked forward; her descendant Coline Jenkins does too. A longtime supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, Jenkins also is a town legislator in Greenwich, Connecticut. The trust she co-founded has amassed a collection of suffrage artifacts to preserve history, educate the public, and promote democracy. She successfully campaigned to have statues of Stanton and fellow activists Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth erected in New York City’s Central Park.
Kenneth B. MORRIS, JR.
Great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives
Frederick Douglass was the only man to speak at the first women’s rights convention, and Morris is proud to be his descendant. But he’s equally proud of Anna Douglass, who sold her possessions to finance her future husband’s escape from slavery. When Morris learned how much slavery still exists in the world today, he decided to use what he calls “the historical significance of my ancestry” to do something about it—founding Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, which fights human trafficking through education.
Great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells and a writer, speaker, educator, and activist
As the youngest child of suffragist Ida B. Wells, Duster’s grandmother watched Wells “just fighting, fighting, fighting all the time,” Duster says, and feeling “dejected and demoralized.” As a result, Duster’s grandmother turned away from activism, but Duster, the author of two books on Wells, eventually found her way to it. She was a leading member in the campaign to raise money for a monument to Wells in her adopted hometown of Chicago and worked to get a major downtown street named after her.
And yet, they still had a very long road to travel—a nearly half century-long campaign to press their cause across the country. The 19th Amendment, which decreed that no citizen could be denied the right to vote based on sex, became law on August 26, 1920—a tremendous accomplishment. Some 27 million women became eligible to vote, the largest increase in potential voters in American history. But the victory was incomplete: Because of restrictive state and federal laws such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and ethnic barriers to citizenship, many nonwhite women—African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas, and Asian Americans—still didn’t have access to the ballot. Nor did many nonwhite men, despite the 15th Amendment.
It’s easy to consign the suffragists to the past— to imagine them as severe Susan B. Anthony and fussy Elizabeth Cady Stanton, stiffly posing in a black-and-white portrait or as long-skirted women brandishing quaint banners, demonstrating for something we take for granted. After all, more women now vote than men, nearly 10 million more in the 2016 presidential election. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of the most powerful people in the country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for president in 2016, and six women competed to be the Democratic nominee in 2020.
BUT THE PAST is still with us. My grandmothers were born into a world in which they couldn’t vote. A girl born in the United States today arrives in a country that a woman has never led. Nearly 51 percent of the population is female, but far fewer women hold elected office than men. Efforts to limit who can vote persist. Clinton lost to a man known for sexist behavior, and none of those female presidential candidates made it to the top of the ticket. The campaign for political equality that began in the 19th century shows no sign of being over in the 21st.
The push for women’s suffrage began in 1848 in part because Stanton, a socially active woman from a prosperous and prominent family, was chafing at her circumscribed life. Stanton had moved from Boston to the small town of Seneca Falls, New York, for the health of her husband, Henry, an abolitionist who began leaving her alone with their three sons as he traveled the state agitating against slavery. As much as she loved her children—she would end up having seven—Stanton found the limitations on what women were able to achieve maddening.
“I suffered with mental hunger,” she later wrote.
When Lucretia Mott, a noted Quaker abolitionist, came to the area for a visit, Stanton welcomed the chance to see her. The two had met several years earlier at an antislavery convention in London. Over tea with Mott and a few friends, Stanton “poured out the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent,” she wrote, “with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself, as well as the rest of the party, to do and dare anything.”
What they dared to do was organize their own convention, the first to be held on women’s rights in the U.S. They did it quickly, in little more than 10 days, because Mott, the most experienced activist of any of them, would be leaving soon.
The women drafted a “Declaration of Sentiments” to be presented to the convention for approval. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, the document decried men’s “absolute tyranny” over women, citing grievances that reflected the very limited rights women had in the United States then.
Erin LOOS CUTRARO
Founder and CEO of She Should Run
Women hold fewer than one-third of federal and state legislative and executive elected offices in the U.S. With her nonpartisan group, Cutraro hopes to shift the balance by finding “that woman who is getting it done in her own way, in her community, in her workplace, but is not yet even considering elected office as a possibility.” With online leadership training and networking, her organization helps women explore that possibility—and prepare to pursue it.
Director of New Leadership at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University
Cruz casts the nonpartisan program that she oversees as a way of “making sure that college women have the tools they need to become responsible public leaders.” In more than 20 states, college students from two and four-year schools are recruited for workshops that coach them in political skills, such as networking and public speaking, and encourage them to think about how they can advocate for their communities. “Most women are leaders,” says Cruz. “They just need the tools and the resources and the push to see themselves that way.”
Jennifer PIEROTTI LIM
Co-founders of Republican Women for Progress
“Nowadays there’s so much great focus on women’s representation and getting more women elected,” says Lim (above, at left). “That has to include Republican women.” Their numbers in Congress fell after the 2018 elections. Lim and Hill-Davis, two of the four founders of the organization, are determined to reverse that slide through recruitment and training. “We have a lot of women who come from a more traditional background,” says Hill-Davis. She says her group’s job is “convincing them that they’re just as capable as the men and that their life experience brings something different to the table that is no less valuable.”
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