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Women’s Suffrage Essay Draft 2

The Struggle for Equality: The Battle for
Women’s Suffrage

 

            Women
have not always had the right to vote in the United States. From the time of
this country’s founding, it took women 144 years of hard work, organization,
sacrifice, pain and dedication to persuade the American government to grant them
suffrage. When America became a democracy in 1776, only white men were given
the right to vote. Black men were given the right to vote when the Fifteenth
Amendment was passed in 1870 (U.S. Constitution). Finally, women were given the
right to vote with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.  However, this result did not come
easily, as it took the efforts of a large core of women devoted to the cause
for the amendment to be passed.  Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, a leading figure of the women’s suffrage movement, was one of the
first to address the unfairness of women not being able to vote in her
Declaration of Sentiments, a list of women’s grievances, written in 1848. Also,
in 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Stanton formed the National Women’s Suffrage
Society, an organization dedicated to gaining women’s suffrage. However, there
was not one main event or cause that resulted in the government granting women
the right to vote, but rather it took a confluence of elements. Were it not for
the existence of three important factors, namely, westward expansion (1807-1912),
the higher education of women (beginning in the 1830’s) and their awareness of
other suffrage movements occurring in the 1900’s and the role the press played in
covering the women’s movement (1900’s), it is unlikely the Nineteenth Amendment
would have been enacted at that time.

           

            Westward
expansion in the nineteenth century was an important factor toward women gaining
the right to vote. In the early-1800’s, John O’Sullivan, a columnist and editor
for the Democratic Review, a highly regarded paper, popularized the term “manifest
destiny,” which became a key principle of the Jacksonian Democrats (Democrats
who supported Andrew Jackson). Jacksonian Democrats believed that it was
America’s destiny to expand from the Atlantic seaboard, across the plains and
to the Pacific Ocean (Wikipedia). The western expansion was actively encouraged
by the U.S. government and led to the annexation of territories, which
eventually became states, such as California, Utah and Wyoming. While a large
portion of the United States population was concentrated in the east, western
states/territories only had small numbers of people. To encourage people to
move west, many western states/territories began to offer women the right to
vote, the first being the Wyoming territory in 1869 (Constitution Center).
Later in 1890, when Wyoming officially became a state, it continued to allow
women to vote and was the first state to do so. Other states followed Wyoming
such as Utah in 1896, therefore, continuing the trend of allowing women to vote
if they moved west.

             Eastern states were hesitant to allow
women to vote because of many “myths” regarding what would happen if women were
allowed to vote. An historian who carefully examined the time and was well
versed about the anti-suffragist movement said “Allowing women to vote would
lead to foreign aggression and war” ( Pro/Anti Women’s
Suffrage Packet ). This argument clearly had no basis and was easily
disproved when women began to vote in the western states and no foreign
aggression or war took place as a result. The historian also said “ Women did
not have the intellectual capacity of men because their brains were smaller and
more delicate” (Pro/Anti Women’s Suffrage Packet). Whether men have larger
brains than women has nothing to do with a woman’s overall intelligence or her
ability to vote intelligently, and clearly this reflected a feeble argument to
keep women out of the voting booth.
Anti-suffragists also believed that if
women were given the vote, “disastrous results would occur” (
Pro/Anti
Women’s Suffrage Packet
). It is unclear what those results may have
been, however, no disastrous result ever occurred. The experience of the western
states, proving that women could vote responsibly, most likely influenced the
decision of Congress to pass the Nineteenth Amendment. Women having the possibility
to vote in western states served to dismiss many “myths” about what would happen
if they voted and perhaps also served as an example to motivate women elsewhere
in the country to fight for the same right to vote that women in the western
states had. However, given the strong conflict regarding women’s voting rights,
this alone was not enough to move the country to grant women’s suffrage.

            Women’s
higher level of education and their awareness of other suffrage movements also
played a key role in their obtaining the right to vote. During the 1700’s and
early 1800’s, girls were not given the same education as boys. Boys went to
school and learned math and writing, training for a future job or profession, while
girls either did not attend school or they attended school just to learn how to
keep the household and provide for their family. Howard Zinn, a social
historian wrote in A People’s History of
the United States
, “Not only were they bearing children in great numbers,
under great hardships, but they were working in the home” (Zinn 111).  From the 1830’s on, women began to
receive a formal education and some even received college degrees. For example,
Alice Paul graduated with multiple degrees including a Bachelor of Science
degree from Swarthmore and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania and served
as a role model for other women to seek the same level of education as she did.
Sara Evans, an historian and the author of Born
for Liberty,
wrote that during the suffrage movement “Women’s collective
voice and strength was growing as young college-educated women…fostered a
dramatic shift in organizing methods” (Evans 1). By going to college, women
learned effective ways of organizing, protesting and getting their voices
across, but also as educated persons most likely felt more strongly that they
were entitled to the same voting rights as men.. They organized marches, mass
meetings and grass root campaigns. Women also studied other past/present
women’s suffrage movements. Evans writes, “American women watched the events in
England closely” (Evans 1). By carefully analyzing the events in England,
American women saw what tactics worked and did not work; the British movement
also most likely motivated them by seeing other women vote. Some American
suffragists even experienced the British suffrage movement personally, such as
Alice Paul. Evans writes, “ Paul went to England in 1907, just in time to
witness the meteoric rise of Emmaline Pankhurst and to join in mass
demonstrations, also experiencing jail, hunger strikes, and force feeding” (Evans
2). When Paul came to America to join the women’s suffrage movement, she
already knew many tactics and was able to educate her peers on them. Women’s
higher level of education and their study of other suffrage movements greatly
increased their effectiveness in fighting for their cause.

            The
press also played an important role in winning women’s suffrage. The press
covered important stories about the movement, from protests to violence towards
women, influencing people to join the fight for women’s suffrage, and helping
women gain empathy for the struggles they had to endure. A key example of the
press helping women gain empathy is their coverage of Alice Paul being
force-fed. In 1917, Alice Paul and other members of the National Women’s Party
picketed outside of the White House with signs criticizing President Wilson. Men
walking by the picketing women became angry, attacking the women and taking the
signs down because the men thought that it was wrong to be addressing women’s
suffrage while World War I was being fought. The police arrested the picketing
women, who were later charged with obstructing traffic and as punishment, were
placed in the
Occoquan Workhouse for 60 days.
Amazingly, other members of the National Women’s Party continued to picket in
front of the White House, despite the fact that they also risked being placed
in Occoquan. While in Occoquan, Alice Paul went on a hunger strike. She became
very sick, however she was willing to give up her life for her cause. Her
fellow members joined in her hunger strike. Eventually, the doctors began to
force-feed Paul, giving her raw eggs through a tube. The press found out about
this and reported it, appalling the public. An encyclopedia entry about Alice
Paul describes this situation by saying “
Other women joined the
strike, which combined with the continuing demonstrations and attendant press
coverage, kept the pressure on the Wilson administration” (Paul Encyclopedia).
The press coverage likely influenced President Wilson’s decision to support
women’s suffrage as he did not want to be criticized for not responding to the
inhumane and illegal treatment of women.

            The
fight for women’s suffrage in America was an extremely long process that began
as early the country declared independence in 1776. The struggle required
sacrifice as women had to choose between having a family or fighting for
suffrage, as well as dedication, focus and patience. However, this successful
result would not have been possible without the confluence of three things-
westward expansion, the higher education of women and their awareness of other
suffrage movements and the involvement of the press in reporting on the
movement. Without these three factors, women gaining suffrage would likely have
been delayed and gained only years after 1920. Had it been delayed
significantly, further advances of women since then may have also been delayed
and we may not have seen the great achievements of women in multiple fields;
for example in politics, such as Hilary Clinton, the first woman nominee for
president, in business, such as Meg Whitman, the CEO of eBay, and in law, such
as Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman Supreme Court Justice.

           

             

           

 

           

            

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Women saw major gains in political if not social and economic equality in many countries at the end of World War II. Carrie Chapman Catt helped pave the way, although she had turned eighty in 1939 and did not attend the Conference on the Cause and Cure of War that year. She was back in 1942, though, and saw the committee dissolved in the spring of 1943. In the middle of World War II, it was succeeded by the Women’s Action Committee for Victory and Lasting Peace (Van Voris, 1987). When the war ended in 1945, Catt called for another women’s crusade.

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Once again, she rallied women around the world to work for equality and peace. On January 10, 1944 (her eighty-fifth birthday), Carrie Chapman Catt told an audience of 650 persons that Hitler had taken the vote away from women in twelve European countries. This wartime reminder marked the beginning of another phase in the struggle. She implored all loyal suffragists to help these women regain the ballot, and she joined with her longtime admirer, American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in a plea for world peace (New York Times, 1944a).

The elderly Catt continued to maintain some influence as the matriarch of the International Alliance of Women as well as through individual contacts and other international women’s organizations. Public recognition of previous efforts did not help contemporary women, and new rights were slow to be won. Carrie Chapman Catt had learned from World War I that women’s rights depended fundamentally on peace. In August 1945, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of woman suffrage in the United States, she pointed out that of the thirty-four countries that had given women the vote before the war, fifteen had robbed them of it since.

Catt also promoted the International Alliance of Women as they prepared for their first postwar meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, the following year (New York Times, 1945a). As Catt again tried to rally women in American and world organizations, similar stirrings were underway in other nations as well. In Central America in 1944, the Nicaraguan Liberal party called for woman suffrage, which was not awarded for another decade. In the Middle East, a bill for woman suffrage was introduced in the Chamber of Deputies in Lebanon.

This prompted Iraqi and Egyptian feminists to call for the ballot again in their countries. Egyptian women had been demanding the right to vote since 1919 (New York Times, 1944b). In December 1944, Middle Eastern women called a landmark meeting to discuss ways to secure equal rights. Delegates came to Cairo from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Trans-Jordan, and Iraq. While Egypt’s foreign minister, Mahmoud Fahmy Nokrashi Pasha said this meeting was an effective step toward an Arab federation, it meant more to women in that region.

At the opening session, Lali Abou Hoda, headof the Trans-Jordanian delegation, tellingly remarked that this was the first meeting the women of her country were ever permitted to attend. Rose Shahfa of Lebanon proposed that women be represented at the forthcoming peace conference (New York Times, 1945b). Despite their enthusiasm, suffrage was still at least a decade away. As the war drew to a close, the women’s rights movement gained momentum unexpectedly.

General Charles DeGaulle added a political grace note to the war effort by according French women in the homeland suffrage long-distance from his exile headquarters in Algiers (Florence, 1944). DeGaulle did this just when he was going to need the women most, before the Allied invasion. By December when the men were back in their own territory, they raised concerns about the need to educate French women on the use of the vote. The men feared that women would be too conservative and would support only Catholic candidates.

They raised the possibility that suffrage enacted under the Provisional Government might not be continued in the new Republic. At that time, sixty-nine percent of the women reportedly wanted the vote while twenty-six percent were opposed (New York Times, 1945c). Many of the men’s fears were dispelled on April 30, 1945, when more women than men voted, including nuns. The Communists made a good showing after they promised larger food rations if they won. Women retained suffrage, although men continued to fear that they would be too conservative and the Catholic Church would exert undueinfluence.

Like the French, the Italians began to make democratic promises under wartime stress. In their case, they switched allegiance from the Germans to the Allies before Italy was back under their own control. In 1944, the new Government of National Union promised “a constituent and legislative assembly, to be elected by the people convened in free public meetings and acting under universal suffrage, as soon as the hostilities end. ” This was interpreted to include votes for women for the first time. Mussolini had never gotten around to it. The Communists and the Socialists also said they favored votes for women (Sedgwick, 1944).

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Library of Congress

Collection

National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection

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The National American Woman Suffrage Association

Formed in 1890, NAWSA was the result of a merger between two rival factions–the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell , and Julia Ward Howe. These opposing groups were organized in the late 1860s, partly as the result of a disagreement over strategy. NWSA favored women’s enfranchisement through a federal constitutional amendment, while AWSA believed success could be more easily achieved through state-by-state campaigns. NAWSA combined both of these techniques, securing the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 through a series of well-orchestrated state campaigns under the dynamic direction of Carrie Chapman Catt. With NAWSA’s primary goal of women’s enfranchisement now a reality, the organization was transformed into the League of Women Voters.

Teaching Resources

  • Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921 – For Teachers

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