In August of 1920, the 19th Amendment, that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” was formally adopted into the U.S. Constitution, became the law of the land, and has been the law for a hundred years now, plus one.
It is a foundation that we today did not lay.
It is a fire that we today did not light.
It is shade from a tree that we today did not plant.
It is water from a well that we today did not dig.
So, we today can take it for granted—at least, those of us who do not still face voter suppression. We can take it as a long-settled matter, as reliably there as the moon in the night sky. Which can, in turn, lead us to think that the achievement of it—the laying of the foundation of the women’s vote, the lighting of the fire, the planting of the tree, the digging of the well—was an easy thing, never in doubt, never fraught with peril.
But it was not easy, it was often in doubt in the moment, and it was always fraught with peril. In all, it took 72 years of ceaseless agitation over the span of three generations of dedicated suffragettes (or “suffs,” as they nicknamed themselves), battling an equally dedicated opposition (the anti-suffragettes, or “antis”) to establish the foundation of the female vote, to light the fire of the vote, to sit in the shade of the vote, to dig the well of the vote. It took all of 72 years—suffs vs. antis, antis vs. suffs—including
- 56 separate referenda to male voters
- campaigns in 19 successive United States Congresses
- 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write women’s suffrage into state constitutions
- 277 campaigns to get political parties to put women’s suffrage into party planks at state conventions
- 30 campaigns to get suffrage in party planks at presidential conventions
It was most decidedly a marathon and not a sprint, in which suffs and antis (male and female both, on both sides) went back and forth in their contest over whose worldview would prevail. The antis saw themselves defending the established traditions of American civilization—of womanhood, manhood, home and hearth, religion, the South, even the moral wellbeing of the Nation—so their rallying cry intentionally echoed that of French soldiers in the 1916 Battle of Verdun on the western front, who, staring down the German army’s enemy advance, cried out “They Shall Not Pass!”
The suffs, for their part, considered the arguments of the antis to be “like jellyfish; no head, no heart, just a quivering mass of emotion, fear, and prejudice. Squishy, hard to handle, and venomous” (Weiss 121). The antis declared war on behalf of American civilization, but the suffs saw through all that bluster to its essential core of oppression and misogyny. Hatred of women, through and through. That’s why a popular rallying cry of the suffs was “Forward Into Light!”
It was “They Shall Not Pass!” vs. “Forward Into Light!”
It was a marathon and not a sprint.
How to tell this sprawling story?
A traditional place to begin is the beginning. Historians trace the origin of the women’s rights movement in America to 1848 and the Seneca Falls Convention in New York, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented herDeclaration of Sentiments: “When, in the course of human events [wrote Elizabeth], it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal….”
Do you hear in these lines the echo of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence? You ought to—Elizabeth modeled her language after that older repudiation of oppression and insistence upon dignity.
It is hard to comprehend today how Elizabeth’s Declaration, signed by 68 women and 32 men in Seneca Falls, was received back in her time. Newspaper headlines screamed INSURRECTION OF THE WOMAN and REIGN OF PETTICOATS. Elizabeth herself wrote, “So pronounced was the popular voice against us, in the parlor, the press, and the pulpit, that most of the ladies who attended the convention and signed the Declaration, one by one, withdrew their names…” But she also said this about all the furor: “That is just what I wanted. It will start women thinking, and men too; and when men and women think about new questions, the first step in progress is taken.”
Formal declarations do indeed play important roles in movements for social change. But equally important, though harder to know about, are the personal stories that plant seeds for future accomplishment. The author of the Declaration of Sentiments grew up as the daughter of a judge—Judge Cady. Regularly, the judge’s daughter could be found curled up in a corner of his law office and courtroom, to read but also to watch the action. And what she saw again and again was vulnerable women begging Judge Cady for help. For protection from abusive husbands; for counsel on how they might obtain a divorce and still keep custody of their children; for guidance on how they might manage on their own (as single women, or divorcees, or widows) when their rights to their own money or property or inheritance were so limited. Elaine Weiss, in her excellent book The Women’s Hour, says that “Judge Cady would listen sympathetically, shake his head, and patiently explain that there was little he could do, that the law offered them little protection, redress, or even legal standing.” Elaine Weiss goes on to say that “In one girlish fit of rage, Elizabeth decided to expunge the offending laws by taking scissors and snipping them out of her father’s law tomes. When he got wind of her silly plot, he explained that a scissors was not an effective way to change the law: when she grew up, she would simply have to convince the legislatures of men to change the laws.”
It would become her life’s work—in partnership with others and, above them all, with Susan B. Anthony. Speaking of her partnership with Susan, she once said, “I forged the thunderbolts, and she fired them.” Elizabeth was the philosopher of the movement, and Susan was the organizer. They would not see the actual passage of the 19th Amendment; Elizabeth would die in 1902 and Susan in 1906. It would be for newer generations of suffs to see the Promised Land. But Elizabeth and Susan got the ball rolling. Each of them with their own personal stories, providing deep motivation to their justice work.
What’s one of your personal stories, that has helped you to become thirsty for greater justice in our world today?
But let’s now return to 1848, to the Seneca Falls Convention and the Declaration of Sentiments. This Declaration contained within it twelve resolutions, the ninth of which stated, “Resolved, That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” This simply appalled Elizabeth’s husband, Henry Stanton, who was an otherwise ardent supporter of expanded rights for women, and he refused to attend the Convention if his wife dared to go this far in the demand for equality. She did dare this, so he was a no show. Even one of the conveners of the Convention herself, Lucretia Mott, objected. She said, “Lizzie, Thee will make us ridiculous. We must go slowly.”
This takes us to another part of the suffrage story: how interwoven it was with abolitionism and anti-racism. Consider how one of Elizabeth’s few allies on Resolution Nine was the great social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass. As an ex-slave, he saw slaves, free Blacks, and women as all in it together, all in the same miserable boat, all of them shackled by American law and custom. He proudly called himself a “Woman’s Rights Man,” and so, on the second day of the Convention, when Resolution Nine was put forward for a vote—to the dismay of so many, like Elizabeth’s husband, who were otherwise ardent women’s rights supporters but saw the vote as posing a dangerous distraction from more urgent legal, social, and economic concerns—Frederick Douglass asked for the floor. He stepped forward and said (as Elaine Weiss summarizes), “Women, like the colored man, will never be taken by her brother and lifted to her position…. What she desires, she must fight for. The ballot was the guarantor of all other rights, the key to liberty, and women must be bold.” Frederick Douglass’ argument carried the day, and Resolution Nine was passed by a slim majority.
This incident is but one illustration of the positive and constructive relationship between racial justice and the women’s suffrage movement. From the very beginning, advocates for women’s rights were, one and the same, advocates for abolitionism. The example of the Grimke sisters—white women who left their slaveholding home in South Carolina to go North and speak on the evils of slavery—is particularly instructive. When they spoke, in the 1830s and 1840s, they found themselves hated by their Northern audiences, but not because of their abolitionist views. It was because they dared defy traditional church teachings about women’s proper sphere of home and hearth. They dared to transcend that confining sphere and speak freely in public. Yet, exactly because they dared, the resulting backlash demonstrated to themselves and to all the need for women’s emancipation alongside that of slaves.
Women’s participation in the abolitionist movement raised consciousness about women’s own plight.
As Frederick Douglass indeed recognized, slaves, free Blacks, and women were all in the liberation journey together.
This is the constructive side of the relationship, but there is also a destructive side to reckon with. How racism reared its ugly head even among the suffs. Racism was certainly a major motivator to the anti-suffragette movement, which explicitly saw itself defending Southern Civilization and white supremacy. But racism was among the suffs too.
We must not forget this. We must not allow ourselves to be shocked either. There is no purity in all the world, in all of human history. This is just the way it is.
One tragic example relates to the 15th Amendment, proposed post-Civil War in 1869, which was to give Black men voting rights. Blacks and women were all in the liberation journey together—all together in the same miserable boat—but this amendment was going to put the interests of one ahead of the other, and, as you can imagine, how you felt about that depended on where you happened to be standing.
Where Frederick Douglass stood, the 15th Amendment was non-problematic. Once it was ratified, American Equal Rights Association leaders could then push for a separate amendment for women’s suffrage. But from where leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony stood, that strategy was unacceptable, and there was a parting of the ways. Elizabeth invoked racist stereotypes in portraying Blacks as ignorant and uneducated, and she said it was “a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see ‘Sambo’ walk into the kingdom [of civil rights] first.”
Yes, she really said this.
Note, by the way, how Black women were an afterthought in all this, which Sojourner Truth hurried up to speak to when she said, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored woman; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women get theirs, there will be a bad time about it.”
But back to Elizabeth. She said what she said to the face of no less than Frederick Douglass, who called her out on her racism, and then he talked about suffering. “I do not see how anyone can pretend,” he said, “that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to woman as to the negro. With us, the question is a matter of life and death, at least, in fifteen States of the Union [in reference to the former slave states]. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans . . . when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”
This is powerful oratory, though it still ignores the interests of Black women. And as for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who was engaging Frederick Douglass in argument over what was the best strategic foot forward, we must remember that she was, at one and the same time, Judge Cady’s daughter, who frequented her father’s courtroom as a child, and saw, endlessly, the painful (and at times yes, deadly) vulnerability of white women living in America without legal standing. Elizabeth watching her father, in case after case, listening sympathetically, shaking his head, and patiently explaining that there was little he could do. Fast forward to 1869 and she was trying to do something in the face of all that helplessness. She simply could not accept the vote for white women coming last of all.
I am not excusing her racism, although no one should be surprised, since she was socialized in a thoroughly racist America—as we all are.
What I am doing is pointing out her humanity. I am also pointing out the tragedy of suffering people who are all in the same boat, who find themselves one day thrown into competition with each other for social goods that should have been given freely, in the first place, to all.
But that is how unjust systems sustain and perpetuate themselves: they divide and therefore conquer the unity of people who are all together in the same unjust, miserable, pain-filled boat….
After Douglass spoke, it was Susan B. Anthony’s turn, and among other things, she spoke to the issue of comparative suffering, saying, “Mr. Douglass talks about the wrongs of the negro; but with all the outrages that he today suffers, he would not exchange his sex and take the place of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”
What do you think? Would he take a white woman’s place, in that day and age? Did Susan speak fairly?
The internal argument of suff vs. suff went on, back and forth; and in the end, it led to the women’s rights movement splitting up into multiple factions, one led by Stanton and Anthony, another led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, and still another—the National Association of Colored Women, led by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (Unitarian), Josephine St. Pierre, Harriet Tubman, and Ida B. Wells, who would care for Black women because no one else seemed to have their welfare on their radar.
Historian Sally McMillen argues that, because of such internal division and strife, the achievement of women’s suffrage was delayed many years.
Elaine Weiss, summarizing some of the lessons of the women’s suffrage movement, all 72 years of it, all the ups and downs of it, says, “There is a heartening, even thrilling, lesson to be found here: ordinary women banding together to become activists, keeping faith through decades of humiliation and discouragement to challenge an oppressive system and force change.” But in the same breath Weiss says, “There is also a chastening lesson to be learned from the moral compromises these mostly white, middle class suffragists make in pursuit of their own freedom, leaving their black sisters, and some of their own ideals, behind.”
We are chastened to learn that the women’s suffrage movement broke apart into pieces, on the hard rocks of not just disagreements on strategy, but on racism.
We are chastened to learn that, after August of 1920, when women’s suffrage became the law of the land, racism meant that only white women could vote freely. Native Americans had to wait for the vote until 1924, although many states barred it until 1957. Chinese Americans had to wait until 1943. Americans of Asian Indian descent had to wait until 1946. Japanese-Americans had to wait until 1952. And, because the 15thAmendment ultimately proved ineffective in ensuring the Black vote, Blacks had to wait until the 1965 Voting Rights Act—45 years after the 19th Amendment became official.
We are chastened.
We are chastened.
We are chastened to learn that, to this day, voter suppression remains a real problem and disproportionately targets voters of color, immigrant voters, LGBTQ voters, disabled voters, and women who live at the intersection of any and all of these identities. Voter suppression means voter ID laws, inaccessible polling places, voter roll purges, voter intimidation efforts, limited access to voting, disinformation campaigns, and more. The door to voter suppression was opened even wider than before by the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision Shelby County vs. Holder, which essentially gutted the 1964 Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, representing the majority, argued that “Any racial discrimination in voting is too much, but our country has changed in the last fifty years.”
He really said that. Incredible.
There is a reason why that, in 2016, Unitarian Universalist delegates to our General Assembly reaffirmed our denominational commitment to voting rights, and to the dire problem of corruption in Democracy.
There are more foundations for us to lay, going forward.
There are more fires to light.
There are more trees to plant.
There are more wells to dig.
And, though we are chastened by the limitations and moral compromises of the suffs, still, over course of 72 years of ceaseless agitation that was unswerving, stubborn, and faithful, they showed us what success looks like too.
They also show us people like Judge Cady’s daughter who, as a child, could recognize injustice when she saw it, as children often do.
Childishly, she tried to solve it quickly, by cutting up her Dad’s law books with scissors.
He said that that was no way to change anything. He said that when she grew up, she would simply have to convince the legislatures of men to change the laws.
It must have sounded impossible.
But when a dream is important enough, when the need is great enough, it must be as Susan B. Anthony once said: that “failure is impossible.” You have to believe that.
And we today need to believe that too. Make it an article of faith.
For all the foundations yet to lay.
For all the fires yet to light.
For all the trees yet to plant.
For all the wells yet to dig.
“Failure is impossible.”
So may it be.