August 26th is Woman’s Equality Day, the day we commemorate the adoption of the 19th Amendment. It seems like the appropriate day to post the first segment of a blog series I worked on over the summer. I am a bit of history nerd so, for me, it was interesting to dig into details about those persistent women from the past who risked much to pursue justice. I decided that it was also a good way to kick off participating in Minnesota Women’s Suffrage Day on September 8th. It would be great to have a large faction of the SCVANOW in attendance. Let’s march this time in honor and celebration of the persisters before us!
WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE SUFFRAGISTS
A Blog Mini-series by Peg Ludtke
“To the wrongs that need resistance, to the right that needs assistance, to the future in the distance, Give yourselves.”–Carrie Chapman Catt
LESSON #1: GRASSROOTS MOVEMENTS ARE GENERALLY ONE PART CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE TO TWO PARTS DETERMINED RELENTLESS PERSUASION.
Before I started my investigation, I didn’t know that Suffragettes and Suffragists were two different groups with very different approaches to the same end and that most likely if you were a Suffragette, you were not also a Suffragist.
Suffragettes were identified by their make trouble and get notice approach; they used agitation to get noticed and get their cause heard. Alice Paul is probably the most famous American Suffragette. She and the rest of the Silent Sentinels picketed outside the White House for 18 months, demanding women get the right to vote. She was arrested several times on flimsy charges like obstructing traffic. While in jail she and her band of Suffragettes went on a hunger strike and were force-fed. She was also threatened that she would be locked up in an insane asylum if she did not stop her “militant” behavior. When the Senate failed twice to pass the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, the Suffragettes started burning copies of President Wilson’s speeches and a homemade mannequin of Pres. Wilson as well. All of this was to get noticed and to show their determination for getting women the right to vote.
Although Paul’s approach was considered “unladylike” and she and the others were often verbally and physically attacked as they picketed in front of the White House, the negative press did lead to new awareness. Most Americans were appalled at the treatment of the Suffragettes; the conditions at the Occoquon Workhouse were horrifying, damp cells with dirty blankets, wormy food and both physical and verbal offenses by guards. It takes a very strong person to submit themselves to abuse for a cause, but it does get people’s attention, and eventually, the government must act. Finally, after almost two years of pressure and embarrassment, President Woodrow Wilson announced his support for the suffrage movement although it would take Congress five more years to pass it.
Martyring oneself for a cause, of course, is a pattern that has been repeated. MLK and his followers also did jail time. Those who protested the Muslim ban at the airport and Black Lives Matters protesters on the freeway are more recent examples; its a way to get attention, but often the government’s reaction at first is with more inhumanity and injustice. Like in the case of the Suffragettes it often takes a lot of citizens to redirect the government’s moral compass towards equity. Currently, the suffering at our Southern Border is creating the same kind of situation where citizens must call out the government for their inhumanity.
Meanwhile, the Suffragists were busy creating chapters in every state. When the amendment was still being considered by Congress, they spread out their army of members to cajole and persuade state legislatures to ratify the amendment. Since women were generally not allowed to speak before Congress, it meant fanning out and talking to legislatures at home or wherever the Suffragists might find them. Carrie Catts the president of the Suffragists, (officially called the National American Woman Suffrage Association or NAWSA) was a great strategist and knew who to send to lobby, persuade, flatter or use pretty much any method short of blackmail to convince Congressmen to give women the right to vote. It was much like the Indivisible approach today. Go to those who make the laws and present your case and don’t let up until they are persuaded to take action.
Tennessee was the last state of the two-thirds majority needed to ratify the amendment. At the Capitol, in Nashville, there was a rule about keeping regular citizens off the floor of the House. It wasn’t until the 19th Amendment was being discussed that it became necessary to enforce this rule because there were so many Suffs and the Anti -Suffs milling around on the floor of the House. Both sides continued to bother the lawmakers bringing them notes and sandwiches and ideas until they became such a nuisance all of them had to be forcibly removed.
It is difficult to say whether we would have gotten the 19th Amendment added to the Constitution without both the trouble-making suffragettes and the persuasive lobbying of the Suffragists. Both groups undoubtedly stayed diligent to the cause. Persistence and unwavering conviction were necessary traits for both groups.
Note: Other lessons I learned from the Suffragists and Suffragettes will be posted on the SCVANOW website in the future as we approach the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment in 2020.