Column: Women have been voting for 100 years — as long as it took to win the war for suffrage


After a world war which President Woodrow Wilson had pledged would make the world “safe for democracy,” most American women still didn’t have democracy in the voting booth. One hundred years ago, the country finally began the last push that gave us the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing that the right to vote could not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker of the House, mentioned the anniversary when she took the speaker’s gavel [last week]: “I am particularly proud to be the woman speaker of the House of this Congress, which marks the 100th year of women having the right to vote.”

That right became official in 1920, but the battle had been a hundred years’ war. Ellen Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire history professor, the co-author of the book “A Century of Struggle,” about women’s suffrage, and the author of “The Highest Glass Ceiling,” about women and the presidency, looks back at that long march to suffrage, at California’s vital part in it, and the battles that remain unknown.

For 100 years or more, women had been talking about getting the vote but hadn't gotten it until after the First World War. What happened in that period to make the 1920 passage possible?

The real action occurs a few years earlier than that, and the whole narrative of the history of women's efforts to secure voting rights is a very, very long one. It’s easy to focus on the later period without recognizing how much defeat there was prior to that.

The central tension in the suffrage movement in the early 20th century was a two-pronged effort. One was to get states to amend their constitutions to allow women to vote. And then there were suffragists who felt that the key thing was to try to get a federal amendment, to get Congress to pass an amendment enfranchising women.

What happened prior to the First World War was the beginning of a more concerted effort to try to organize these two approaches into a single one that would pressure Congress and the various elected officials who obviously would be voting on this to support a federal amendment, while also continuing those state campaigns and preparing for a ratification campaign that would have to follow once the Congress had approved the amendment.

So really starting around 1915, you begin to see a kind of realpolitik on the part of the leaders of the suffrage movement, and in particular Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a very pragmatic and shrewd politician.

Before the First World War, there was a patchwork of states where women could vote. Part of it had to do with the fact that many Western territories — even before they were states — gave women the vote in order to attract more women. California gave women the vote in 1911; it was so close it amounted to one vote per precinct as the margin of victory. So we had unequal rights for women across the country.

The progress was not linear. There were periods when things looked quite hopeful, and those smaller victories in the states, which were really fomented by an array of factors. Yes, in part it was to try to attract women to the Western states, but it was also out of a recognition of how important women were in the settlement of those states. And there was less entrenched, traditional opposition in some of the newer Western states than there was on the Eastern seaboard.

There were a variety of factors that led to those victories, but each of those smaller victories is important, because in the end you had to have the amendment ratified across the country. So those state campaigns in which — especially in California — at rural and local levels, you're persuading people that this is a good idea and they're standing behind it. It's a change in political consciousness.

There were so many arguments used to promote women's suffrage. There was a fairness argument, there was the argument of taxation without representation, that women had to pay taxes and had no say in the levying of those taxes. Why did none of those arguments work?

They did work in various places, when people were persuaded over time. But there was also a great deal of organized opposition to the idea of women voting.

The range of opposition to it was different in different parts of the country, but it was entrenched, it was strong. It rested on age-old concepts of women's nature and ability. Of the various efforts that were made at the “Declaration of Sentiments” at Seneca Falls [in 1848], of all the demands that were laid out at that women's rights meeting, the demand that women be able to vote was among the most radical, because it struck at the very heart of our ideas about women's relationship to the state.

Should they have a direct relationship to the state? Are they citizens first and foremost? Independent people who act on their own? Or are they the mothers of citizens, the sisters of citizens, who have a secondary role in public life, encouraging men to do the right thing, or influencing politics outside the political parties? Or as voters?

It really involved central ideas about women and their capacity and their nature and their ability.

I read that among the organized forces opposing women's suffrage were the liquor and tobacco lobbies, which were afraid that men wouldn't have fun anymore. Corporations were afraid that women would exercise a vote to limit child labor and impose workplace considerations. Were they justified in their fears?

This is one of the great ironies because women who were denied a direct participation or involvement in politics as voters became activists — very involved in various moral reform crusades in the 19th century, whether it was prison reform, various child welfare programs, social welfare organizations.

Among the most powerful was the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which was an anti-liquor organization. So the liquor interests assumed, based on looking at this vast organization of activist women, that if more women were able to vote, that there would be more efforts to control the consumption and manufacture of alcohol.

Women were also strongly associated with the cause of pacifism. This is why the issue of the First World War becomes a divisive one in the suffrage movement, and why — when [suffrage leader] Carrie Chapman Catt and her followers really get on board and support war work and use women's support of the war effort as a reason why they should be rewarded with votes — that makes a difference in the end.

I read too that the sinking of the Titanic, where the trope was supposedly women and children first — which of course was pretty much first-class women and children — that that even provided a setback. Women's suffrage was viewed through the lens of current events and, well, if you really want the vote, you would have had to give up your seat in the lifeboat too.

These are the same arguments that were used against the Equal Rights Amendment. All along, this has been a matter of controversy and debate. Feminists have argued that this so-called protection actually was most often used to keep women in an unequal state.

There's a moment in the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind,” about the 1925 Scopes trial and the teaching of evolution, where Spencer Tracy, playing the character representing Clarence Darrow, tells the jury that you have to have tradeoffs, and that if women want to vote, they can no longer hide behind their petticoats.

Even when the Equal Rights Amendment was being debated, you had the anti-ERA movement among conservative women who were arguing that the Equal Rights Amendment would be harmful to women, that they would lose more than they would gain, that this sort of protective view of women was a source of power and hegemony for women that would be stripped away by the Equal Rights Amendment, and that it was a lose-lose for American women, not a win.

And these were effective arguments. They succeeded in defeating the Equal Rights Amendment.

Around World War I, there were protests in front of the White House that didn't make Wilson very happy: Women were handcuffed, women were arrested. One woman carried a sign that read “Kaiser Wilson,” referring to Kaiser Wilhelm and paralleling Wilson to someone who suppressed the rights of his own population.

You're seeing a division in tactics within the suffrage movement, with some women saying that we have to threaten these Democrats with defeat. We have to mobilize voters against them. If President Wilson and the party itself won't stand behind the federal amendment and won't stand behind women's suffrage, they need to go down.

And they use the occasion of the war to try to dramatize what they saw as the hypocrisy of us fighting a war for democracy when half of the population at home was being denied full voting rights.

Another approach was to try to really court Wilson rather than threaten him, and to try to bring him around by saying that they would support the war and not take this approach, not embarrass him in this way.

By that point, there were enough states that had enfranchised women that they were now a part of the electoral votes; they were becoming a factor in national elections, and the political parties had to pay attention to that.

California voted yes on this suffrage amendment in 1919. It wasn’t the biggest state then. Was California at all influential in how other states or even the women's movement came to regard the passage of this constitutional amendment?

Yes. California was a big get and it was a particularly big get when it modified its own state Constitution earlier to allow women to vote. This really was a shot in the arm to the suffrage movement; they began to feel like they really could get this job done.

The size of the state, its significance, and also the fact that suffragists in California had used a lot of interesting tactics to try to dramatize the cause. They were using automobiles. They had a motorcade; they would send out a car and bring speakers around and show off this new mode of transportation.

We would expect nothing else of California, to really put some pizzazz into the whole suffrage campaign!

It wasn't until the 1970s or ’80s that women's voting turnout tended to equal men's voting turnout. What's the legacy for this 100-year crusade?

For a long time, there was really no substantial gender gap — at least at the presidential level — in women's votes. That begins to change, particularly in the 1980s and we do begin to see the emergence of a fairly significant gender gap, and in recent elections, presidential elections of course, with not entirely predictable results as we've seen.

There is a great deal of attention on the part of the political parties to the “women's vote,” recognizing that women do constitute a voting bloc.

Even though they may disagree among themselves, there is a gender gap. It’s demonstrable and it's been evident in the national elections since the 1980s.

You wonder how it would have played with the founding suffragists, the 2016 election when Hillary Clinton ran as the first woman candidate from a major party.

A lot of people, myself included, thought that this was going to be the turning point. But I think that the suffragists who were really the core founding figures would not have been surprised that, at the final moment, things did not go their way.

In a way, it mirrors the story of the suffrage movement, that rather than withdrawing in the face of what to many was just a really devastating defeat, there has been a redoubling and a recommitment of effort to get more engaged in the process, elect more women to office.

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