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News >  Washington

Women of the Year: Things you didn’t know (or maybe forgot) about how women got the vote

UPDATED: Mon., Sept. 21, 2020

Catherine Flanagan, left, and Gertrude Crocker are arrested in August 1917 as they protest outside the White House. Crocker holds a banner that reads, “How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?” Women demonstrated at the White House for months, pressuring President Woodrow Wilson to support a 19th Amendment.  (Library of Congress)
Catherine Flanagan, left, and Gertrude Crocker are arrested in August 1917 as they protest outside the White House. Crocker holds a banner that reads, “How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?” Women demonstrated at the White House for months, pressuring President Woodrow Wilson to support a 19th Amendment. (Library of Congress)
By Bonnie Berkowitz The Washington Post

The origin of “suffrage” is not suffering, although plenty of people suffered in the pursuit of suffrage. It derives from the Latin suffragium, meaning a vote or a right to vote. It can also mean a prayer of intercession, certainly an apt description given the many groups of people who have prayed for the right to vote.

Here are some other things you may not have known about how women got the right to vote:

A slight in London sparked a U.S. movement: The first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, shaped the movement for decades. The event was the brainchild of abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who were furious after being barred from an 1840 anti-slavery convention in London because of their gender.

Abolitionists and suffragists were intertwined: The women’s rights movement sprang from the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, but the relationship was often uneasy. Some felt women should be able to vote before Black men, or vice versa. Others insisted everyone get the vote simultaneously. And some wanted to bar African Americans from the women’s movement, fearing their involvement would turn Southern legislators against the cause.

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back. … And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

Lonely guys in Wyoming deserved a tip of the hat: Wyoming was the first territory or state to act after the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention to pass a women’s suffrage law, on Dec. 10, 1869. Some men truly wanted voting access for their wives and moms, but many legislators had other motivations, including the hope that the new right would attract more single women to that frontier, where men outnumbered women 6 to 1.

Julia Ward Howe’s eyes saw the glory, but not the vote: Author and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe not only founded several major women’s organizations and suffrage groups, but during the Civil War, she also wrote the lyrics that became the activist anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting: At a time when women were mocked for speaking in public, Susan B. Anthony was a leading voice in the fight for equality in labor practices and pay. After voting in Rochester, N.Y., in 1872, she was arrested, convicted of voting illegally and fined, and the publicity attracted many people to her cause. She died in 1906 and thus did not live long enough to cast a legal vote.

“All that we require of a voter is that he shall be forked, wear pantaloons instead of petticoats, and bear a more or less humorous resemblance to the reported image of God. He need not know anything whatever. … We brag of our universal, unrestricted suffrage; but we are shams after all, for we restrict when we come to the women.”

The Supreme Court ruled against letting women vote: Women’s activist Virginia Louise Minor tried to register to vote in St. Louis in 1872 and was rejected. She and her husband sued, and the case rose to the Supreme Court. The nine male justices declined to interpret the 14th Amendment’s “all persons” clause to include women, forcing suffragists to refocus on the Constitution.

Men feared “petticoat rule”: According to a 1900s anti-suffrage pamphlet aimed at women, they shouldn’t get the vote because: 90% “do not want it, or do not care;” they would be competing with men instead of cooperating; “more voting women than voting men will place the Government under petticoat rule;” and “it is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”

Ida B. Wells organized women of color: Death threats drove journalist Ida B. Wells from Memphis after she wrote a 1892 lynching exposé. She moved to Chicago, where she urged women of color to get involved in politics, and she led a group at the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. Told by organizers to go to the back or leave, she emerged from the crowd halfway through the march and joined the Illinois delegation at the front.

“Silent Sentinels” picketed the White House for 18 months: Led by Alice Paul, who had helped organize the Washington march, more than 1,000 women in January 1917 began daily demonstrations at the White House gates, despite verbal and physical attacks from spectators. Paul was arrested, jailed and charged with obstructing traffic, and her hunger strike galvanized public support for women’s suffrage. “I am not one of those who believe – broadly speaking – that women are better than men,” she said. “We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislatures, nor done many unholy things that men have done; but then, we must remember that we have not had the chance.”

A pandemic helped the cause: The 1918 Spanish flu spread rapidly among soldiers in the last stages of World War I, creating a sudden shortage of men. As women surged into the U.S. workforce, they blew apart the arguments that they were delicate and intellectually inferior.

Finally, women got the vote: On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment, passed by Congress the previous June, was ratified by Tennessee, the last state needed to reach the threshold for becoming part of the Constitution. It was certified Aug. 26, and women had the right to vote.

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