This year marks the 92nd anniversary of when women gained the right to vote. Women worked tirelessly for 72 years to achieve suffrage for women. However, it seems that many of today’s women have forgotten what their foremothers went through to be sure we can legally go to the polls.
The suffrage movement is generally agreed to have begun in 1848 in Seneca Falls, N.Y., when a group of mostly female abolitionists met to discuss women’s rights. Most of the attendees were of the same mind and believed women are people with their own identities and not just extensions of their husbands and fathers.
The movement lost some speed during the Civil War. Following the war, two amendments to the United States Constitution were passed. The 14th Amendment states that all “citizens,” meaning men, are allowed to vote. The 15th Amendment states that no one can be denied the right to vote because of his race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Some advocates lobbied to have women included in the 15th Amendment, while others didn’t want to jeopardize the African-Americans’ chances by including women.
Beginning in 1890, suffragists went from state to state in campaigns to achieve the vote for women. Individual states slowly began to see the wisdom of women voting and gradually they started to amend their constitutions. Kansas was the eighth state to do so in 1912. One woman, Mary Church Terrell, argued that the right to vote was withheld from about half of the citizens simply because “the word ‘people’ ... has been turned and twisted to mean all who were shrewd and wise enough to have themselves born boys instead of girls, or who took the trouble to be born white instead of black.”
The fight for suffrage really took off in 1913 when the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage was formed by Alice Paul, Lucy Burns and Olympia Brown. After many years of having delegations meet with President Woodrow Wilson to no avail, the president finally refused to see any more suffragists in 1917. The suffragists organized huge demonstrations and picketing of the White House. For the next several years, nearly 500 women were arrested for “loitering” and 168 were jailed for “obstructing traffic.” On Oct. 20, 1917, Alice Paul was given a sentence of seven months, during which time the authorities decided to make an example of the “ringleader.” Paul was held in solitary confinement, treated poorly and denied a lawyer. She attempted a hunger strike and was repeatedly force-fed until she was violently ill.
Paul was not the only woman to endure cruel treatment and horrible conditions. Many women were given maximum sentences for crimes they never committed. All the women were served food that was really just slop infested with worms. Their only water was in an open pail. Finally, the women’s sentences were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 1918. Soon after, the president declared his support of women’s suffrage and once he changed his mind on the subject, he was an important advocate. The 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee joined the states who had passed it through their legislatures.
Many of us know the stories of picketers and some know that women were arrested, but how many really understand the horrible treatment and conditions these women endured so all women could voice their opinions in elections?
Why have so many women become so apathetic about voting? The excuses are many: I don’t have time. I have to work. My vote doesn’t count anyway. All of these are just excuses.
Every woman should make it a priority, no matter what her beliefs, to get out, take a few minutes and exercise the right for which these strong women fought so valiantly. They did it for themselves, but more so for our mothers, our daughters and for us.
Not one of us should say, “No, thank you. I’ll pass.”
Laura Miller is president of Ottawa Business and Professional Women.