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Friday Fun: Womxn's History Month & Suffragettes



Good morning and happy Friday readers! Today I'm doing something I haven't been able to do in a long time and that is talking history. March is Womxn's History month and when it comes to the history of equality in the States, we know that is a checkered and wobbly timeline. Today I want to talk a little about Suffragettes.


The Suffrage movement took place in both the UK and the United States, both seeking to grant women the same voting status as men. These fights were decades long and the suffragettes were subjected to some truly monstrous tactics to break them but in the end, both accomplished a change in laws that set the first stones on the road to equality.


That road was a long one, one that is still being bricked out, and while the Suffrage movements were about change and advancement, they were also very exclusionary towards the poor and people of color. Both the UK and US Suffrage movement began in the mid 1800's, but neither saw real success until the 1920's. Today, we'll focus on the US side of the fence.


The US History of Suffrage


The expansion of rights in the 1820's and 30's enfranchised all white men regardless of wealth or status. While this was happening, there was a rise in reform groups across the states, from temperance leagues, to religious movements, moral reform groups and anti slavery organizations. White women played a large role in many of these groups but the women's suffrage movement didn't begin to really gain steam until the late 1840's with the Seneca Falls Convention.


Most of the delegates in attendance agreed that American white women were autonomous and deserved political identities. They produced the Declaration of Sentiments that stated:


"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

While the movement continued to gain steam throughout the 1850s, they had to put on the brakes due to the outbreak of the Civil War. However, the movement gained renewed fervor immediately after the war and the introduction of the 14th and 15th amendments, which were another advancement for equality but raised divisive arguments. The ratification of the 14th amendment in 1868 extended constitutional protections to all citizens, defining citizens as male, while the 15th amendment in 1870 gave black men the right to vote.


Some woman suffrage advocates tried to use these amendments to leverage their cause for universal suffrage, and many chose not to support the 15th amendment and even allied with racists who argued that white women's votes could be used to neutralize votes cast by black men.


In 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony founded the new National Woman Suffrage Association to push for that tilted universal suffrage amendment to the constitution.


Others argued against these tactics, believing it was unfair to tie the Black enfranchisement to the woman suffrage movement. This pro 15th amendment faction formed a group called the American Women Suffrage Association and took the battle down to a state by state level.


That divide eventually faded and both groups came together by 1890 to form the National Woman Suffrage Association with Stanton as their first president. By this time, the tactics of the Suffrage movement had altered. Where they originally fought to be recognized as equal to men, they played up their differences, making their domesticity into a political virtue. Politically, the movement once again found itself centered on race, with the argument being used to sway the predominantly white middle class that giving white women the vote would "ensure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained."


White women weren't the only ones fighting for the vote. In 1892, a Washington DC based group formed called the Colored Women's League with president Helen Appo Cook which fought for black suffrage and offered education through night classes. Another group formed in Boston called the National Federation of Afro-American Women under the leadership of Margaret Murray Washington and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. By 1896 both groups merged to form the National Association of Colored Women helmed by Mary Church Terrell. The group pushed back hard against marginalization and the notion of the 'educated suffragist', an idea being proffered by the opposition that being educated was an important prerequisite for the right to vote.


Idaho and Utah were the first states to give white women the right to vote by the end of the 19th century, but other states in the West wouldn't follow suit until 1910. Southern and Eastern states still resisted while Suffragettes began to apply extreme tactics with blitz campaigns and hunger strikes. World War I slowed their efforts but also provided a rare opportunity for women to step into leadership roles while men went to war. The 19th amendment was finally ratified granting all women the right to vote on August 18th, 1920, and on election day of that year, more than 8 million women voted for the first time.


Black women continued to face numerous barriers post 19th amendment, particularly in Southern states. Despite an initial ease that allowed them to register and some even becoming actively involved in local politics, Southern states employed many methods of disenfranchisement including ten to twelve hour lines for registering, paying head tax, and new tests. These methods continued until the Civil Rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Change, real change, takes a long time. Each fight, each push back against the tide, built on the momentum of those who took up the call before them. The enactment of true change requires us to dig our heels in and hold the line.


Resources & Further Reading






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