August 18, 2010
On this day in 1920, the ratification of the 19th amendment granted American women the right to vote. It’s a freedom that many people—regardless of gender—seem to take for granted nowadays. (Especially after the 2000 election when a lot of voters began to question how much their ballot really mattered and began to fully understand the quirks of our electoral system.) But it’s easy to forget about such liberties when they’re a birthright. It’s a different issue entirely when you have to fight for equal rights. And there was a time when America’s women had to fight tooth and nail in order to secure the right to cast their ballots.
It was an issue as old as the nation itself. In March 1776, Abigail Adams, wife of founding father and second president of the United States John Adams, wrote the following to her husband and a congress of delegates went about breaking from England to create a new nation:
“I long to hear that you have declared an independency—and by the way in the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.”
Sadly, tyranny prevailed and social customs kept women manacled in domestic roles and deprived of legal rights to protect their interests—namely the right to vote. And by the mid-1800s the ladies did indeed begin to foment a rebellion.
In 1848, a congress of some 300 people—predominantly women, though a cluster of men were in attendance as well—gathered in Seneca Falls, New York. There, they outlined the main goals of the women’s rights movement in a document dubbed The Declaration of Sentiments. Penned by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the declaration detailed the wrongs men routinely committed against women and asserted not only a woman’s right to vote, but also the right to own personal property, engage in free enterprise and secure an education.
Stanton was one of the early feminist movement’s power players but it was her partnership with fellow activist Susan B. Anthony that proved to be especially fruitful, between Anthony’s head for tactics and business and Stanton’s grace with words. Separately, they were both activists for social reforms including the abolition of slavery and the temperance movement. Together they were formidable champions of women’s rights and edited Revolution, a feminist newspaper, formed the National Women’s Suffrage Association and traveled the world over promoting women’s rights. Although they never saw the passage of the 19th amendment, they laid the groundwork and provided organizational structure for the modern feminist movement. Only one attendee of the 1848 Seneca Falls convention lived to see the day. (Ironically, that same year, 1920, an amendment was passed banning the sale of alcohol in the United States. You can read more about prohibition and the temperance movement in this article that appeared in the May 2010 issue of Smithsonian.)
The above portrait of Stanton and Anthony is currently on view in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit The Struggle for Justice.
If you would like to learn more about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, go to your local library (or whatever video rental service you use) and try to find Not For Ourselves Alone, a Ken Burns film that gives a close look at their 50-year friendship.
I also recommend reading The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States. This anthology covers a lot of territory—from the birth of the United States to the late 20th century—and is a wonderful collection of female voices that contributed to our nation’s cultural landscape by way of fiction, plays, poetry and political statements.
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