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The Right to Vote

The right to vote is the most basic right of citizenship in a democratic society. The United States Constitution did not specify who should have the right to vote, opting to leave the matter up to the individual states. In the 1790s, most states extended voting rights only to propertied white males. By the 1820s, many of the property requirements were dropped and the majority of white males were allowed to vote. Only after the Civil War did the federal government enact laws specifying certain national standards. Slowly, suffrage was extended to all citizens over 18 years old. But this was not achieved without the struggle of those who demanded inclusion. Controversy, discrimination, and conflict have often characterized the history of voting, as minorities, women, the poor, and youth have had to fight to obtain this basic right of citizenship.


Women's Suffrage Movement

On July 14, 1917, Amelia Himes Walker was arrested and jailed for picketing the White House in the suffrage cause. She was one of 16 women arrested that day and sentenced to 60 days in the workhouse for "obstructing traffic." During the course of the year 218 women were arrested and 97 jailed. Alice Paul was among then, for of course the leaders picketed along with the rank and file. Conditions in the District Jail and Occoquan (VA) Workhouse were appalling--filthy, crowded, ill-equipped cells, unventilated in summer and cold in the winter. Nor were the women treated gently, once installed in these quarters.

The man responsible for the arrests awkwardly enough for him, was President Woodrow Wilson. It was awkward because, though he had not shown himself a great friend of suffrage, he did not wish to be known as an enemy. Moreover, he was trying to wage a war in Europe and tended to regard any distraction as subversive. He had tried to ignore the pickets at the White House gates. But when they began to carry banners reading DEMOCRACY SHOULD BEGIN AT HOME, it was more than he could endure. Alice Paul, the day she was arrested, carried one that said, THE TIME HAS COME TO CONQUER OR SUBMIT, FOR US THERE CAN BE BUT ONE CHOICE. WE HAVE MADE IT--the President's own words, apropos of the confrontation with Germany.

Alice Paul, a Quaker, invariably described by her contemporaries as "slight and frail," was by temperament and training a fighter. Born in 1885 in Moorestown, NJ, she had been educated at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania (she earned her Ph.D. in 1912). In England for part of her studies, she joined the militant wing of the suffrage movement there. The streets and jails of England were a rigorous training ground for a young American scholar. She returned to the United States in 1910 and by the end of 1912 (she was about to 28) was active in the suffrage movement. She had a very clear idea of what needed to be done. The so-called Susan B. Anthony Amendment, written to enfranchise women, had languished in a Congressional committee since 1896, and Alice Paul was determined to revive it. How would she do so? Her plan was simple, systematic, and legal. She would bring political pressure to bear on senators and representatives who had opposed suffrage or done nothing for it. And she would persuade the President to make a stand.

From the 1890s until about 1910, the American suffrage movement had fallen on bad times--its old leadership dying out, and many powerful interests allied against it. But it had already begun to wake up again when Alice Paul came back from England. For one thing, new leaders (in particular Carrie Chapman Catt in the ponderously named National American Woman Suffrage Association), were asserting themselves. Mrs. Catt was a practical, hardworking moderate who knew how to manage a national organization and believed in maintaining a sensible but ladylike identity for the suffrage movement. Her goal was the state-by-state passage of referendums favorable to suffrage, so that Congress would eventually be forced to debate the national amendment.

Though the passage of this amendment was the desire of both their hearts, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul were not destined to be friends or even colleagues. Mrs. Catt wanted to bring pressure to bear on Congress from the grassroots upward. Alice Paul wanted to start at the top. She worked, at first, as a loyal member of the national party, and was in charge of its lobbying group, the Congressional Union. In 1914, increasingly impatient with the tactics of the National American, she led her group out of the national organization, and in 1916 the Congressional Union took the name National Woman's Party. Its aim was to lobby and demonstrate in Washington--to let the Democratic Party and President Wilson know that the suffragists would settle for nothing less than their active support: goals that the National American Woman Suffrage Association strove for as well. But Mrs. Catt was hardly pleased to see a militant party springing up. With good reason, she feared that any form of forwardness might alienate Wilson permanently.

This was hardly the first time the American suffrage movement had been riven. At first it had not been a suffrage movement at all, but a kind of generalized effort in behalf of women's rights. It arose out of the same soil as abolitionism. Among the very first American feminists, in fact, were a pair of sisters from Charleston, SC, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who toured New England in the 1830s speaking for the abolitionist cause. Naturally it occurred to them that if black men and women were to be free, why not white women? Blacks, they said, could be enslaved only if white women were also kept in subjection. The four founders of the Women's Rights movement--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone--were all abolitionists first and, except for Susan B. Anthony, who remained single, they married prominent abolitionists. All but Mrs. Stanton also were Quakers--for the Quaker religion was another root of American feminism.

But though the suffrage cause was eventually to engulf the women's movement, it did not immediately find a voice. In 1840, accompanying her husband to the anti-slavery convention in London, Mrs. Stanton had been startled to discover that women delegates were not welcome there. She and Lucretia Mott, who also came, were sent off to the visitors' galleries and told to keep quiet. Eight years later, in Seneca Falls, NY--over the scandalized objection of her husband and in spite of the cares of her rapidly increasing family--Mrs. Stanton, with the help of Mrs. Mott, organized the first women's rights convention. To their astonishment, 300 people attended. On the last day of the meeting, Mrs. Stanton produced a bombshell--a resolution favoring woman suffrage. "Elizabeth," said Lucretia Mott, "Thee will make us ridiculous."

Feminism and abolitionism could not long make common cause--and the end of chattel slavery was to split the women's movement in half. During the Civil War the women had forsaken their own cause in favor of the war effort. Yet when the war was won and the 14th and 15th Amendments were written to guarantee the franchise "regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," the barrier of sex remained: the Radical Republicans who favored enfranchisement for blacks were unwilling to go out on a limb for woman suffrage. Following this betrayal, the women broke apart. Lucy Stone and her followers in the newly formed Equal Rights Association decided to support the new amendments. After all, as the leaders of abolition said, it was "the Negro's hour."

But Mrs. Stanton was embittered: "We are left outside with the lunatics, idiots, and criminals." In 1869, she and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, which campaigned for suffrage but also took a radical stance on many other issues, even going so far as to criticize the institution of marriage. Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe founded the American Woman Suffrage Association, which was more circumspect. Over the next two decades, however, the differences faded, and in 1890 the two parties merged.

Though the 1890s were years of discouragement, some gains were nevertheless made. Wyoming came into the Union as a suffrage state in 1890. Colorado, Utah, and Idaho followed. By the time Alice Paul was organizing her Congressional Union in 1914, seven other states (Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Illinois, Nevada, and Montana) had granted full or partial suffrage to women, as had the Alaska Territory. More important, and thanks in part to the efforts of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffrage had lost its early "crackpot" image. By 1890, it was a serious movement, and those who fought suffrage had to fight it seriously--with money and political strategy. Catcalls and indignant Sunday sermons were no longer enough.

Alice Paul's particular political genius--or folly, according to Carrie Chapman Catt--was to realize that the president was the man to go after. Even at the conference tables at Versailles, Wilson was not to meet a more determined antagonist. (It was not a personal antagonism. "We respected him very much. I always thought he was a great president," Miss Paul remarked several years ago in an interview with Robert Gallagher of "American Heritage" magazine.)

On March 3, 1913, the day before Wilson was inaugurated, Miss Paul organized a suffrage parade--5000 women marching up Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue. The crowds on the sidewalks were enormous and not always friendly; the District police were not prepared to handle such numbers. The day ended in a near riot, and the cavalry had to be called in. The police chief was later fired.

On March 17, Miss Paul led a small delegation to call on the new president. They asked him to ask Congress to debate the national amendment. Wilson replied--none too brilliantly--that the suffrage issue had never before been called to his attention and that he did not know where he stood. Helping him to find out became, for Alice Paul and her party, a full-time job. They sent one delegation after another, but he consistently refused to do anything for the national amendment. In 1915, he did return to his native New Jersey to cast a yea vote in the suffrage referendum there. In spite of this well-publicized gesture--and heroic efforts on the part of the suffrage party--the referendum was defeated, as it was that same year in Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania. Since no women were allowed to vote, the referendums in those states were unlikely to have any positive result. More than ever, Alice Paul was convinced that the national effort was the only hope.

Still the president did nothing, and in 1917 he refused even to receive any more suffrage delegations. So the Woman's Party began to picket outside the White House gates--every day, beginning in January, the "silent sentinels" stood with their banners. Today it is nothing unusual for men and women bearing placards to march up and down in front of the Executive Mansion. Unless their numbers are particularly large, they scarcely rate a line in the evening paper. But in 1917, picketing was a radical act, and women pickets were regarded as doubly outrageous. Still, everything went peacefully for a while. On March 4, there were a thousand pickets. In June the arrests began. At first the women would be rounded up and a few jailed and then, after two or three days, the president would pardon them. (Amelia Himes Walker was in such a group.) The traffic obstruction charge was a shaky pretext. The women were political prisoners, of course, and they knew it.

But the pickets did not go away, even after the arrests began, and the authorities began taking a hard line. On October 20, Alice Paul was arrested and sentenced to seven months in the District jail. In what proved to be a tactical error, her captors decided to make an example of the "ringleader." She and her companions were treated most roughly indeed. Held in solitary confinement and denied counsel, Miss Paul was several times forcibly fed. (Force-feeding has little to do with nutrition; a tube is forced up the nose and down the throat of the victim and liquid poured through it into the stomach. It is a painful procedure and can cause illness or even death.) In a final attempt to discredit Paul, she was confined to the psychopathic ward. On November 14, 30 women in Occoquan Workhouse were beaten, threatened, and mistreated in what came to be known as the "night of terror." The subsequent storm of critical publicity was such that the Administration itself soon called for the release of all suffrage prisoners.

Even discounting the benefits of hindsight, it is amazing that so civilized a man as Wilson would have ever tolerated the arrests, let alone have allowed the women to be deprived of counsel, given maximum sentences for an offense they had not even committed, manhandled, and forcibly fed. It is impossible that he did not know exactly what was happening in the District jails, but perhaps he did not want to believe it. As Eleanor Flexner points out somewhat dryly in “Century of Struggle,” her account of the women's rights movement in the United States, "It is difficult to locate the break in the chain of command which permitted them [jail conditions] to continue so long after the facts were known to Mr. Wilson."

It is certain that he hated the picketing and thought the women unseemly. On June 22, after the first arrests, he wrote to his daughter that the members of the Woman's Party "seem bent upon making their cause as obnoxious as possible." On October 31, having received a letter protesting the treatment of the prisoners in Occoquan, the president instructed his secretary to look into the matter, in the following curious terms: "…take this letter to Louis Brownlow and find out whether he really knows the conditions at Occoquan, letting him see how important I deem it to see that there is certainly no sufficient foundation for such statements…" And in November, receiving another letter on the subject of forced feeding, he told his secretary to reply that "no real harshness of method is being used, these ladies submitting to the artificial feeding without resistance."

It was hardly the president's most glorious episode, nor Carrie Chapman Catt's either. For even in the dark days of November, 1917, she refused to come to Alice Paul's defense, and in fact carefully disassociated herself and her party from the militants.

In January 1918, however, the District Court unceremoniously overturned all the sentences and invalidated all the arrests. On January 10, 1918, the president declared his support for the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and the next day the House of Representatives passed it. This was the beginning of another long battle to get it passed in the Senate (it failed the first time around and had to go back to the House again) and ratified by the states. But now the possibility was truly at hand. Whether these great events occurred because of Alice Paul, or in spite of her, is still debated by historians of the suffrage movement. But, as Flexner says, "Too much emphasis has been put, subsequently, on the merits of picketing--its aid or harm in winning votes for women--and too little on the fact that the pickets were actually among the earliest victims in this country of the abrogation of civil liberties in wartime."

When Alice Paul got out of jail, she went back to work. One thing she did was to have commemorative pins made for the women who went to prison for the cause. Perhaps Wilson, in the end, forgave the Woman's Party for making an aggressive nuisance of itself. In any case, Alice Paul eventually forgave him. Once converted, Wilson became a warm advocate of suffrage--and the Woman's Party never ceased picketing and demonstrating lest Wilson or anyone else forget that the suffragists meant business. Wilson played one role, Alice Paul another. On August 18, 1920, the goal was won at last when the legislature of Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."

From Shirley Abbott, "The National Museum of American History," (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1981) 427-431.



"Let Us All Speak Our Minds," from Elizabeth Knight: Songs of the Suffragettes

"Let Us All Speak Our Minds," from the recording entitled Elizabeth Knight: Songs of the Suffragettes , Folkways FH 5281, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1958. Used by permission.

While not directly a suffrage song, "Let Us All Speak Our Minds" is considered the most forthright, outspoken feminist musical statement of the era. Philip D. Jordan, an authority on the period, says: "The songs of women’s independence were both applauded and hissed during America’s coming of age, but none received more defiant approval or contempt than the song of the militant feminist,'Let Us All Speak Our Minds if We Die For It.'"

Partial Lyrics:
"…And all ladies I hope who’ve with husband to cope,
With the rights of the sex will not trifle.
We all, if we choose, our tongues but to use,
Can all opposition soon stifle;
Let man, if he will, then bid us be still
And silent, a price he’ll pay high for it.
For we won’t and we can’t and we don’t and we shan’t,
Let us all speak our minds if we die for it."


"Give the Ballot to the Mothers," from Elizabeth Knight: Songs of the Suffragettes

"Give the Ballot to the Mothers" from the recording entitled Elizabeth Knight: Songs of the Suffragettes , Folkways FH 5281, provided courtesy of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. © 1958. Used by permission.

The song literature of the suffrage movement abounds with references to "mothers" voting--and even those who were unmoved by pleas for women’s rights at the ballot box could not help but feel some twinge of conscience at the thought of denying a fundamental right to "mother."

Partial Lyrics:
"…Bring the dear old banner, boys
And fling it to the wind;
Mother, wife and daughter,
Let it shelter and defend.
'Equal Rights' our motto is,
We’re loyal to the end--
Giving the ballot to the mothers

Hurrah! Hurrah!
We bring the jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah!
The homes they shall be free!

So we’ll sing the chorus from the mountains to the sea--
Giving the ballot to the mothers."


Related Images

Women's suffrage protest in front of the White House, February 1917
Women's suffrage protest in front of the White House, February 1917

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