Imagine your class at school is about to elect its president for next year, but the girls are told they can’t vote. Only the boys can. Does that seem fair?
Yet that’s how much of the United States was 100 years ago. With some exceptions, mostly in the expanding West, women could not vote. Activists called suffragists (pronounced SUFF-ri-jists) had been protesting this for decades. But it wasn’t until 1920, when the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution, that women gained equal voting rights.
June 4, 2019, marks the 100th anniversary of Senate passage of the proposed amendment, sending it to the states for final approval (called ratification). By August 1920 the necessary 36 states had acted, and the amendment became law. American women could now vote in all elections.
Some very determined women worked for years to secure that right. Following are three short profiles:
Alice Paul grew up in a Quaker household that supported women’s education and equality. While studying in England, she joined its voting-rights movement, learning tactics such as hunger strikes and militant protests.
Back in Washington in 1913, she led a march on Pennsylvania Avenue. As 8,000 women marched, thousands of people showed up to jeer them. In 1917, Paul was arrested protesting outside the White House. In jail, she refused to eat and was force-fed. Doctors even threatened to send her to a hospital for people thought to be mentally ill.
“Seems almost unthinkable now, doesn’t it?” she told an interviewer in 1974, reflecting on the “extreme contempt” directed at suffragists.
In 1923, Paul co-wrote the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, prohibiting gender discrimination. Congress passed it in 1972, but it was never ratified by the states.
Hallie Quinn Brown was the daughter of former slaves whose Ohio home was a stop on the Underground Railroad escape route for slaves. Brown had several careers in her long life, and she became a highly respected educator, author, lecturer and civil rights activist. She spoke to a wide range of people, including illiterate children and Britain’s Queen Victoria (twice!).
Brown often spoke about women’s rights and civil rights for black people.
Her involvement with the suffrage movement led her to found the Colored Women’s League of Washington, DC, which in 1896 became part of the National Association of Colored Women. As its president in the 1920s, she helped begin the effort to preserve the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Rosalie Gardiner Jones had to overcome more than angry men as an outspoken women’s suffragist. Her mother and sister were as fiercely anti-suffrage as she was in support of it. Jones led pro-suffrage treks through New York’s mud and snow to spread the word about her passion — hikes her mother called ridiculous.
At a Wall Street rally in 1911 in New York City, Jones and others were pelted with eggs and tomatoes. She wasn’t fazed. The next year she led a 150-mile, 12-day march to New York’s state capital, Albany. She followed that with a 200-mile, 20-day walk to Washington to join Alice Paul’s march on Pennsylvania Avenue.
She was known as “General Jones” because of her army of followers. They were known as “pilgrims.”
These exhibits dig deeper into the issue of women’s voting rights.
“Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence”: Photos and objects on display at the National Portrait Gallery through January 5, 2020. si.edu/spotlight/votes-for-women.
“Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote”: Personal letters, rare film, photos and scrapbooks created by suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. At the Library of Congress through September 2020. loc.gov/exhibits.
“Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote”: Records, artifacts and photos exhibited at the National Archives through January 3, 2021. museum.archives.gov/rightfully-hers.
“Five You Should Know: African American Suffragists”: National Museum of African American History and Culture. Online only at nmaahc.tumblr.com/post/70901835372/five-you-should-know-african-american-suffragists.
● “Bold and Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote” by Kirstin Gillibrand (ages 6 to 9).
● “You Want Women to Vote, Lizzie Stanton?” by Jean Fritz (ages 8 to 12).
● “Who Was Susan B. Anthony?” by Pam Pollack and Meg Belviso (ages 8 to 12).
● “Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote” by Kerrie Logan Hollihan (ages 9 and older).
● “Alice Paul and the Fight for Women’s Rights” by Deborah Kops (ages 10 and older).