As we commemorate International Women’s Day today, we should remember the single greatest act of enfranchisement in American history, which took place 100 years ago with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment forbidding disfranchisement “by sex.”
Suffrage was a product of a difficult battle that required overcoming enormous political challenges. A small group of farseeing pioneers had to attract more and more women to their vision of political power and equality. They had to become astute and clever in their strategies, all while developing the stamina to stand up against determined opponents and ingrained traditions. Through all this, they had to remain true to their basic belief that American democracy owed women full political rights.
From this struggle, several lessons emerge that can teach women how to navigate the next phase of their struggle to protect and expand American democracy.
Persistence is key. Women won the right to vote as the result of decades-long struggle. The demand for women’s suffrage was first made in 1848, in a small town in Upstate New York, at a time when people all over Europe were pushing for democracy. The U.S. still had miles to go to fulfill its own promise of full and equal democracy. It took over 70 years for American women to win the right to the vote and for some it was a lifelong effort. When Susan B. Anthony was arrested for illegally casting her vote in 1872, she protested her sentence and continued to fight for another 40-plus years.
Perseverance can be challenging and, at times, unpleasant. In the aftermath of the Civil War, after putting their weight behind the constitutional abolition of slavery, woman suffragists demanded that women, along with recently freed black men, have their rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. This push failed.
The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were great constitutional advances that granted citizenship to ex-slaves and suffrage to black men, but they left out women’s political rights. Resenting this exclusion, white women suffragists first responded with anger and resentment that former allies were going to the ballot box without them. For the next half century, neither major political party was willing to take up their cause.
Coalition-building is difficult but essential: In becoming a more inclusive movement, race was the biggest hurdle. The movement for women’s suffrage was embroiled in the worst years of American racial politics, as state and local politicians used law and violence to make sure that emancipated black men lost their rights. White women concentrated on winning over white Southerners, not welcoming black women into their movement. Nonetheless, black women created their own organizations to fight for voting rights for their whole sex.
Socio-economic class was a different matter. As the nation industrialized, the fast-growing female labor force saw that they needed votes to protect themselves. Their mobilization meant that by the 1910s, the suffrage movement had become arguably the largest mass movement in American history. Thousands of women took to the streets, lobbied Congress and picketed the president to win the vote.
Politically, women have never been unified, something the 2016 election once again exposed as black and Hispanic women overwhelmingly cast votes for the first female presidential nominee while a narrow majority of white women supported Donald Trump. Women are half the population and divided in all the same ways as men, by age, residency, wealth, etc. Suffragists knew that women were not a unified bloc, and they still aren’t.
But coalition building matters because major political change, especially in the face of serious opposition, needs the broadest support possible. Divisions give opponents weapons to use against us.
Backlash will be fierce, which is why the fight must continue: Immediately after 1920, approximately one third of the 30 million women granted the vote leveraged that right. Black women were particularly determined to vote, even in the South, where they faced enormous obstacles. States controlled voting (they still do) and used the tools they had developed to disfranchise black men against black women.
When it came to running for office, women found that enfranchisement had a ceiling. Politically skilled suffrage leaders were labeled as dangerous radicals — socialists, and even worse, feminists. When former suffragist Ruth Hanna McCormick ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in 1930, her party mobilized against her. They said that seating her would be a” punch in the eye of the Senate.”
Backlash persists and reminds us that the fight for women’s political power does not end even with monumental achievements like a constitutional amendment.
It took the next half century for women’s electoral participation to reach a higher turnout than men. Moreover, as generations of women fought for and used their votes, they did so not just because they believed in equal rights but also because they hoped that women would fight, not just for their own rights but for justice of all sorts.
With America’s democracy and constitutional order under unprecedented attack, women have dramatically mobilized. Like the suffragists of the last century, women have taken to the streets, in larger numbers and from more diverse backgrounds than ever before. The Woman’s March of January 2017 to protest the incoming Trump administration was the largest one-day protest in American history. The signs women carried were not just for women’s rights but for every other social justice cause as well.
In the blue wave of 2018, women likewise took the lead. They voted at much higher levels than men and voted Democratic by a 21-point margin, the largest ever. They elected 117 women of diverse backgrounds.to the House of Representatives. This is a greater number than ever before, though still only one-quarter of Congress. Outside of Congress, Stacey Abrams, narrowly defeated as a candidate for Georgia governor, is a leader of a broader movement against voter suppression, and a champion of “free and fair” elections nationwide.
In 1920, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt said that “more than any other group of people in this land, women have kept flying the flag of the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the principles of the Constitution, and have … educated the public in those principles.” Her claim resonates today. Six women have already announced their candidacies for the presidency. In two years, perhaps one of them will win. It would be the ideal way to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage.