August marks an important anniversary. Ninety years ago, on August 26, the Nineteenth Amendment giving women the right to vote was signed into law. This momentous event passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment followed ratification by Tennessee, the last state needed to ratify, on August 18. That state's ratification came only after one young man, who held the make-or-break vote, received a note from his mother before he entered the state house to cast his vote. His mother told him she wanted him to be a good boy and do the right thing. At the eleventh hour, he changed his vote from Nay to Yeah. The rest, as they say, is history.
However, only a few people know what it took to get that vote. Some know that Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with the help of many other active, brave women, gave much of their lives to women's enfranchisement. They know that the struggle began in 1848 when the first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY. They know that after the Civil War black men could vote but women couldn't and that abolition trumped woman's suffrage as a political priority. They may even know that Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in 1872 and was denied a trial by jury. A year later, after losing her case, she refused to pay her fines and the matter was dismissed.
Some people know that both Anthony and Stanton, along with all the other pioneering women who worked with them, went to their graves without having achieved the one simple success they sought. They know that Alice Paul formed the National Woman's Party in 1916. But they may not know that 500 women were arrested for protesting at the White House as "Sentinels of Liberty." They never heard the stories of the 168 women who went to prison simply because they wanted to be counted as full-fledged citizens of the country in which they'd been born. Here are some of those first-hand accounts:
"The guards fell upon us. I saw Miss Lincoln, a slight young girl, thrown to the floor. Mrs. Nolan a delicate old lady of 73, was mastered by two men. " The whole group of women were thrown, dragged and hurled down the steps. I was thrown, with four others, in a cell with a narrow bed and dirty blankets."
"The men were not in uniform. They looked as much like tramps as anything. " Mrs. Lewis said we demanded to be treated as political prisoners. Whittaker said, "You shut up! I have men here glad handle you. Seize her!' " We were rushed into a large room with brick dungeons on each side. Mine was filthy; it had no window save a little slit at the top and no furniture but a sheet-iron bed and an open toilet flushed from outside the cell."
"I saw Dorothy Day brought in. Two men were twisting her arms above her head. Then suddenly they lifted her up and banged her down over the arm of an iron bench, twice. One of the men yelled, "The bloody suffrager! I'll put you through hell!' " Mrs. Lewis, doubled over and handled like a sack or something, was literally thrown in by two men. Her head struck the iron bed and she fell. We thought she was dead. " We were told by the guard not to dare to speak or we would be put in straight-jackets."
"Alice Paul is in the psychopathic ward. She dreaded forcible feeding frightfully, and I hate to think how she must be feeling. I had a nervous time of it, gasping a long time afterward, and my stomach rejecting during the process."
All this grotesque suffering just for the right to vote.
Some states yielded. First came Wyoming, then Colorado, Utah and Idaho before the turn of the century, followed by Washington, California and others in the early 20th century. (It is noteworthy that all these states were west of the Mississippi, where women were pioneering alongside their husbands.) But state-by-state victories were not enough. So Alice Paul began organizing, modeling her work on the suffragists of Great Britain. She and her followers managed to embarrass President Woodrow Wilson, which is partly why they were subjected to torture in filthy jails run by sadists.
Just for the right to vote.
When the country went to war in 1917 women participated actively in America's war effort. It was impossible to continue denying them the vote. But it took another fifty years or more for women to begin to make inroads toward becoming legislators themselves. Today that struggle continues as we strive for parity in our parliament.
On the occasion of this 70th anniversary, I honor Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, the Grimke sisters, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Paul, and all the lesser known women who made women's enfranchisement a reality.
And I shudder to know that still, some women don't vote.