This is not how we thought we’d be celebrating the 100th anniversary of American women’s right to vote. We figured confetti and cocktails, triumphant gatherings of women and men. White pantsuits and a red rose. A national shout out to three generations of suffrage leaders and resolute activists who defied social norms and dared to assert their right to participate in democracy.
We knew the Nineteenth Amendment, ratified in 1920, didn’t end the battle for the ballot. Knew that millions of African American women in the South, unlike their newly enfranchised Black sisters in Northern cities, were kept from the polls by brutal Jim Crow laws. That Native Americans and women of Chinese and Mexican origin, waited more years for their rights. But the amendment welcomed the single largest increase in voters in American history. It was revolutionary, finally overturning the assumption that men alone were genetically entitled to leadership.
That’s the story we set out to tell in our podcast, She Votes!, with stops along the suffrage trail from Seneca Falls to Nashville.
We hadn’t counted on Covid 19. Or the cancel culture.
We were barely on our way, one spirited trip to the National Women’s Historical Park, when the virus hit. So like everyone else, we improvised, visiting other suffrage landmarks virtually. Then we recorded our interviews and narratives from quarantine studios in our home closets, with blankets over our heads and microphones perched on couch pillows. Several states away, our producer listened through headphones in her own makeshift audio booth.
But we were never socially distanced from our goal: document the extraordinary struggle to get women the vote, and tell those stories during an election that may hinge on the votes of American women. It’s a connection forged in suffrage steel and honed in a single phrase: They persisted.
Our foremothers turned ridicule into respect and oppression into the power of a majority. We celebrate their lives and their accomplishments with awe.
We applaud Lucretia Mott and an interracial meeting of antislavery women who bristled at being silenced by their male counterparts and made the earliest demands for a public voice in 1837.
We honor the vision of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose radical notion in 1848 that women needed the vote to gain political power, set the course for 72 years of campaigns.
We wince at the indignity suffered by Sojourner Truth, a celebrated orator who had once been enslaved, when she was asked to show her breasts to prove that a strong woman who demanded her rights was, in fact, a woman.
Persistence? We marvel at the wisdom and humor with which Susan B. Anthony endured her arrest, trial and conviction for the crime of voting while female. In 1872, she boldly cast her ballot for Ulysses S. Grant, and the federal government prosecuted her aggressively. Anthony refused to pay the $100 fine. And became our first suffrage felon. A badge of honor no amount of self-promotion can undo.
The entire saga of our battle for the ballot is a series of stunning episodes during an era of misogyny that actually debated the question, Are Women People? Amused by the absurdity, we dialed up today’s source of all wisdom, Siri, to get her take. “Hey, Siri, are women people?” Her response: “I don’t understand the question.” Hey, Siri, neither do we.
The campaign to win the right to vote is rife with contradictions. And lessons. As historian Paula Giddings of Smith College explained, “If you understand the woman suffrage movement in all its complexity, you understand this country.” So our stories of suffrage are rife with complexity.
When women first bonded in their search for civil liberties, they discovered the power of sisterhood. But soon it became clear that women were not a monolith, would never be of a single mind about their political rights or leanings. Until the 20th century, most white women actually opposed their own right to vote. Or paid it no mind.
Classism and racism also divided the movement and that’s part of the story, too. The roots of suffrage reach back to abolition but later descend into the political expediency of appeasing white supremacists in the South. Ida B. Wells was told to join other African Americans and march in the back of a 1913 suffrage parade, but took her place confidently amidst the Illinois delegation. Stanton and Anthony had a fierce fight with their close friend Frederick Douglass over the Fifteenth Amendment – the one that extended the vote to black men, but no women of any race. Then they quickly closed ranks to work together and remain friends for the rest of their lives. Several things can be true at once, and so they were with suffrage.
The late humorist Nora Ephron put it another way, telling a college class of graduating seniors that their own lives would be “a little messy.” But, she said, “embrace the mess.”
But how do you embrace what some are trying to cancel? The racism that indeed stained the suffrage movement, especially as they headed south to win ratification, has lately been isolated and elevated by some to invalidate the whole. Too many Tweets and commentaries suggest there is little to celebrate. Myths are spread to twist history: The Nineteenth Amendment only gave the vote to white women. Black women’s stories were deliberately “erased” from suffrage records. Leading white suffragists didn’t want African Americans to share the vote. Cancel them all.
One hostile rap on the festivities comes from The New York Times, whose recent editorial calls celebrating this giant step towards equality “morally repugnant.” Curiously, the writers ignore the historically repugnant fact that their own newspaper adamantly opposed suffrage. Women might have won the vote more swiftly – and African American suffrage voices might have been heard more widely – without editorials like this one, from 1915: “The position of the Times on the question of woman suffrage has long been known. It is totally opposed to the extension of the suffrage on the grounds that it would not benefit the women in any single way and would tend to disorganize society.”
For the privileged white men leading the good grey paper, the concept was indeed scary. What suffragists proposed – from the moment Stanton snuck the right to vote into the Resolutions at Seneca Falls – was the even more equalizing notion of Universal Suffrage. A citizen’s right to vote. If you’re born or naturalized here, you can vote here. That, of course, is not how the white men in Congress wrote the Nineteenth Amendment. Like the Fifteenth, it left the door wide open for states in the South to erect vicious obstacles.
For seven decades, a majority of the men in Congress denied every petition, plea and sensible bit of logic proposed by wave after wave of suffragists. They blocked nineteen successive attempts to get a suffrage amendment passed.
Which brings us back to persistence. Women have picked up the baton fashioned by our foremothers and continued to carry it through every continuing battle. It took another 45 years to win African Americans full voting rights, but the Voting Rights Act is jeopardized today. Stacey Abrams, who runs Fair Fight 2020, to fight voter suppression, told us the attempts to block voters – including the destruction of polling places and the threats to mail-in voting — follow a through-line from the criminalization of Susan B.Anthony’s vote.
So she, too, toasts woman suffrage. It “will create the victory that happens in 2020. And by God it will create the first woman president. That victory cannot be diminished because it was not complete. It was just the beginning of the streak of victories that we have to continue to fight.”
We embarked on this suffrage trail realizing that our own mothers were born without the right to vote. That’s how brief our liberation has been. As we neared the end of the journey, we found another mother who changed their lives, and our own. Her name was Febb Burn, a savvy Tennessean who slyly persuaded her son, a state legislator, to cast the deciding final vote for ratification. That’s all it took. One “aye.” One guy. Urged on by one mom.
Celebrate the suffragists? You bet. Listen to Kamala Harris, whose first pubic statement as the nation’s first Black woman on a national ticket, saluted her – our – foremothers. She was, she said, “mindful of all the heroic and ambitious women before me, whose sacrifice, determination and resilience makes my presence here today possible.”
They are flawed, their story is complex. Like, yes, American history. But it beats a path to justice. So hats off, masks on.
You think your vote doesn’t count? Think about the suffrage amendment. Celebrate it.
And then, because you can, vote. We still have work to do.
Episode 1: Convicted!
Rochester, New York. 1872. Susan B. Anthony is arrested for the crime of “voting while female.” What happens next — an arrest, a trial, a verdict and a conviction — sets the stage for the next half a century of battling for the ballot.