A Controversial Period in United States' History: the Fight for Women's Right to Vote

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Women have been trampled on and viewed as inferior compared to their male counterparts for decades. By simply reading a novel by Shakespeare or a poem by Voltaire it is easy to see that females have generally been seen as nothing more than the child bearer and the one which shall raise the child. In the start of the 19th century, women were seen as a lesser being and a second-class citizen. They were assumed to stay in their “comfort zone” of taking care of the home and the children. Women were discouraged from pursuing education or any career that would be considered a professional type job. “After marriage, women did not have the right to own their own property, keep their own wages, or sign a contract” (Abolition). Women were also not allowed to vote or speak their mind in the presence of men or the general public. After several decades of hard debates and passionate political activity, women eventually won the right to vote and to participate in the public arena more.

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The first woman to request equal rights was in the early 1600’s. (History) Brent requested two votes for the colonial assembly, one for herself and one for her husband. When the governor turned down her request, she boycotted the vote. What seemed like a silly thing at the time was growing in popularity around the world. When It was in 1792 that the “first feminist publication” was published by Mary Wollstonecraft in Britain entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and it was not until 1848 that the United States started to see some growing interest in women’s rights. (Scholastic) Forty years later the International Council of Women (ICW), the first international women’s rights organization was formed. “The first country to grant national-level voting rights to women was the self-governing British colony of New Zealand, which passed the Electoral Bill in September 1893” (History Net). Ever since then, women have been fighting for equal rights in every country around the world. Even though women in the United States have equal opportunities to education and the workplace as well as the right to vote, many women still argue that they are overly sexualized by the media and are not paid equal to that of their male counterparts.

The early history of women’s rights is a long yet rigorous course of several decades in different nations around the world. Focusing merely on the events that occurred in the colonies that made up the United States in the 1700s through the present situation in the United States is enough to drive someone mad. Before the year the United States Constitution was passed, hundreds of women voted in a few American colonies. Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams to "remember the ladies" while in office in 1776. However he did not listen to her well enough to argue against the states which then rewrote their constitutions to prevent women from voting. One year later and only New Jersey still allowed women to vote. Twenty years later, male legislators officially outlawed women’s right to vote stating that they were illiterate and not competent enough to understand the ramifications of voting. Thousands of women had joined the movement to abolish slavery and wrote abolitionist papers, passed out abolitionist pamphlets and wrote, signed, and delivered petitions to Congress pleading for abolition. It was never more clear how much women were discriminated against until Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were barred from attending the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London, which prompted them to hold a Women's Convention in the United States.

The first time a significant number of women joined together devoted to women’s rights in the United States was July 19th and 20th of 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. “About 100 people attended the convention; two-thirds were women. Stanton drafted a ‘Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions,’ that echoed the preamble of the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.’ Among the 13 resolutions set forth in Stanton’s ‘Declaration’ was the goal of achieving the ‘sacred right of franchise’” (History Net). During the following years, women continued their meetings and conferences as well as less formal gatherings. There they discuss their familial, educational, legal, economic, and political rights. Most of the women present at these

conventions were “white and middle class, participated in a broad spectrum of protest movements, fighting against alcohol and slavery, and for the rights of immigrants and the poor” (Collet). Wyoming (1890) was the first state with women’s suffrage and many of the women traveled to other states to rile up supporters. Helen Kendrick Johnson, in her widely circulated book Woman and the Republic (1897), associated woman suffrage with "Free Silver and Populist of the most extravagant type." She praised California men for choosing "sound money against repudiation," "authority against anarchy," and for acting "in defense of national honor" by voting for Republican candidates and against woman suffrage. (Edwards) The women’s rights movement was hastened later that year by the formation of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and the election of Carrie Chapman Catt ten years later. Carrie Catt married a wealthy upper-class engineer who supported her in her suffrage work and even offered up money to improve the process of telling others about the inequality present. She earned the trust of many of the leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was elected to succeed Susan B. Anthony as president. She served for four years as president before she resigned in order to care for her dying husband. While Susan B. Anthony was president she drafted an amendment, nicknamed the Anthony amendment which was ratified as the 19th Amendment. “The Amendment read, ‘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’” (Essortment). The active participation of women in the nation's war effort from 1917 to 1918 also helped to win support for a constitutional amendment enfranchising women which led to the passing of the amendment in 1920.However, Carrie Cat did not remain silent for much longer as she founded the International Woman Suffrage Association and was the serving president from 1904 until she died in 1923. Even within the suffrage movement, many divisions emerged. Thought the women had the same end goal in mind, they did not share similar notions on how to achieve that goal. For forty years, starting in 1920, violence and differing views on women’s right created several women’s political groups such as the League of Women Voters founded in 1920 and the National Council of Negro Women founded in 1935.The United Nations Charter (established in 1945) had a preamble that referred to equal rights for women and in 1948 the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women was established. The United Nations kept their interest up in women’s rights throughout the years and in 1952 the United Nations General Assembly held a convention on the political and social rights of women. In the years following this convention, many feminist studies were performed such as The Second Sex (1953) by Simone de Beauvoir and The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan. The legislative climate changed in favor of minority rights and antidiscrimination movements. Through this the militant women’s groups were formed.

The Women’s Rights Movement was started to protest against women suffrage and to promote equality in education, the work force, and most importantly in the public arena where everyone’s voices can be heard. When the movement first started, its main goal was very controversial and the possibility of women’s suffrage stirred fear in the present Victorian society. “According to the rules of Victorian America, men and women were supposed to remain in separate spheres – women in the private sphere of home and domesticity, and men in the public sphere of work and politics. Women taking an interest in the rights of other groups – slaves, poor immigrants, and families of alcoholics – fit with Victorian ideology because the women protested on behalf of others. In other words, the women protestors could be seen as simply extending their nurturing, mothering instincts to the public” (Collet). Voting was not seen as something that was nurturing and was only for the educated men of the time. Women were typically valued based on their quiet selflessness, humble endurance, and nurturing abilities. Women’s suffrage was so radical that most men and women thought it was a threat to the foundation of American society and feared it. The middle-class women were mainly in charge and dominated the movement and even based their claim for suffrage on the basis that their votes were needed to counteract those of ‘ignorant’ immigrant men who lived in the urban slums. (Interview) However, there were women who were opposed to the idea of change and were against the suffrage movement. These anti-suffrage women based their feminine ideals on morality and piety. They quickly found allies amongst the liquor interests and the Catholic Church as well as many other conservative groups that was founded using traditions of inequality. “By seeking a voice in politics, women were challenging the conventional belief that women's proper sphere of influence was domestic, while men properly dominated the public sphere, including the political process. Even many women deplored the effort to extend the vote to women. In 1911, Josephine Dodge, the wife of a leading New York capitalist, formed the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. Like many other anti-suffragists, Dodge advised women to influence policy from behind the scenes, through their influence on men. By involving themselves in politics, she insisted, women would undermine their moral and spiritual role, as well as create chaos by meddling in matters that were beyond their understanding” (Essortment).

There are over 400 pictures that depict the methods these women used to promote voter equality in the United States. Some of these ways include “picketing, petitioning, pageants, parades and demonstrations, hunger strikes and imprisonment” as well as “force-feedings and burning watch fires” (Overview). Most of the pictures documented the National Woman’s Party’s push for ratification of the 19th amendment as well as their efforts later for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The goal through these ways of protesting was to generate public interest, attract publicity, and finally to pressure the elected officials in government to support the women’s suffrage in order to win a passage of the federal amendment still sitting at capitol hill.

Some men supported women in their attempt to gain new freedom and the ability to vote. Most notably was “Theodore Roosevelt who published an editorial entitled "Women's Rights; and the Duties of Both Men and Women," in The Outlook, February 3, 1912” (Marchand). Some women stood out more than others when using various methods of protesting and by the way they acted. Jane Adams presented her opinion in favor of woman suffrage in "The Larger Aspects of the Woman's Movement," The Annuals of the American Academy of Social and Political Science. November 1914. The President of the NAWSA, Anna Howard Shaw, addressed the opposing arguments that women were too emotionally unstable to be able to vote while thinking clearly in her speech delivered to the National American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in 1913. She argued that the men were just as emotional as women, but they were more loud mouthed and reckless than women. Below is an excerpt from her speech that shows that men are emotional as well:

“By some objections, women are supposed to be unfit to vote because they are hysterical and emotional and of course men would not like to have emotion enter into a political campaign. They want to cut out all emotion and so they would like to cut us out. I had heard so much about our emotionalism that I went to the last Democratic national convention, held at Baltimore, to observe the calm repose of the male politicians. I saw some men take a picture of one gentleman whom they wanted elected and it was so big they had to walk sideways as they carried it forward; they were followed by hundreds of other men screaming and yelling, shouting and singing the "Houn' Dawg;" then, when there was a lull, another set of men would start forward under another man's picture, not to be outdone by the "Houn' Dawg" melody, whooping an howling still louder.”

Carrie Chapman Catt also stood out as she was the president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. “Following the more radical strategy pursued by British women, American suffragists became more assertive and radical in their protests. Doris Stevens explained the authorities' reaction to the more radical protesters in her book Jailed for Freedom” (Marchland). 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. (Shirley)

The changes sought through this movement are social, political, and economical as most, if not all, women had no rights. Esther Peterson, head of the Women’s Bureau of the Labor Department, was worried about a shorted of nurses and teachers and asked President Kennedy to request a Commission of Status on Women. In 1963 the report proved Esther Peterson correct as American women were systematically denied important opportunities and rights. The commission refused to support the Equal Rights Act, but they requested equal pay, equal opportunities, and more available child care. “Working class women, who utilized the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and pressured the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC – established in 1965) to act to end discrimination in employment and pay” (Shirley). The National Organization for Women was established in 1966 after complaints that the EEOC was ignoring thousands of complaints about discrimination made by women. They worked through several organizations and through the government to reform society and government. These women were concerned with public life, job opportunities, and equal pay. They wished to be able to speak openly in pubic without fear of retaliation by the men. They wanted to be able to own property and used it how they desired and they wanted their voice to be heard by the government. It didn’t make sense that with a democratic style of government, people were not allowed to vote for themselves and choose who they wished to lead them.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement as well as the Women’s Rights Movement made equality less of a dream and more of a reality as women were granted the right to vote (after decades of dedication) and were allowed to work alongside men in different forms. Men were seen less as the “bread-winner” and more like just another figure in the household and women were allowed to use their voice to make known their opinion. Gone were the days of following orders and only working at the house and taking care of children.

There are still many women working towards equal rights, but these particular people are not as radical and are labeled as “feminists”. Some of these feminists seek equal representation in the political sphere such as having more elected officials that are women. There are actually several organizations created just to support Hilary Clinton running for office in the next presidential election just because she is a woman. Television has become a startling realization of how women are still seen stereotypically. Television permeates American life: at home, at school, at bars, and even in the local fast food restaurants one may find a television set quietly or silently playing in the background. Televisions shows are now across the globe, influencing other nations and people, the way they speak and act, their beliefs and actions. Television also consciously and subconsciously influences thought processes and belief systems. By deductive reasoning, it can be concluded from these statements that American television and movies lower the self-esteem, self-empowerment, and self-appreciation of the modern day woman. Television tends to reflect what society believes, and those individuals who make up society believe what is taught to them through the television. (Tate)

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