#RepealThe19th: Women’s Suffrage Throughout Time and Media
By Taylor Ciambra
[dropcap background="no" color="#333333"]T[/dropcap]hroughout this polarizing election, it feels like we’ve seen it all. From email scandals, to secretly recorded misogyny, in person name calling, and hashtags ranging from clever to cruel, it’s easy to lose sight of the democratic spirit that brought us here and what it means to be able to vote for our country’s leaders.
After all, women haven’t always had the right to vote and no matter who you voted for or who you didn’t this election, the suffrage movement changed our country and our attitudes regarding women voting forever. White women have had the right to vote for 96 years but it wasn’t until 1965 that The Voting Rights Act was signed into law and all women in the United States were able to vote.
That’s right, it was only 51 years ago that all women in this country were granted the right to vote.
This November, all women (of age and legal status) were able to participate in the presidential election and about 53% of voters will have been women. Simply put, women’s votes determine elections, especially in recent years. Though the exact numbers haven’t been determined, it’s clear on social media though photos and hashtags ranging from #ImWithHer to #DedicateYourVotetoAWoman, that women from all classes and backgrounds turned out for this election.
In this article, we’ll talk about the history of the 19th amendment, what’s gone on in our culture that made women’s voting rights a reality, and the importance of the media’s role in voting for this recent election.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
Rebelling Against The Cult of True Womanhood
For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on the suffrage movement up until 1920, when the 19th amendment was passed as it is was the first step in getting all women the right to vote.
In the 19th century, the “Cult of True Womanhood” was a pervasive set of values that focused on one version of femininity, family, marriage, work dynamics, domesticity, and submissiveness. Women were fast tracked for one of two routes:
- Marrying and having a family, which meant focusing on domestic duties exclusively related to the roles of wife and mother.
- Never marrying or having a family and as a result being labeled an ‘old maid’. Job options available for these women were limited to becoming either a teacher or a nurse.
For many women and men, these were not attractive options and in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstructionist Era, the women’s rights movement began to take shape.
Spurred by writings like Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, being denied entrance at an Anti Slavery Convention, and because of her inspirational friendship with Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton took action.
“The wearied, anxious look of the majority of women, impressed me with a strong feeling that some active measures should be taken to remedy the wrongs of society in general, and of women in particular… It seemed as if all the elements had conspired to impel me to some onward step. I could not see what to do or where to begin—my only thought was a public meeting for protest and discussion.”
- From The Road to Seneca Falls by Judith Wellman
With Lucretia Mott and several other women, she organized the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York to discuss women’s rights. Through suffrage wasn’t the sole focus, it became the first people organized to talk about women’s rights. A “Declaration of Sentiments” was also signed. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, it was meant to organize the men and women present and unite them under the goals of women’s rights. The document asserts the equality of all men and women, and argues that women are oppressed by the government and patriarchal culture. There are sixteen facts to illustrate these claims and it ends with the insistence that women be seen as full citizens of the United States and granted the same rights and privileges as their male counterparts.
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The Schism Between Suffragists and Abolitionists
Before the proposal and adopting of the 14th and 15th amendments, suffragists and abolitionists worked closely together for equal rights. In fact, at the Seneca Falls Convention, Frederick Douglass gave a speech that encouraged adding women’s suffrage to the convention’s resolutions and won over many who doubted the importance of giving women the right to vote.
But Stanton and Anthony lobbied against the ratification of the 14th and 15th amendments which declared that:
- “All persons born or naturalized in the United States are American citizens, including African Americans.”
- And prohibited: “each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen’s race, color or previous condition of servitude.”
This refusal to demand the inclusion of women in the amendments was non-negotiable to some suffragists while many abolitionists saw the enfranchisement of black men as the first step in a longer journey that included women’s suffrage. Unfortunately, this would be one of the first of many more topics that would lead to dissention among the suffragists. It’s toll would have a lasting impact on the movement’s long term progress.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
Opposition to Suffrage
There was of course, stiff opposition to women’s suffrage. A rival organization called the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage was a mouthpiece for those opposed which was largely comprised of Democrats in the South and those in Northeastern cities. Their arguments included statements such as:
- Women did not have time to stay up to date on politics or to vote because of their domestic and familial duties.
- Most women don’t want to vote or would vote the same way as their husbands.
- Women lacked the mental capacity and expertise to make opinions about politics.
Newspapers attacked suffrage through articles and comics much like we do today with blogs and memes:
- Comics // Mental_Floss
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Strife Between Sister Organizations
In 1869, Stanton and Anthony founded the National Suffrage Association (NWSA) which campaigned for not only the constitutional amendment but an end to employment and pay discrimination as well as changes in divorce laws. In response, a faction of suffragists founded a less radical organization, American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). AWSA focused on gaining suffrage for black men through the 14th and 15th amendments and by gaining women’s suffrage state by state.
Direct progress concerning suffrage was slow after this split, though other aspects of women’s lives were changing. This societal evolution included a rise in the rate of women attending college and a general shift in the public’s thinking that women had one specific “sphere” in society to occupy. The laws were beginning to reflect these shifts and subsequently altered how much control husbands had over wives’ activities.
The Anthony Amendment, which proposed equality of the sexes regarding voting, was introduced to the Senate in 1878 and rejected nine years later. This would prove to be a turning point for the two organizations. After NWSA’s defeat in Congress, they put more energy into campaigning at the state level, which AWSA was already doing. Though the merge was fraught with emotions, opinions, and strained friendships, in 1890 the two groups did merge and became the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
For three decades, the amendment was not considered by Congress and there were few victories won for the suffragist movement.
Suffragists fought for rights in individual states but did not lose sight of the eventual goal of federal recognition. With the country expanding westward, there were more opportunities to impact the laws at a state level. Through activism, organizations, and independent political parties, women’s suffrage advanced in the newly forged constitutions. In 1910 and 1911, Washington and California granted women the right to vote. In fact, most of the new western states and territories would, either fully or partially, and set a precedent for the nation.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
The Strategy of Carrie Chapman Catt
Susan B. Anthony’s successor as President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Carrie Chapman Catt, shook up the merged organization and made some real legislative progress on suffrage. Catt pursued a state-by-state strategy to win the vote, which by 1896, proved successful in four states—Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado. Still, the goal of national suffrage was a long way off and internal squabble was rampant. Catt left the organization in 1904 but returned in 1915.
As the United States entered World War I, Catt saw an opportunity to build visibility for the group and the cause during this time of crisis. A controversial move, considering that many suffragists were also pacifists, Catt’s risk paid off. NAWSA’s work to aid in the war effort not only gained visibility but added a positive, patriotic face to the organization. So much so, that during the 1918 State of the Union address, President Wilson spoke out in favor of women’s suffrage.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
One Man, One Vote, and a History Making Decision
Tennessee’s decision to ratify ultimately came down to one man, Mr. Harry Burns. Burns was a 24-year-old state legislator who had previously been against ratification. On the day of the vote, he received a note from his mother:
“Dear son… Vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt… Don’t forget to be a good boy…”
When he was called upon to cry “Yea” or “Nay” his mother’s words must have rung in his ears. On August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the 19th amendment and on August 26th the U.S. Secretary proclaimed the amendment ratified.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
What the Amendment Says
The 19th Amendment states that:
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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.[divider type="dashed" spacing="10"]
The Birth of a Hashtag: #RepealThe19th
In early October, Nate Silver, statician, writer, and Editor in Chief of the infamous FiveThirtyEight.com posted a map of projected election results if only men voted and then if only women voted. These projections rocked the Internet.
The result showed a massive gender divide.
As you’re likely aware of, especially after this election where there was once again a disparity between the candidate with the most popular votes and the candidate who received 270 electoral votes. Silver’s proejctions revealed that if only men voted, Trump would demolish Clinton with 350 electoral votes, meaning Clinton would have won a measly 188. Conversely, if only women voted, Clinton would reel in 458 to Trump’s pitiful 80 electoral votes.
The Twitterverse exploded with the news and #RepealThe19th began to trend. This isn’t the first time this hashtag has appeared on Twitter, but it was the first time it trended.
- Images // Buzzfeed
#RepealThe19th seems to have trended last month largely because of those outraged by it, not because of genuine supporters. The Washington Post states that:
“We’ll acknowledge that judging this sort of thing is subjective at best, but looking through 1,000 tweets and retweets scraped between 7:50 and 9:10 p.m. Wednesday, a little more than 100 of them appear to be from Trump supporters. The rest are all expressing outrage about the hashtag, rallying women to get out and vote in response to it, or are straight-up mocking it.”
Which is also interesting when you consider eventual outcome of the election and the subsequent shock for both parties. The media swirled with Clinton’s projected win yet Trump is our president elect. There is a gap between what is popular and more importantly, why, that seems to go unanalyzed by most media platforms. With the ability to cull dissention from newsfeeds and choose which commentaries to focus on, as a people we may have turned a blind eye on critical analysis and focused only on what we wanted to believe. The problem with social media vs print media is that the latter was at least once harder to ignore. From this confrontation, a more productive counterargument may have been more likely. #RepealThe19th’s popularity had no doubt encouraged more women to vote and use their social media presence to make a counterpoint, but those messages may have fallen on only similarly attuned ears. It’s worth considering how social media may create more pockets of likeness than unifying diversity.
- images / Buzzfeed
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As influential as the Declaration of Sentiments was to the budding suffragist movement, or political cartoons by anti-suffragists, hashtags and social media posts have the same political impact on people’s voting habits today. Social media connects us to facts, myths, and to like minded groups and individuals. The latter point being the most contentious as it can blind us from other points of view and in the case of our recent election, lead us to incorrect assumptions. It’s important to note that #RepealThe19th trended and that it was subverted from its original “joke”. By feminists doing this it became a point of empowerment for female voters and it spotlighted the an important part of our history. It also serves as a reminder that we could all look at our social media with a more discernment as we come together and made decisions that impact our entire country.