In August of 1917 members of the National Women’s Party were arrested for picketing in front of the White House. In a coordinated act of civil disobedience, new picketers replaced those hauled to prison, providing unrelenting pressure on President Woodrow Wilson to support women’s suffrage. Prison guards abused the women, pressuring them to stop their public protests. Instead, Alice Paul, leader of the National Women’s Party, upped the ante by engaging in a hunger strike that brought international attention to the movement. Cornered, Wilson relented, paving the way for the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Women’s suffrage was enacted on Aug. 26, 1920, and we celebrate that date each year as “Women’s Equality Day” to commemorate the importance of women’s political enfranchisement. Rarely, though, do we really learn about the history of the suffrage movement. When we don’t learn the stories of feminist activism, as part of what it can mean to be a woman in American history and as part of what drives social progress, we lose significant role models and appreciation for the role that protest has in making social change.
The suffrage movement lasted for more than 70 years and throughout those decades women innovated and practiced an impressive range of protest tactics. In 1851, Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech, challenging the notion that women were simply too fragile to vote. In 1869, feminist political organizers succeeded in winning suffrage for women in the territory of Wyoming.
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony flagrantly voted, despite the law against it, and insisted on a jury trial to demonstrate that women were not, by nature, incapable of engaging in public life. In 1913, the first Women’s March on Washington took place, a suffrage parade that juxtaposed the beauty of women dressed in white with their significant political force. When women of color were asked by white suffragettes to march as a segregated group, in the back, Ida B. Wells refused, challenging racism within the movement.
By 1917, the abuse of female political prisoners forced the nation to grapple with the dilemmas posed by activists: How could voting be too difficult or dirty for women, when women were already serving as political agents and prisoners? How could the country be at war for “democracy” in World War I yet deny the rights of citizenship to women at home? How could white suffragettes fight for justice as women without acknowledging the need to fight racism, too?
Women’s Equality Day 2017 is shadowed by disappointment. We are not celebrating the first female president of the United States, as many of us imagined we would, but instead are grappling with a deep misogyny and racism in current political rhetoric that harks back to the anti-suffrage slogans of the past. In fact, a Twitter thread #Repealthe19th trended during the 2016 campaign season.
In the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gaps ranking of 144 countries, the U.S. ranks 73rd for women’s political power. Women comprise less than 20 percent of Congress (women of color constitute 7 percent), and only slightly higher percentages in state legislatures, numbers that parallel women’s representation in the highest levels of leadership across many sectors and industries. Maine has a higher percentage of women in state government, ranking 7th in the country for women’s political representation.)
The election of President Donald Trump sparked the Women’s March, the largest coordinated social movement protest in history, and paves the way for a resurgence of feminist political activism. The “resistance movement” has largely been organized and implemented by women. Organizations that emerged out of the suffrage movement, like the League of Women Voters and the American Association of University Women are joined by 21st century organizations including the Women’s March, Our 100 and Black Lives Matter as well as an extraordinary number of small, local groups. Women’s political training programs, like Emerge, She Should Run, and Ready to Run and more, report high levels of interest. Women are poised to take up new space in civic life, through multiple pathways.
As feminists consider the challenges for 21st century movement building, we have much to learn from the women’s suffrage movement. The ghosts of activists past can’t teach us exactly what to do now, but they can help us avoid the worst pitfalls while reminding us that joy and pain and conflict and creativity are all parts of participating in activism.
Kimberly Simmons studies social movements, works on civic engagement projects and teaches women and gender studies and sociology at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week. March Forth, a women’s march continuing group, will offer a march and rally for Women’s Equality Day 5 p.m. Aug. 26 in Portland. To learn more about the women’s suffrage movement or current women’s political status, visit https://tinyurl.com/8-26resources.