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By Linda M. Jackson, AAI Program Director

This summer 100 years ago, three states were in a race to be the first to ratify the 19th amendment: Wisconsin (#1), Illinois, and Michigan voted to ratify on June 10, 1919. State support came in over the next year (California ratified in November). The drama continued until August 18, 1920, when the 19th amendment was passed, making women’s suffrage legal in the U.S.

The story of women’s suffrage, led by women working into their 80s, illustrates just how hard change can be. 

Let’s start with the summer of 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and a few other ladies decided over tea to host a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, modeling it after a recent abolitionists’ convention.

Over 300 people attended the convention to consider a “Declaration of Sentiments,” which described the “injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The Declaration of Sentiments statement supporting women’s suffrage passed by a slim margin, just the first of narrow victories in the decades to come.

Susan B. Anthony (1820 – 1906) met Stanton two years later. They became one of American’s sharpest political duos – with Stanton doing the writing and thinking, and Anthony doing the speaking and travelling, a collaboration lasting for the next half century.

Change requires more than just supporters: it requires enough energy to change a system. The women were up against powerful forces. The liquor and brewery interests were fearful of the growing temperance movement, corporate interests were worried about the successes women were having in speaking out about the dismal working conditions for children and women, and the men in power were afraid of the potential electoral power of the black voter.

At the end of the Civil War, Stanton and Anthony were hopeful for universal suffrage when they saw the Republicans’ early draft of the 14th amendment stating that the vote was for “all persons.” When the phrase was changed to “male citizen,” Stanton, Anthony, and Stone protested loudly and bitterly. 

When it became clear that the 14th amendment wasn’t enough to protect the black man’s vote, Congress considered the 15th amendment, which states: 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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude”.

Stanton pleaded to add “sex” to the list and thus enfranchise everyone. When denied, she and Anthony worked against the 15th amendment, which passed in 1870.

Women supporters of the 15th amendment, devastated by the failure of Stanton and Anthony to back the franchise for black men, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, which pursued a state-by-state campaign to grant women the right to vote.

Meanwhile, Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association which worked for a constitutional amendment and other social justice changes.

The split in the suffrage leadership was so deep that the coalition would not be reunited for another 30 years. Those were the dark years. Little progress was made on the surface. However, Stanton and Anthony worked into their 80s, building political expertise and a political structure to support essential connections and communications.

By the First World War, the two organizations had reunited. Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), in her 60s, emerged as leader. She inherited a board of directors of skilled organizers and a political strategy with leadership in each state to track supporters and votes.

And so it came that 100 years ago, in the summer of 1919, the U.S. Senate passed the “Anthony Amendment” by a margin of just four votes. States began debating the ratification of the women’s vote amendment soon after. A year later, the last needed ratification vote came down to the legislators of Tennessee.

The drama of the Tennessee vote included free alcohol plied to opponents of suffrage, assurances that white women would outnumber black voters, and a final successful vote of 49 – 47.

Today, after 70 years of advocacy and another 100 years of voting in the midst of gerrymandering, poll taxes, and literacy tests, let’s celebrate the vision of universal suffrage. Think of how your organization can recognize this vision and what it means for the people we work with every day.

Let us use that vote for a better future for the older people of Marin ~