Today marks the 90th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote almost 133 years after America’s founders penned the words “We the people” but really meant “We the [white, male, land-owning] people.” We cannot mark this anniversary without noting that black men and women were unable to vote in practice, due to racist laws and violence, until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965. Even today, many people are still disenfranchised, such as people with disabilities who are deprived equal access to polling places and those who’ve been convicted of felonies. The battle to apply those lofty founding words to all people equally is far, far from over.
‘Battle’ is the correct word to describe the 100-year campaign to get women the right to vote. Sadly, many American school children never learn about the courageous activism waged by the many women and men of all races it took to make the 19th amendment the law of the land. If they get any information on the topic at all, they leave the classroom thinking Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton simply asked for the vote and it was kindly granted! The lack of women’s history education in schools leaves young women without a true understanding of all the women have done and become before, making it harder to do and become today.
I’m a women’s history nerd so I read a lot about the different generations of the women’s movement. One of the most striking things to me as a young feminist is how many young women not only took part in but also led the battle for women suffrage. Yet these contributions are often overlooked or the ages of the women are never mentioned, meaning modern young women are left imagining their feminist forebears as stodgy old women and with the idea that activism is something most often reserved for the 30-plus crowd. So, in honor of today’s anniversary, a very limited sampling of the work of amazing young women for the passage of the 19th amendment:
Rheta Childe Dorr was 12 years old when she saw a speech by Susan B. Anthony and was inspired to join the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Susan B. Anthony herself is memorialized as an older woman but she began her activism at age 16, when she collected two boxes of petitions opposing slavery. She was 30 years old upon her first meeting with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which sparked a decades long partnership fighting for women’s rights. Alice Stone Blackwell, the daughter of formidable suffrage campaigner Lucy Stone, became the assistant editor of the American Women’s Suffrage Association magazine The Woman’s Journal when she was just 24.
Inez Milholland, who you may remember as the beautiful woman in white robes who led a suffrage demonstration on horseback in the move Iron Jawed Angels, started her activism for women’s suffrage as a student at Vassar. She was suspended for organizing a suffrage meeting in an off-campus cemetery when the university president prohibited on-campus suffrage campaigning. That meeting marked the founding of the Vassar Votes for Women Club, which, under Mulholland’s leadership, launched various protests and debates in the community. Mulholland was just 27 years old when she helped organize the DC suffrage parade, which she led on horseback through crowds of violent protesters. She also joined the National Women’s Party’s band of traveling orators to ramp up support for what would eventually become the 19th amendment. A startling cautionary tale for the importance of activist self-care, the then 30 year-old organizer collapsed while giving a rousing speech and died a few days later of exhaustion.
Alice Paul* is often credited with organizing the final push that led to the passage of the 19th amendment. Yet, few realize that Paul was just 21 years-old when she received her education in suffrage organizing in England and just 26 years old when she was appointed as the Chairwoman of the Congressional Committee of the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Along with Lucy Burns, Paul orchestrated the picketing of Woodrow Wilson’s White House that resulted in mass arrests of suffrage activists and hunger strikes that alerted the American public to the plight of the political prisoners. Paul was just 35 years old when the 19th amendment was ratified.
A final note on young women and suffrage: Susan B. Anthony said, “Our job is not to make young women grateful, it’s to make them ungrateful.” Yet with all due respect to Ms. Anthony, I much prefer the directive set forth to young women by Abigail Duniway:
The young women of today, free to study, to speak, to write, to choose their occupation, should remember that every inch of this freedom was bought for them at a great price. It is for them to show their gratitude by helping onward the reforms of their own times, by spreading the light of freedom and of truth still wider. The debt that each generation owes to the past it must pay to the future.
*Alice Paul deserves an asterisk in history because she made racist and anti-Semitic statements and her prejudice and privilege marred her activism, such as when she refused to allow women of color to march with white fellow activists in DC suffrage parades. The women suffrage movement was led and controlled by white women and often sacrificed the rights of and silenced women of color. This continues in the women’s movement today, with (mostly) white women at the helm of major organizations and women of color, gay women, and trans women often marginalized by the movement. Modern feminists have a duty to know and own our painful history and strive not to repeat it. A great analysis of racism in the women’s movement is bell hook’s Black Women and Feminism. It’s an amazing, must-read for anyone of any age or race who’s interested in gender justice.