In two years, the League of Women Voters will celebrate its 100th birthday. The League was established the year that women were granted the right to vote in federal elections. At least, some women were.
Women’s right to vote was granted in 1920 through ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution by a sufficient number of states. It reads:
“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.”
The title of the amendment is Women’s Suffrage.
The origin of the word suffrage is not suffering; rather, its roots are in Latin and refer more to “support” and has generally come to mean support for the right to vote. Conflating it with suffering always made sense to me, because women did indeed suffer to gain the right to vote and never gave up.
The initial drive to participate in political decision-making occurred when interested women were forbid from being delegates in politically active groups in the mid-1800s because they were women. The National Women’s Suffrage Association was formed in 1869 that began the formal struggle for women’s right to vote.
Nearly 50 years later the organization succeeded in having suffrage on the platform of both political parties.
The intervening four years until ratification were fraught with demonstrations — violence in some cases, arrests in many cases, and imprisonment. Most notable were the demonstrations that took place in front of the White House in which the women held signs pestering President Woodrow Wilson and actually burning some of his speeches.
Swallow this, ladies
It seems that President Wilson was none too pleased. The police began arresting and imprisoning the women. Alice Paul, a suffragette leader, was sentenced to seven months in jail in 1917. She and others began a hunger strike in jail and soon jail authorities force fed them by inserting a tube through their mouths to their stomachs through which they poured liquid food.
The women still didn’t give up. Finally, in 1918, President Wilson relented and advocated for women’s suffrage.
There wasn’t much time for cheering a well-fought victory. The fact was that women weren’t used to voting except in some local communities. Voting in a federal election was a completely new endeavor.
The League of Women Voters formed to educate woman on becoming educated and informed voters. The League maintains that same goal today, only expanding its reach to all eligible voters.
Obstacles occurred such as the State of Maryland filing an unsuccessful suit to have women’s names removed from the registry, claiming the amendment was unconstitutional. Groups of women continued to be excluded from voting because they were not seen as people eligible to vote despite being of age and born in our country. Among those were women of color such as African Americans and Native Americans. It wasn’t until passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — 45 years later — that the way was cleared for all citizens of color to vote.
Still, we know of examples of voter suppression occurring to this day. The controversies and the fights go on around each citizen 18 years of age or older for the right to exercise the fundamental act of citizenship we all share, to cast our vote.
The challenge for women isn’t just voting; it’s about being included in our democracy as an equal partner. But the wheels of cultural change turn ever so slowly.
The recent mid-terms resulted in a record win by women in the House of Representatives. More than 100 women were elected into the House, bringing the grand total of women representatives to a bit south or north of 25 percent of the total membership of 435. Are you impressed or distressed with the rate of progress?
Women senators in the Senate represent 23 percent of the total Senate membership of 100. Are you impressed or distressed with the progress?
Most of the swell of new women participating and winning occurred because the women chose to run and the multitude of women showing their displeasure with the current President and Congress’ demeaning attitude toward women like themselves.
We can assume that many of the women who voted in the mid-terms against the interests of the President were present at the million-woman March, the largest in history, held in protest the day after the President’s inauguration.
To do otherwise was to vote against their own interests and those of their daughters and granddaughters.
We may not all agree on the parallels between the women suffragettes who were jailed and forced-fed under President Wilson versus the portrayal of women protesting denial and implied tolerance of sexual abuse as “an angry mob” by our current President and Congress.
Is anyone else as puzzled as I am that women clamoring to be heard using only their voices are still being viewed as hysterical, whereas marauding men with threatening guns and torches are seen as decent people? Is it still a strategy of maintaining power to treat women as inferior along with the “others” and keep them from voting (at best) and oppressed (at worst)?
The strategy is beginning to crack. Gerrymandering to include clumps of women in one district and exclude them from another isn’t going to work. Nor will suffocating any law a party doesn’t like that supports ordinary people by simply not funding it.
Never could quite get why it’s lawful for Congress not to fund a law Congress passed. We’ve already seen it happen to women’s reproductive rights, consumer protections and creeping steadily into Medicare.
If that’s OK with us, we can be content and overlook it. If not OK, we can learn from the women who earned our right to vote.
Meanwhile, be comforted that there are more people who love women than don’t. They’re just not in power right now.
Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.