On this day in 1920, the thirty-sixth (and last necessary) state ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, promising women the right to vote.
It took decades of tireless effort and hell-raising. The Seneca Falls Convention happened in 1848. The women who pushed and prodded and protested and paraded in the intervening years faced fierce opposition. You can see some of the mocking, unfathomably stupid postcards produced in response to their demands at Collector’s Weekly. This piece from the Library of Congress relates the scene at the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in D.C., which drew marchers from all over the country. It sounds terrifying, frankly:
Soon, however, the crowds, mostly men in town for the following day’s inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, surged into the street making it almost impossible for the marchers to pass. Occasionally only a single file could move forward. Women were jeered, tripped, grabbed, shoved, and many heard “indecent epithets” and “barnyard conversation.”5 Instead of protecting the parade, the police “seemed to enjoy all the ribald jokes and laughter and part participated in them.” One policeman explained that they should stay at home where they belonged. The men in the procession heard shouts of “Henpecko” and “Where are your skirts?” As one witness explained, “There was a sort of spirit of levity connected with the crowd. They did not regard the affair very seriously.”7
But to the women, the event was very serious. Helen Keller “was so exhausted and unnerved by the experience in attempting to reach a grandstand . . . that she was unable to speak later at Continental hall [sic ].” Two ambulances “came and went constantly for six hours, always impeded and at times actually opposed, so that doctor and driver literally had to fight their way to give succor to the injured.” One hundred marchers were taken to the local Emergency Hospital. Before the afternoon was over, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, responding to a request from the chief of police, authorized the use of a troop of cavalry from nearby Fort Myer to help control the crowd.
This piece from the National Archives details the play-by-play on how the political tides turned, with politicians putting support behind a constitutional amendment. Tennessee ratified on August 18, putting the count over the top. Naturally, it made front-page news. Here’s a peek at the Taylor Daily Press, out of Texas.
And here’s the New York Times the following day.
Here’s Alice Paul triumphantly adding a star to the banner that flew over the Washington HQ of the Women’s Party, which signaled that the necessary thirty six states had ratified, making the amendment official.
Of course, too many of those who fought so hard for the vote were poor allies to black Americans at best and abject bigots at worst. A number of white suffragettes took issue with the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment (a conflict outlined well in this NPR interview), with their reaction—“how dare you give those men the vote first”—betraying a deep-seated racism. The Toast has a roundup of appalling quotes from famous figures including Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ida B. Wells famously tangled with WCTU president Francis Willard over her willingness to curry favor with racist Southern white women at a time when lynching was terrorizing black communities across the region, and the organizers of the 1913 march tried to make her and other African American women bring up the rear of the parade.
And of course, for all the celebrations and despite their participation in the movement, black women would be denied their rights for decades more through the state-enforced racism and violence of Jim Crow.
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Photos via AP Images; screencaps via Newspapers.com, NYT archive.