History of voting, Part III: Women’s Suffrage

A Liberal Dose


We’ve been talking about voting rights the last couple of weeks and have mostly focused on how class and race determined which men could vote. Now we’ll turn our attention to the other half of the population: women. Specifically, we will discuss women’s suffrage. “Suffrage” means being allowed to do something. Remember, in the King James wording Jesus said “suffer the little children to come to me”…he didn’t mean make them suffer, he meant allow them. This wording is, in itself, significant: the question was not whether women had the right to vote, it was whether the men should “allow” them to do so, which speaks volumes.

Women were already asserting their rights as this country was being formed. In March 1776, while John Adams was away from his Massachusetts home to help hammer out a declaration of independence, in Philadelphia, his wife, Abigail, made her thoughts clear in her letters to him.

“And, by the way, in the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

A few years later, in 1792, English philosopher Mary Wallstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argued that women are the equals of men. In fact, her daughter, Mary Shelley, would essentially found the modern science-fiction and horror genres, in 1818, with her novel Frankenstein.

Nonetheless, these were individuals, not a movement. Women started to get actively involved in American social and reform movements in the 1820s and 1830s, initially in defense of others. Many women, especially in the North, contributed to the movement, protesting Indian Removal and the Trail of Tears. Quite a few of them moved from that action to joining the drive to abolish slavery. Quite a few women were prominent figures in abolition, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to the Southern-born Grimke sisters. In the process of defending the rights of minorities, more and more women came to realize that they, too, were treated as second class citizens.

Some argue that the women’s movement started in 1840, when the American abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott traveled to London for an anti-slavery convention - and were not allowed in because they were women. They organized the first women’s rights convention, at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Soon joined by Susan B. Antony, they began organizing to gain the vote for women. At the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, in Ohio, in 1851, an ex-slave and feminist named Sojourner Truth gave a powerful speech called “Ain’t I a Woman?” She asked the audience, where did Jesus come from? God, and a woman. “Man ain’t had nothin’ to do with it.”

It was a long, hard-fought process… and a slow one. Interestingly, many Western states allowed women to vote in state and local elections, beginning with Wyoming, in 1869, and Utah, in 1870. But in most of the country, women had to keep protesting. The 19th Amendment, passed in 1919, finally guaranteed women the right to vote (Tennessee’s ratification of the amendment was the one which officially passed it). Former slaves got the right to vote soon after the Civil War, so, for half-a-century, black men could vote while all women could not.

From that first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, to the 1920 national election, the first in which women could vote, 72 years had passed - 72 years of tireless work, inconvenience, incarceration, and sometimes enduring physical violence.

May they never be forgotten.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.      


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