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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Women's Suffrace: A Radical Notion

As published in the Journal Opinion
October 27, 2010

“The campaign for woman suffrage in America long since ended. Gone are the days of agitating, organizing, educating, pleading, and persuading. No more forever will women descend on State Legislatures and the national Congress in the effort to wrest the suffrage from State and national legislators. The gates to political enfranchisement have swung open. The women are inside.”

This victory statement by suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt is found in her 1926 book Woman Suffrage and Politics. Ninety years ago next month, women in Vermont and New Hampshire joined voters across the nation to cast their ballots. That right will be exercised by women across the region again on November 2nd.

In early America, a woman’s legal identity was defined by relationships with the men in her life, and that identity granted her few legal rights. Abigail Adams, in her famous letter to her husband John Adams in March, 1776, admonished the delegates at Philadelphia to, “remember the ladies.” She wrote, “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.”

That revolution was a long time coming. By 1784, New Hampshire, along with other new states that had granted women limited voting rights, revoked those rights. To restore them was considered so radical that it was not until 1848 that an organized effort to give equal suffrage to women was begun. It resulted from a proposal made by Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, where the women’s suffrage movement was born.

It took another 80 years to achieve full suffrage for women. A brochure from The Women’s Rights Center in Seneca Falls states that the effort gained success only after, “480 campaigns to lobby state legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to the electorate, 56 popular votes on state amendments, 277 campaigns to get state political parties to adopt women’s platforms, 19 campaigns with successive Congresses, and the campaign to ratify the federal amendment in 1919-20.”

In Vermont, suffrage activities took the more moderate stand of gaining the right for women to vote in school meetings. A bill was submitted to the Vermont General Assembly in 1852. That year, Clarina Howard Nichols of Townshend, editor of the Windham County Democrat and the first women to address that body, spoke in behalf of the bill. She told the assembly that granting this right, “would not compromise a woman’s femininity. On the contrary, it would simply extend a mother’s accepted sphere of influence in the field of childhood education.”

In a 1973 article about Nichols, Madeline Kunin wrote, “The then-editor of the Rutland Herald threatened to present her publicly with a pair of trousers.” Nichols reminded the legislators that “they had legislated our skirts into their possession…Time enough for them to taunt us with being after their wardrobes, when they shall have restored to us the legal right to our own.” It would take decades before this modest request was granted.

In the period before the Civil War, the campaign was coupled with the abolitionist movement, but during that war, suffrage activities were put aside as women took active roles on the home fronts. It was that more active presence and the Constitutional amendments that defined citizens as males and granted the right to vote to black men that re-energized the women suffrage movement.

In 1869, a Special Commission on Women Suffrage recommended that an amendment granting suffrage be considered at the Vermont constitutional convention. They stated, “We see no good reason why the most ignorant man should vote, and the intelligent woman be refused…” Activities by supporters of the amendment brought the charge that the state was being invaded by, “strong-minded women.” Of the 223 delegates at the convention, only one voted for the amendment.

In July 1876, a century after Abigail Adams promised to foment a rebellion, E. Anne Hinman made a speech entitled “A Plea for Equality” to a Bradford audience. She made not only, ”a demand for the suffrage, but also for a higher education of women, and the breaking away of the rigid customs which have been established in society, and which prohibit her from sharing the benefits that accrue” from civilization. Her demand for a “wider sphere for women” included equal pay for equal work.

The Bradford Opinion reported that the lecture was, “well written and forcibly delivered and contained much good sound common sense and considerable nonsense.” It concluded, “that there are not ten men in the town of Bradford who are unwilling that women should have the privilege of voting if she wants it.” The editor went on to predict that “women will be permitted to vote sooner or later,” but doubted that the equality they expected to receive from the privilege would be realized.

This lecture, and its response, identifies some of the arguments raised against granting women a role in public affairs. Significant was the lack of wide-spread support from women. Additionally, the movement was coupled with other reforms including the temperance movement. The South feared granting women the right to vote would weaken its newly enacting laws depriving black men of that right. These fears created powerful enemies.

Many opponents felt that granting suffrage was against the teachings of the Bible as well as unnatural, unfeminine, unhealthy, a danger to the home and family and upsetting to “the fragile composition of the fairer sex.” One legislator from Rutland is quoted as saying that he was opposed to giving the ballot to “such a dangerous class as the women of Vermont.”

In 1872, two bills were introduced into the Vermont Legislature: one allowing women who paid taxes to vote and hold office in school district meetings and the other granting full voting rights. Both were defeated, although the school district bill passed the House and lost by only one vote in the Senate. New Hampshire adopted a similar bill in 1878, two years before it was finally adopted in Vermont.

Three years later, national suffragist leaders Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe met with supporters in St. Johnsbury and helped organize the Vermont Woman Suffrage Association. The focus of the group’s efforts over the next several decades was to expand the school suffrage to all municipal elections. Deborah P. Clifford’s article on the drive was published in Vermont History magazine in 1979. She writes that a bill granting municipal suffrage was introduced every two years. “Rumors abounded that one house would consent to give women the right to vote as long as the other agreed not to.” The bill finally became law in 1917.

At the national level, the focus was to gain full participation in state and national elections. In 1871, prominent suffrage leaders submitted a petition to Congress asking for the right to vote. Over the next 48 years, they were rejected and vilified for their efforts. They organized, petitioned, demonstrated and cajoled, gaining victories and suffering defeats state by state. One of those defeats was in New Hampshire when a 1902 referendum granting woman suffrage was defeated by the male voters.

The service of women to the nation during World War I helped tip the balance for a constitutional amendment granting full voting rights to women. By 1917, twelve states had granted equal suffrage to women and the following year Jeanette Rankin (R-Montana), the first woman elected to Congress introduced a suffrage amendment. Called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, it stated, “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.”

President Wilson opposed the idea when first elected in 1912, but in January, 1918, faced with a re-election campaign, he came out in support of the amendment. The millions of women who could already vote in state elections was a major factor in changing minds. Both supporters and opponents knew that the right of women to vote would come eventually and those who opposed it would be the first victims of the new electorate. The proposed amendment passed both houses by the necessary two-thirds vote on June 4, 1919.

The battle for ratification in the required 36 states was the last battle in the long and continuous struggle. Illinois was the first to affirm the amendment. On September 10, 1919, New Hampshire became the 16th state to ratify it. By March 1920, 35 states had approved, eight had voted against or refused to vote. Gaining the 36th for the required three-quarters was unsure. There were those who wanted Vermont to have the honor of confirming the right to vote for the women of the nation.

Samuel Hand’s history of the Vermont Republican Party entitled The Star That Set, describes the Vermont battle for ratification. Republican Gov. Percival Clements was opposed to the proposal, an opposition that “was grounded in the fear that suffrage proponents sought the vote as a weapon to re-impose prohibition.” When the presidential suffrage bill passed the Legislature, he vetoed it. “Clements contended that the legislators elected to the 1919 session should not vote on the issue since they had been elected prior” to congressional approval. “He proposed instead that candidates for the 1921 session declare themselves on the issue.”

By July 1920, the focus of the ratification movement was on Tennessee, one state in which there was a chance of success. The Legislature was equally divided. It came down to Harry Burn, the youngest member of the body. He had worn a red rose, the symbol of the opposition. The bill had been defeated, but was up for reconsideration. Burn changed his vote to one of support and the amendment was ratified. He later told reporters that his mother had written him a letter stating, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” That single vote gave women across the nation the right to vote in all elections.

Women voted for the first time in a Presidential election in November, 1920. It apparently was not newsworthy to the editor of The United Opinion as there was no major article at the time. Neighborhood reports included some notice of the event. In September, 1920, the reporter for West Fairlee Center noted that eight local women voted in the primary. The West Newbury columnist wrote: “Not many women from this side of the town attended the primary. We hope to see more of them next November. It is now up to the men and women of the country to say what they will have.”

On November 5, the Thetford column included the following: “Town Meeting drew a good number of voters, both men and women. One hundred and sixty-six had registered to vote and probably most of them cast their vote. The young misses of twenty-one were there, also one lady of one hundred one and one half years cast her vote for the first time. Mrs. Elizabeth C. Newcomb is the oldest person in town, if not the county. Chas. Douglas, the Republican candidate for town representative was elected. He made an informal speech in well chosen words, thanking the people for the honor given him. He treated the ladies to chocolates and men to cigars.”

In 1920, Haverhill’s Frances Parkinson Keyes, author and wife of U. S. Senator Henry Keyes, wrote an article entitled “On the Fence” published in The Atlantic Monthly. She stated that while she had been an “anti-suffragette all my life,” she had done nothing of consequence to prevent women suffrage. If fact, it was with her “entire approval” that Senator Keyes voted for the amendment. But, Keyes wrote: “I dread the very thought of voting.” She felt that women had enough in their lives without the extra burden of an expanded role in society. With a combination of hope and concern, she challenged women to accept this newly granted right in such a manner as to prove the opponents wrong. Mrs. Keyes, we can say with certainty, they have.

There is no doubt that the right to vote was the key for women to equality and influence in our society. A primary focus of my professional teaching career has been to inform both young men and women of their right to vote and the responsibilities that go with that right. I registered hundreds of young area residents who had reached their 18th birthday. As a Bradford election official and moderator, it is with no small amount of pride that I see many of them exercising the right to vote. As a citizen it has been my privilege to vote for women seeking office. What once was a radical notion has now become the norm. Hurrah and hurrah.