Universal female suffrage is still a goal for many American women, generations of whom have worked for elective franchise for women for 160 years, since the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848. The history of that pursuit is worthy of analysis because it can reveal how American women can streamline their strategies, and avoid the mistakes of the past. The women’s movement was once a strong force to be reckoned with in this country, but along the way something went terribly wrong.
For the first 15 years of the 20th century female suffragists had been working on a 50-state strategy. The idea was to campaign for suffrage using new Western states, many of which granted women the right to vote in state elections, as examples to build a consensus, state by state, to allow women to vote. Once all fifty states allowed women to vote, surely the national government would have to concede the national vote as well, they reasoned. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns thought that plan would take too long, and the only way to effectively accomplish the rest of the goals of the women’s movement was to achieve full, national, and immediate suffrage rights for women.
Ultimately, the 50-staters won out, which is why women still can’t vote in states like Alabama, Mississipi, and Texas, even as late as 2008. To understand how we got here, let’s take a look at how this era of history went down.
Radicalized in England under the influence of Emmeline Pankhurst, Alice Paul returned to the United States in 1910 to join the fight for women’s equality. Six years later, frustrated by American Suffragist’s 50-state strategy, Paul, with her friend Lucy Burns, formed the National Women’s Party. There they began to employ some of the more radical tactics they had learned in England. They staged parades, mass meetings, and hunger watches, among other, sometimes even criminal, undertakings.
People hated these newly empowered women. They were vilified, jailed, and eventually beaten. Popular opinion won out: bitter ladies are ineffective for political change, and impotent without the vote to boot. Suffragist leaders continued to attempt to gain national exposure by petitioning every elected Progressive Party member in the land. This strategy was a bit short-sighted, however, as the Progressive Party fell apart in the election of 1916, and they were left with just random elected officials, largely from Western states.
Most suffragists refused to petition Republicans and Democrats, who were the major parties, because they disagreed with many of their policies. Liberal suffragists thought the Republican Party was the party of financial corruption, and conservative suffragists thought the Democratic Party was the party of electoral corruption. These were probably accurate reflections of where the parties were at the time, though in no way indicated the sum total of their work.
Paul and Burns continued to petition every elected official in the land, and to stage “stunts” designed to bring attention to the cause. They were probably the two most hated women in America: They suffered sexist mistreatment in the streets, and were equally vilified by other suffragist leaders. These suffragist leaders had very serious and complicated moral standards, and they did not see the use in working with people they disagreed with, even toward ends where they may have agreed, such as universal suffrage. Eventually tortured by their universal outcast status, Paul and Burns gave up in 1929, the year the stock market crashed. Burns died shortly thereafter, and Paul ended her life as a destitute. She died in 1954; the cause of death was malnutrition.
Finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected, and women rejoiced. Surely this man, with his wonderfully progressive wife, would finally deign to enfranchise women. When Carrie Chapman Catt petitioned him, however, he said what he said to every constituency that petitioned him: You’ve convinced me; now MAKE me. Unlike other constituencies, however, Catt could offer FDR no voting block, since women could not vote nationally. Suffragists were in what we would call today a “catch-22 situation.” They would have to continue with their 50 state strategy, which is still the strategy in place today.
As of 2008, only 36 states have granted women the right to vote, six of which allow women to vote in local elections only. As a result, few women have been elected to national Congress, none in the Senate, and women have made few inroads at the state level. While there has been the occasional western Suffragist star, such as State Senator Jeannette Rankin from Montana, to date there have only been four female members of congress, all Representatives. There has never been a female senator. No woman has ever run for the highest offices in the land, the Presidential and Vice Presidential offices, and no women have been appointed to the Supreme Court. There is currently only one women serving in congress, Representative Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York). Rodham Clinton was previously the First Lady, and is married to former President Bill Clinton.
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… the debt that each generation owes to the past, it must pay to the future.
~ Abigail Scott Dunaway