By Linda Carr & Judy Carbone, AAUW – Garrett Branch
On August 26, 1920, the 19th amendment was formally certified by US Secretary of State, Bainbridge Colby, officially making it part of the US Constitution and granting all women the right to vote, marking the end of a long and hard-fought battle spanning generations. For those who fought to ensure equal voting rights for all, the fight included conventions, collaborations, speeches, protests, essays, arrests, and, in more than one instance, imprisonment and torture.
2020 marked the 100th Anniversary of that auspicious occasion and events were planned throughout the country to honor and help celebrate the courageous women (and some men) who fought so long and hard to make voting for all a reality. COVID-19, as it did with many things, changed those plans. Because the ratification of the 19th Amendment was one of the most important events to happen in women’s history, however, many of the previously scheduled events have been postponed until this summer and many more are now featured online.
While the events of the early 1900’s are often looked at as the turning point in the women’s movement, the fight for women’s equality began in America’s earliest days. During early colonial Maryland (mid 1600’s), women like Margaret Brent fought for their right to own land. While husband John Adams was writing the Constitution, his wife Abigail wrote of equality for all including the right of women to vote.
It really started to become a national issue in the 1840’s however. This timeline, based on information on the National Women’s History Museum begins in the 1840’s when suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott coordinated the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Two years later, the first National Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Lucy Stone and Sojourner Truth were in attendance. At that time, women’s rights were closely tied to the Abolitionist movement.
After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in which voters are exclusively defined as male. The women’s movement is torn from within over the question of whether to support the Fifteenth Amendment which would allow Black American males to vote, with no votes still for women. After this, the movement splits. Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton found the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) to continue to push for a Constitutional Amendment. More conservative activists like Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe form the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) whose goal is to work with individual states to grant women the right to vote.
Because the NWSA refused to work for the ratification of the 15th Amendment, Frederick Douglass broke with the group. In 1872 various suffragists tried to cast their vote in the presidential election only to be arrested or turned away. Some western states like California and Oregon do achieve rights for women’s voters.
The first Woman Suffrage Amendment was proposed in the US Congress in 1878 but the first vote on the issue wasn’t taken in the Senate until 1887 and was defeated. In 1891 NWSA and AWSA merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and focused their efforts on achieving suffrage on the state level.
From 1890 to 1925, called The Progressive Era, women from all backgrounds entered public life and began to understand the importance of women’s rights. By 1900 Colorado, Utah and Idaho had adopted women’s right to vote. Although more western states voted to accept women’s suffrage, groups opposing the idea started to emerge in the early 1910s. In 1913 the NAWSA organized a parade in Washington DC bringing more focus to the issue. After that, more organizations and women’s groups endorsed women’s suffrage. Nevada, Montana adopt suffrage by eastern states like Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts continue to reject the idea.
The year 1916 was important. The first woman is elected to the House of Representatives–Jeannette Rankin of Montana. Woodrow Wilson pledged that the Democratic party platform will support suffrage and in 1917, the state of New York voted to allow women to vote.
In 1917, protestors stepped up their pressure on President Wilson and Congressional representatives to pass an amendment allowing all women the right to vote. Women holding banners (called “Silent Sentinels”) picketed almost daily. Facing a World War, President Wilson began a campaign to end the protests, and local police harassed the picketers and arrested them. Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party and believer in a more radical approach to protesting, is put in solitary confinement as a way “to break her will and to undermine her credibility with the public”.
In June of that year, more picketers are arrested and sentenced to up to six months in jail. While confined, many of the women start a hunger strike and are force fed and even tortured. As word of this spreads, the public outcry forces the government to unconditionally release the picketers.
In 1918, Representative Jeannette Rankin opened debate on a suffrage amendment and although it passed, it did not win the required two thirds majority in the Senate. As more states voted to legalize women’s suffrage, President Wilson stated his support and in 1919, Tennesee becomes the last state needed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. On August 26, 1920, Colby signs the certification document at his home with no ceremony and women were finally allowed the same voting rights as their male counterparts. After 1920 NAWSA formally became the League of Women Voters, an organization which still exists today.
August 26 is now celebrated as Women’s Equality Day (WED) and local organizers are working to reschedule the celebration originally planned for 2020. Members of the Garrett County Civic Club, Republican and Democratic Women’s Club, Daughters of the American Revolution, Garrett County Commission for Women have joined lead organization AAUW-Garrett Branch and are planning an outdoor event to be held on a Saturday in August, exact date and location to be determined.
The event is part of a statewide movement to celebrate this important accomplishment and will be held simultaneously in various locations around Maryland. While details are still in the works, this free, non-partisan, family-friendly event plans to offer food trucks, local entertainment, and educational experiences for young and old.
Sometime this year, depending on the COVID-19 situation, members of AAUW – Garrett Branch will present their long-awaited Women’s Monologues project, originally planned for March of last year. These monologues focus on Maryland Suffragists with local residents portraying the nine women and one man who helped shape Maryland women’s history, including several that hailed from or affected life in Garrett County.
Suffragists to be portrayed include Margaret Brent, born in 1601 and the first woman to demand the right to vote in the colony of Maryland; and Catharine Sweet, the first known suffragist to live in Garrett County. Edith Houghton Hooker, first woman to be accepted in Johns Hopkins Medical School will also be portrayed as well as Edna Lattimer, the 1914 Garrett Suffrage Hike General.
Mary Elizabeth Garrett, daughter of our county’s namesake John Garrett, was a well-known advocate for women’s suffrage. The Monologues will portray a conversation between her and her sister-in-law Mary Frick Garrett, who was an “Anti-Suffragist”.
Other historical figures to be portrayed are Julia Emory a survivor of “The Night of Terror” as one of the picketers jailed and tortured in Washington, DC and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, one of the first African American women to be published in the United States and an abolitionist and women’s right advocate.
Dr. Lurilla F. Bullard Tower, the first female physician to practice in Garrett County was well known for her efforts to empower women for social reform and suffrage. The most famous person to be portrayed is Frederick Douglass who was one of the 30 men present at the first Women’s Rights Conventions in Seneca Falls and who felt that women’s rights tied very closely with the rights of Black Americans.
Can’t wait until summer? There are a tremendous amount of resources about women’s history online. A visit to womenshistorymonth.gov is a great starting point. Their theme for 2021 is “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote”. Dubbed as the largest reform movement in American history, this site helps you explore online exhibits and resources from the National Gallery, The Smithsonian, The National Museum of American History, and the Library of Congress. These exhibits and collections explore the art, culture, politics, history, and performing arts of women and the fight for women’s rights. There are also links to several online publications with further information for readers of all ages and a special section just for teachers looking to program Women’s History Month into their curriculum.
Womenshistory.org is the official website of the National Women’s History Museum and features a treasure-trove of information including biographies and articles about women who made and are making history. They also feature several online exhibits and a list of resources including those for digital classroom use and virtual field trips.
The National Women’s History Alliance (NWHA) is committed to the education, empowerment, equality and inclusion of all women. Members of this organization led the coalition to establish Women’s History Month. Found online at nationalwomenshistoryalliance.org, their website features even more information on the women’s suffrage movement and a state by state look at the work for women’s rights as well as plans to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the Women’s Right to vote.
PBS.org will offer special programming during March as several of their shows feature women in the news. There are also numerous movies, books and documentaries dealing with the subject.
The history of the fight for women’s right to vote is important to know and celebrate. The fight continued into the 1960’s for black, Latina, and Asian women until The Voting Rights Act was passed. Never forget…and always express YOUR voice through your right to vote.