Women’s Equality Day is marked today, August 26, and it will likely be celebrated this year in much the same way it was celebrated in 1920–that is to say, hardly at all. The accomplishments of 72 years of hard work and massive effort were finalized with a single signature by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby who had received a package delivered to his home after arriving in Washington. The package contained the certified record of the action of the Tennessee legislature, the 36th state to ratify and the last one needed, in order to pass the woman suffrage amendment into law.
There were no crowds, no bands, no parades…just a solitary man signing into law something that women in the United States had worked hard for over a 72-year period of time. That afternoon, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Suffrage Association was received at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson and first lady, Edith.
A law to provide women with the right to vote was a long time in coming. How many hours, how many hands, how many small steps forward led to that day?
As we see today, changing any aspect of government takes time. While there is no doubt we are a better country for offering full franchise to all citizens 18 years and older, perhaps the best lesson to learn–and a way to express our gratitude to these women–is to remind ourselves that no matter how many obstacles are between where we are now and what we see as an ideal (whether it’s climate change, immigration, or financial reform), there are many small steps along the way, and it all takes time.
The women of the past demonstrated that accomplishing change can also require trying many avenues. In 1869 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association to push for a federal amendment to the Constitution. Another group led by Lucy Stone and calling itself The American Woman Suffrage Association, felt the best approach was state-by-state, which actually proved the route that offered the first successes. While still a territory, Wyoming voted in favor of women’s suffrage in 1869. Utah followed shortly after.
Were there any lessons to be learned in examining why the western states change first?
Historians put forward many reasons why the West may have been more open to women’s suffrage–among them that they were looking to attract women to help with the support work of the miners and the railroad workers or that they were looking for ways to increase population, etc.
Virgiinia Scharff, Women of the West chair at the Autry Center in Los Angeles, a professor at the University of New Mexico, and author of the forthcoming book, The Women Jefferson Loved (fall 2010), notes that the reason was relatively simple: The western legislatures were still quite small, so if one or two people liked the idea, it was much easier to get the votes. Scharff additionally adds another piece of wisdom that could serve us well with anything we want changed: “Remember, when power is closer to the ground, it’s easier to get things done.”
But before we think it was “easy” for those women in the west, it is important to know by 1872 the Wyoming legislature was re-thinking the issue. They passed a bill to repeal the law but the governor vetoed the bill, and his veto was upheld by a single vote.
To their credit, Wyoming soon came to fully embrace their stance, and when Congress considered not giving them statehood because of their position on women’s suffrage, Cheyenne officials sent back a telegram stating that Wyoming would remain out of Union 100 years rather than join without women’s suffrage, 1890 Wyoming was admitted as the 44th state, making it the first state to grant women the vote. By 1914 all western states west of the Rocky Mountains had given women the right to vote, showing that state-by-state “peer pressure” was stronger for neighboring states.
Of course ultimately, the country needed a federal amendment so that all women could vote, and the 19th Amendment was passed by the House of Representatives in January of 1918 and approved by the Senate in June of 1919. It was then sent on to the states for ratification, with Tennessee providing the last vote needed in August of 1920.
Needless to say, women were ready. In St. Louis, women paid to attend classes to learn about the workings of government, and there were both day sessions and evening sessions for women who worked. The League of Women Voters set up demonstrations at department stores and hotel lobbies showing the mechanics of voting.
But the ultimate step in preparing for women to vote may have been in White Plains, New York, where they established a “baby-checking” service in order that women might vote.
Next time you get frustrated with how long change takes for our government, think back to the ladies in Seneca Falls in 1848 and all the women between there and the gaining of full suffrage for women, perhaps it will help keep things in perspective.
And if you’d like a way to mark the occasion, visit the brand new website set up by the Anthony Center at the University of Rochester (Susan B. Anthony’s hometown) at www.rochester.edu/sba/