Women eye equality
The women’s suffrage movement marches on.
On June 4, 1919, the 19th amendment was finally passed by congress. It meant more than recognizing women’s right to vote in America. It signaled a crucial shift in the way Americans thought about women. That’s because granting women the right to vote meant more than just showing up at the ballot boxes. It meant people understood women were critical to political, social, economic, military and international conversations. Though it would take decades for all the aforementioned issues to also be recognized, the women of the American suffrage movement paved the way for women today to have the freedom, and courage, to continue fighting for gender equality. And the battle has expanded to ensure citizens of all faiths and races are equally recognized. The world is listening. The words of 19th century suffragist Susan B. Anthony remain relevant: “Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.” In our gratitude to those who dared to challenge social and political structures, we asked UD faculty to share their thoughts on the importance of the American women’s suffrage movement that was ratified 100 years ago this August.
Professor, School of Law
The suffrage movement illustrates how women can organize and work collectively on issues that matter to them. Giving women the right to vote allowed them their own voice and the ability to address issues that spoke to them. Women no longer existed solely in the shadows of their fathers and husbands. Leaders of the suffrage movement, like Sojourner Truth, were amazing people. She dispelled the myth of women being the weaker sex. Her life story is a testament to the equality of women through courage and strength. Hopefully, the younger generation realizes that they too have the power to make positive change. Like those who came before them, women of today can improve society and achieve the ultimate goal of gender equality if they are willing to fight for it.
Associate professor, Department of Political Science
The 19th Amendment reflects a fundamental change in government — eliminating the presumption that men had a right to govern for women. It was a hard fought battle; three generations of women had sought this change before 1920, and generations of women suffragists fought long after 1920 to ensure that all women could enjoy this fundamental human right. The movement reflects a political awakening for many women where they sought power, influence and a voice outside of the home in organized and mobilized ways.
Giving women the right to vote allows their voice, ideas and needs to be considered in circles of power, in places where decisions are made, and as part of public policy. Whether we are talking about military spending and war or economic stimulus packages or tax reform, social security programs or health care, all of these processes are gendered. This means that these processes make assumptions about men’s and women’s expected roles in society, and they affect men and women differently in their implementation. The right to vote empowers women as citizens, as laborers, as care providers, as educators, as soldiers, as business owners and as students to have a say in the local, state and national decisions that affect their everyday lives.
When we remember women’s suffrage in the U.S., we historically highlight white, affluent women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady and Lucy Stone. And while their stories are certainly important, we need to also remember and celebrate the brave and difficult work of women such as Mary Church Terrell, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary. For many of these women of color, the passage of the 19th Amendment did not ensure their ability to vote. It was not a time to celebrate for them. To be clear, the amendment only declared that states could not discriminate based on sex; this meant that missions of women and men of color continued to be barred from the polls.
“Recalling the history of the movement demands that we pay attention to the precariousness of voting rights and gender equality, especially today.”
Recalling the history of the movement demands that we pay attention to the precariousness of voting rights and gender equality, especially today. We must be vigilant and civically engaged; this includes voting but also working to ensure that our democratic practices are serving all, especially the most vulnerable among us. We must resist laws that lead to voter suppression for these groups, and we must continue to push for gender equality.
Associate professor, Department of English
Having the right to vote is crucial in helping women to pressure politicians and government.
But that is only in countries where the right to vote exists. Dictatorships and authoritarian rule are not things of the past. For example, Brunei in Southeast Asia hasn’t had a direct legislative election since 1962.
Women’s right to vote created ripple effects that helped them gain more access to education and careers. But, women are not encouraged to vote, become educated or have careers in many places around the world even today.
For example, Pakistan, the country where Malala Yousafzai fought for girls’ education, is also the country with the lowest female voter turnout. In the 2013 elections in Pakistan, only 10% of the women voted. What I’m trying to say is that in some places, no one can vote. And even in places with elections and women’s suffrage, women are still restricted in many ways.
I would encourage young people to first take a global view on suffrage that would include women everywhere. People should know about the important work of Kate Shepard in New Zealand, the first country to give women the vote in 1893.
In general, people should know about female leaders who are not American and who fought and won their political voting battle long before the United States gave women the right to vote.
Professor, Department of English
It is impossible to overestimate the impact the women’s suffrage movement has had on the status of American women. The 19th Amendment signaled women were real political subjects. Whether they agreed with men or disagreed with men — in some sense it doesn’t matter — what mattered is that finally women could articulate their political will in the same way as men. I also take issue of language that implies women were given the right to vote. It took women 72 years to win this battle. They weren’t given anything. They fought long and hard to get men finally to vote in favor of what should have been the case from the beginning.
The women suffrage leaders were incredibly brave. And they made huge sacrifices on behalf of all the women of their time and in our time.
The more I learn about what women leaders like Alice Paul, who was tortured for fighting for women’s rights, the more I feel deep gratitude for what they did for me and my daughters. They were heroes. They took a very smart look at the signs of their times and became resolved that conditions for women in the U.S. had to change.
“If we want meaningful political change, we have to do the analysis and then be willing to struggle for it.”
There isn’t any way around it — if we want meaningful political change, we have to do the analysis and then be willing to struggle for it. And that is not easy. But, as they proved to us, it can be done. And it’s worth it.
Photos from the Library of Congress.