Women’s Rights and the Nineteenth Amendment

I believe one of the greatest historical events in American history was the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This “woman question” spurred a wide-ranging debate

about the social role of women that grew out of several major developments that occurred in America. Americans had been unwilling to acknowledge the importance of a woman’s role in society until 1920. Women’s lives were undergoing rapid change due to technological change, industrialization, the expansion of education and the movement of people into the cities.

In referring this subject to Prentice Hall’s history textbook, America, Pathways to the Present, that was printed in 1999, I found a surprising little reference to the groundwork that the Women’s Suffrage Movement had made for many years prior to ratification of the amendment. I would like to write this paper on the vast history of the movement that is not presented in the textbook.

Many significant events in the women’s movement occurred that led the way to a woman’s right to vote. The text does not mention that in 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association was formed. The object of this organization was to secure an amendment to the Constitution in favor of women’s suffrage. Another organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association was also formed at this time by those who believed that suffrage should be brought about by constitutional amendments within the various States. In 1890, these two bodies united into one national organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Several women had spoken about suffrage since 1826, but not until this large organization was formed, was a concerted effort made to bring about change. A headquarters was established in New York City. This move made the organization a legitimate body. Three western states, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah adopted state constitutions recognizing voting rights to women.

Under the leadership of Grace Wilbur Trout in 1912, the organization began to build a strong lobbying network. She organized a dedicated group of lobbyists who kept the pressure on state representatives, Congressmen and governors. This culminated in Illinois voting passing a bill allowing women the right to vote for President, but not for any other office. This single victory made a great effect on the nation. When the first Illinois election took place in April, 1914, the newspaper headlines noted that over 250,000 women had voted in Chicago alone! This proved to politicians that women represented a huge power in politics. This is not found in the text.

One would think that this momentum would alone bring about change, but it took other significant events to gain the country’s attention. These events are also not noted in the textbook. The first is the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913. This well organized demonstration was held in Washington D.C. Nine bands, mounted entries, more than twenty floats and over 5,000 marchers paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. The participants were carefully selected to represent women and the many areas in daily life that women effect. Nurses in uniform, women farmers, homemakers, women doctors and pharmacists, actresses, librarians and teachers marched with pride. These women came from around the country to march in protest against the political organization of society, from which women were excluded.

Of course, all of this was planned for the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Thousands of visitors, mostly men, in town to celebrate President Wilson’s victory watched the women parade. Suddenly, many in the onlookers pushed forward and began to physically jostle the marching women. Verbal insults were hurled. The unruly men nearly stopped the parade but the women pushed through almost in a single file to the concluding spot, the Treasury Building. All of this was done while police officials looked on and, in some cases, joined in on the verbal assault. Many of the women were hospitalized.

The crowd at the parade was so large that when president-elect Woodrow Wilson arrived at the train station a few blocks away, very few people were there to greet him. The women who were able to complete the march listened to speakers reiterate the movement’s main points. Thousands of women from around the country came to march in a spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women were excluded.

Of course all of this created a great deal of publicity for the movement. Just as we have found in the American civil rights movement, these acts of violence against a non violent protest create publicity and a renewed vigor in the movement. In this case, women had been struggling for the right to vote for more than 60 years. Even though some progress had been made on the state level, it took this non violent march and the attack on the marchers for the national press to take notice.

The mistreatment of the marchers by the crowd and the police indifference roused great indignation by the public and led to congressional hearings. These hearings included more than 150 witnesses who made their own statements. One of the outcomes of these hearings was the firing of the superintendent of police of the District of Columbia.

The newspaper and magazine headlines were filed with outrage at the men’s behavior. Less than two weeks following President Wilson’s inauguration, a delegation of the movement’s leaders met with the President in regards to their issues. He could see the political benefits by at least recognizing their protests. The wheels of change were beginning to turn which would truly be recognized seven years later.

The text book does not mention this important milestone in 1913. There is a time line showing events following the ratification in 1920. It shows Labor Secretary Frances Perkins becoming the first woman to hold a cabinet post under President Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership. It shows how women, in 1942, filled the nation’s factories, making planes, tanks and other goods during World War II. In 1963, Feminist Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, helped inspire a new generation of women’s rights activists. In 1992, Carol Mosely Braun became the first African American woman elected to the United States Senate. Five women were elected to the Senate that year. None of the events on this time line would have taken place without the events leading up to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

I would like to take a little time to write about the social changes that were taking place in America during that time. Despite the economic and political inequality that women faced, new jobs, new educational opportunities and new roles in the home existed. All of this created the “woman question” that I mentioned earlier. The question came down to whether women should be able to vote? Should they be paid the same as men for doing the same work? Should they be able to control their own property and income? Should they have equal access to higher education and professional jobs? Could a woman control her own social patterns such as appearance, marriage and even birth control?

I have already written a great deal about the voting issue. This issue drew huge numbers of women to campaign and support the suffrage movement. Women from various walks of life could agree on this issue and ultimately bring about success. The other questions were more of a personal matter for women. Each woman had a different set of circumstances in her life which dictated her opinions of the issues.

American’s lifestyles were becoming easier in some ways and more difficult in others. New technology was making home life easier. As simple as a thing as running water in the home, freed up some additional time in the typical woman’s day. Gradually, the introduction of electricity in the home continued this trend. Electrical devices such as washing machines, quickened a homemaker’s chores and decreased the time spent doing housework. Women did not have to bake or butcher in order to prepare meals. Technology prepared food and clothing, previously a role for the homemaker. Even taking care of the ill, nursing, became a profession and hospitals expanded.

This increase in time allowed women to earn advanced degrees and enter professions. As there roles in the job force increased, should they receive the same pay as their male counterparts? In some cases, that debate still exists; however, American women were receiving a paycheck and dealing with sums of money previously out of their control. Dependence of a woman on a man for her financial security became less of an issue. With this came her freedom to make social choices about family, travel, leisure and birth control. Without a woman’s right to vote, all of these issues would have no being, for Congress could have legislated away, or at least controlled, women’s issues. If women could vote for politicians who would address their issues in Congress or even City Hall, they could really control their own destiny. None of this is mentioned in textbooks!

Unfortunately, textbooks are becoming picture books. Text writers are lowering their sights for general education. Too many students either cannot or do not want read. Perhaps the visual learning center, the television, is responsible. Bright pictures in textbooks are replacing the written word. If you are not able to produce a photo or creative picture about a subject, the subject is lost and not written about. I believe this has happened in several areas of American history, but especially women’s rights. Like the processed food we buy in the supermarket, we spend very little time thinking about how the resulting product that we are enjoying, made its way into our life. We just want the results and do not appropriately appreciate the effort it took for us to enjoy it.

Mr. Loewen questions educational publishers’ motives when they produce textbooks that seem to lose real historical value and turn into photo albums. These publishers are charged with the public’s trust, especially children and young adult’s education. Perhaps less glossy and therefore less expensive books are the answer. These books could be text filled, simpler in design and more honest in their content. Something needs to be done to better educate Americans on America.

I chose this subject because I believe that recognizing the rights of women is a major factor in American society. The long struggle was started by a few and has grown throughout the years. History textbooks should really spend more time telling about the early issues and circumstances that brought the issues to the forefront of American social, political and historical attention.

I have spent a great deal of time describing the 1913 march in Washington D.C. that I believe was a pivotal point in the movement. History textbooks like to point out significant events that shaped an era or segment of time in American history. This march and the controversy that surrounded it was not mentioned in the text. One would think that it had all the factors that would make it interesting for students to read. It involved two competing foes, at least Americans with totally diverse points of view on the subject. There was action and violence. And then there was an outcome that revolutionized the way America treated half of its population.

The results of this parade have shaped American social culture for the last 100 years. The struggle still continues in many areas of American life. Something this momentous should be included in America’s history textbooks.