Researchers discuss women’s suffrage 100 years after women got the vote
The Women’s Studies Research Center held a teach-in on the history women’s suffrage.
One hundred years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, members of the Brandeis community came together to learn about women’s suffrage: how it was achieved, who it left out and how the fight is still being fought today. This event was held at the Women’s Studies Research Center’s “Womanhood Suffrage Teach-In: 72 Years in 72 Minutes” on Thursday.
Ph.D. student Anja Parish, Polly Thayer Starr Fellow in American Art and Culture at the Boston Athenaeum Theo Tyson, Prof. Emerita Joyce Antler (AMST) and Prof. Jill Greenlee (POL) spoke at the event. Students also registered attendees to vote and helped them request absentee ballots.
The fight for women’s suffrage began long before 1920. “When we think about the early days of the women’s suffrage movement, we think of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton [and] the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848,” Parish said in her speech. “But the truth is that the women’s suffrage movement’s roots extend much deeper.”
The women’s suffrage movement was influenced by the social reform movements of the 1830s, when female activists were heavily involved in the abolitionist and temperance movements. Because women were often barred from certain forms of active participation in these groups, they formed their own organizations, Parish said. This was one of the early examples of women advocating for their rights; members in these early groups went on to serve as key figures in the women’s suffrage movement.
However, many of the women involved in the women’s suffrage movement were only fighting for white women’s suffrage. “Many suffragists were fighting for the rights of white women to vote,” Parish said. “As we remember the fight for suffrage, it is important that we remember the intersections of race, ethnicity and citizenship within the fight for equality.”
Women of color who were suffragists fought for universal suffrage, but as emancipation progressed, emphasis turned from female suffrage to universal male suffrage. “People were kind of forced into this idea that you had to pick a side, and that side, in the interest of political progress in the country, was to focus on the rights of emancipated slaves, so women took the back seat,” Tyson said.
One of the main arguments against women’s suffrage was the fear of what was believed to be the “imitation of men.” Since women during this time wanted to hold property, earn wages, vote and exercise many other privileges that historically had only been awarded to men, people in the anti-suffrage movement believed women wanted to imitate men, Tyson said.
“The heteronormative patriarchy dictates that the true virtue of womanhood is her femininity,” Tyson said. Since this move signified a loss of femininity, anti-suffragists — both men and women — viewed the suffragist movement as dangerous.
The women’s suffrage movement had issues of inequality beyond just issues of representation, Greenlee said during her presentation. Some women had access to the ballot before 1920, while some had to wait until years later to receive access.
Fifteen states granted women the right to vote prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment, according to the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics. Third party alliances could have contributed to this, Parish said. Third parties at this time realized that increasing the voting block would increase their chances of success. Some states also granted partial voting rights to women prior to 1920, usually regarding items that fell in the “domestic sphere,” Greenlee said.
After 1920, indigenous women, African American women and Asian American women still faced barriers to voting. This was accomplished through the blocking of state residency and the inclusion of literacy tests. Additionally, immigrant women who sought access to the ballot faced difficulty in obtaining citizenship due to states’ efforts to suppress their votes, Greenlee said.
All speakers emphasized that the fight for women’s suffrage and equality is not over, although the conversation surrounding it may look different now. Issues like gerrymandering, the pay gap and the invisibility surrounding domestic workers still affect women today. However, the women’s suffrage movement has made significant progress. Greenlee urged that women take advantage of the voting rights that their predecessors worked so hard to attain.
“The right to vote is part of a really long struggle,” Greenlee said. “And we need to enjoy the fruits of our labor.”