Six Interesting Facts About Women’s Suffrage That You Probably Didn’t Know

In society today women play an intrinsic role in the cultivation of their communities, but this has not always been the case. Not long-ago women lived their lives beholden to the will of men. They lived by the idea that their primary function in society was to play a submissive and domestic role. They were unequal to men, had very few rights and for the most part, were poorly educated.  It took hundreds of years before women began to fight for the same rights and freedoms that were already guaranteed to their male counterparts.

The Women’s Rights Movement began in the 1820’s but didn’t gain steam until 1848 when women’s rights supporters gathered to discuss the issue of women’s rights in the United States. This gathering is known as the Seneca Falls Convention. From that convention sprang a consensus on the issues to be tackled, as well as a wealth of support for the movement. In the wake of this convention several women’s rights organizations were formed. Once such organization, formed in 1913 and lead by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, two well-known women’s rights activists, was the National Woman’s Party (formerly the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage), which played an integral part in the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

 The women of the National Woman’s party employed a myriad of tactics when fighting to win the right to vote. While they used many common methods of protest such as letter writing campaigns and forming protest groups it was their unconventional protest methods, creative thinking and feminine instinct that led to the eventual ratification of the 19th Amendment.

  • Women were the first political activists in the United States to hold protest demonstrations outside the White House.
“Silent sentinel” Alison Turnbull Hopkins at the White House on New Jersey Day . 1917 Courtesy of Women of Protest: Photographs from the records of the National Women’s Party, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Women were meant to be seen and not heard. This was an overwhelmingly held belief throughout society during the early years of the Women’s Rights Movement and women were expected to adhere to it without question. That concept was the inspiration for one of the main methods of protest used during the fight to gain woman suffrage. On January 10, 1917, the women of the National Woman’s Party waged silent protests outside the white house gates for the first time. This form of protest would continue for the next two and a half years. Six days a week protestor from the National Woman’s Party would silently protest at the gates of the White House.

  • Female protestors who were arrested and imprisoned during suffrage protests are the organizers of the first group action ever made that established the status of political prisoners in America.

Lucy Burns was responsible for initiating the activist movement inside the prisons and upon her removal to solitary confinement a piece of paper listing the demands of the prisoners was passed from cell to cell until the document was completed with the demands of signatures of each of the inmates. The document summarized that the group was entitled to their rights of peaceful protests which are guaranteed to them by the Constitution and that by arresting them for exercising their right to protest they violated laws the government had already recognized as legitimate when they pardoned other activists for the same reason. Essentially pointing out the flaws within the justice system.

  • Women imprisoned because of their protests continued their protests from inside their prison cells by waging war on the deplorable living conditions that they were forced to suffer. They broke prison windows to gain access to fresh air and even participated in a hunger strike.

The prisoners banded together to protest their living conditions first by trying to maintain their health by demanding the right to fresh air. They launched an attack on the windows near their cells, utilizing anything they could find (tin cups, books, light bulbs, etc.) and hurling them at the nearby windows. Hunger strikes held by the activists resulted in a campaign of intimidation by the authorities. The women were met with threats, they were bullied and often forced fed through tubes because of their resistance to consume the food served to them while imprisoned.

  • Soiled robes were given to protestors who were imprisoned as a method of humiliation against the suffragettes, but the women responded by using fashion as a form of rebellion and donning the garments during their protests.
Abby Scott Baker in prison dress, 1917. Courtesy of Women of Protest Photographs from the records o f the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript  Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Despite being forced to wear garments that were deliberately soiled and used to humiliate the suffragists, the women’s creative thinking took the garment and transformed it into a badge of honor for those who donned it. They harnessed the suppressive meaning behind the garb and revolutionized it, turning it into a symbol for the women’s suffrage movement.

  • Suffragists used Valentines as a method of protest.

On Valentine’s Day in 1916 Suffragists put an ironic twist on a rather feminine holiday by sending a thousand valentines to politicians urging them to support the suffrage movement. You can view actual valentines sent to the politicians and read more about it at Genealogy Bank.

  • A mother’s handwritten letter to her son urging him to throw his support behind the movement, was the final nail in the coffin for those who opposed the women’s suffrage.
Letter to Harry Burn from Mother, August 1920 [Photograph found in Harry T. Burn Papers, C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library]

Harry T. Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee State Legislature had voted twice against ratification but upon this third vote he took pause, recalling a letter he had received from his mother Febb Burn, urging him to vote in favor of the amendment. She wrote, “”Dear Son…Hurray and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt…. Don’t forget to be a good boy, help…Catt with her ‘Rats.” Her mention of Catt’s Rats was a reference to a political cartoon that had appeared in a local newspaper depicting Carrie Chapman Catt of the National Woman American Suffrage Association, driving the letters “RAT” with a broom, essentially sweeping them up in front of the letters “IFICATION”.  It was this letter from his mother that influenced Burn and compelled him to change his vote from a nay to an aye, officially ratifying the 19th Amendment and sending the Tennessee house into chaos.

The ratification of the 19th Amendment was a victory for women everywhere. The persistence and bravery of the suffragists who fought for equal rights are admirable and one of the main reasons why women today have the freedoms that they do. While the ratification of the 19th Amendment was a huge win for the Women’s Rights Movement and because of its passage women are afforded more rights than ever before, but there is still work to be done!

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