Women’s Rights: A History Lesson

When I first began this blog, I started by posting an article that discussed facts about the fight for Woman Suffrage that I believed were unknown to most people. That article spawned from a larger piece I had written in 2019 for one of my history courses where my aim to was to discuss the suffragists of the past and their methods of protest in comparison with women’s rights activists today.

Given the events of the past few days, I thought we should revisit that information.

With what is to come, we should all be aware of how our predecessors thrived against seemingly insurmountable odds to claim the rights to which women everywhere were entitled. It is because of them we have the freedom we have today. We must fight for future generations just as they did.

We cannot allow our freedoms to be infringed upon.


“We are assembled to protest against a form of government, existing without the consent of the governed—to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such disgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love.”

-Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Seneca Falls Convention, 1848

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 seen as 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 1820s 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. One such organization, formed in 1913 and led 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 and many of the freedoms women have today. Although women are afforded many of the same rights as men, in the United States today women are still actively protesting to secure and maintain some of the most elemental human rights. While they too are using basic methods of protest, some of their methods are similar to those used during the Women’s Rights Movement of the early 1900s.

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 main inspiration for one of the main methods of protest used during the right to gain woman’s suffrage. After a fruitless and deject meeting with President Woodrow Wilson on behalf of the movement the women were left frustrated and ready to plot their next move. It was Harriet Stanton Blatch, the daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who devised the plan. She wrote to the members of the movement, her words published in The Suffragist, a weekly publication of the NWP, she stated:

We must go to him every day, we must have a continuous delegation to the President of the United States if he is to realize the never-ceasing, insistent demand of women that he take action where he is responsible. We may not be admitted within the doors, but we can at least stand at the gates. We may not be allowed to raise our voices and speak to the President, but we can address him just the same because our message to him will be inscribed upon the banners which we will carry in our hands. Let us post our silent sentinels at the gates of the White House” (Stillion Southard, 400).

Figure 1″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 Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Thus 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 protestors from the National Woman’s Party would silently protest at the gates of the white house brandishing signs that read things like “MR. PRESIDENT, WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE? and MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” (Stillion Southard, 400). This bold move by the NWP was an inspiration for activists everywhere and many groups rallied to participate in these protests. According to brittanica.com this move by the NWP made them the first political activists in the United States to ever Pickett the white house.

As a result of these protests activists were subject to horrendous treatment by those who opposed their platform. Many activists were treated like criminals, arrested, imprisoned, and forced to reside in deplorable living conditions. They were often beaten or denied medical treatment for their illnesses. Many who were arrested were condemned to unjust and excessive prison sentences. This would be the first issue tackled by the imprisoned activists during their stay. According to Doris Stevens, an activist during the Women’s Rights Movement, 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. This document is historical in that “it represents the first organized group action ever made in America to establish the status of political prisoners” (Stevens, 177). The beginning reads “To the Commissioners of the District of Columbia: As political prisoners, we, the undersigned, refuse to work while in prison. We have taken this stand as a matter of principle after careful consideration, and from it we shall not recede. This action is a necessary protest against an unjust sentence” (Stevens, 177).  This document goes on to summarize 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 points out the flaws within the justice system and the hypocrisy shown by the nation’s leader.

Figure 2 Lucy Branham, Harris & Ewing, 1917. Courtesy of Women of Protest: Photographs from the records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Despite the efforts of Lucy Burns and the other inmates, women continued to be arrested and imprisoned for their peaceful protests. One such occurrence took place in October of 1917 after the adjournment of a special session of the “War Congress”. Growing frustrated with the lack of action on the part of the government activist Alice Paul marched a group of eleven protestors to the gates of the White House. Two days later Paul and the other protesters were put on trial. Even in the face of the trial, these women continued their protests by remaining defiant but they did so in a complacent manner. This further angered the courts, as Stevens puts it “Nothing in the world so baffles the pompous dignity of a court as non-resistant defendants” (Stevens, 212). When asked if the women would enter a plea unto the court Alice Paul replied “We do not wish to make any plea before this court. We do not consider ourselves subject to this court, since as an unenfranchised class we have nothing to do with the making of the laws which have put us in this position” (Stevens, 212). As a response to the passive-aggressive action taken by the suffragists, Judge Mullowney suspended the sentences and released the protestors. This victory was short-lived as these protestors, along with many others once again advanced on the gates of the white house in protest and was once again brought to trial and this time remanded to excessive prison sentences.

Upon arriving at the prison the women were subjected to deplorable living conditions. The prisoners banded together to protest their living conditions first by making an attempt 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. In a firsthand account of her own imprisonment experience, Alice Paul writes “By this simultaneous attack from every cell, we succeeded in breaking one window before our supply of tiny weapons was exhausted. The fresh October air came in like an exhilarating gale” (Stevens, 215). She goes on to state the broken window was left unrepaired throughout the remainder of her stay and the stay of other suffragists. The prisoners considered this a win and moved to organize themselves into small groups to put forth rebellion within the prison. One such rebellion came in the form of a hunger strike led by Alice Paul. After describing the poor diet fed to them as prisoners and how it resulted in malnutrition and weakness in the prisoners Paul recounts:

 “At the end of two weeks of solitary confinement, without any exercise, without going outside of our cells, some of the prisoners were released, having finished their terms, but five of us were left serving seven months’ sentences, and two, one-month sentences. With our numbers thus diminished to seven, the authorities felt able to cope with us. The doors unlocked and we were permitted to take exercise. Rose Winslow fainted as soon as she got into the yard, and was carried back to her cell. I was too weak to move from my bed. Rose and I were taken on stretchers that night to the hospital. For one brief night, we occupied beds in the same ward in the hospital. Here we decided upon the hunger strike, as the ultimate form of protest left us – the strongest weapon left with which to continue within the prison our battle against the Administration” (Stevens, 216-217).

The 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 force-fed through tubes as a result of their resistance to consuming the food served to them while imprisoned.

Figure 3 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.

Unconventional and creative protest methods appear to be a trend for the suffragists of the Women’s Rights Movement both inside prison and on the front lines crusade for suffrage. Their outside-of-the-box thinking gave birth to a myriad of unique demonstration tactics. One such ploy was inspired by a period of imprisonment the suffragists faced in 1917. “While incarcerated, suffrage prisoners wore coarse prison uniforms that they believed unjustly clothed their bodies in criminality; in time, however, reproductions of these much-loathed uniforms became the costumes for the suffragists’ celebrated “Prison Special” speaking tour, and, indeed, a critical element in their rhetorical campaign for equal rights” (Kelly, 299). Despite being forced to wear garments that were deliberately soiled and used as a way to humiliate the suffragists, the women’s creative thinking took the “cloth of guilt” (Kelly, 304) 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.

As previously mentioned during the time prior to the successful establishment of suffrage for women, the women in the United States were expected to play a domestic role in society, often staying home to care for their home and their children.  This domestic role and the motherly influence held by these women turned out to be a poignant factor contributing to the ratification of the 19th Amendment.  On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House convened to address the proposed 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Amendments read, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation” (U.S. Const. amend. XIX).  This measure had already been ratified by thirty-five states and needed the support of one more state before women would win the right to vote. Twice the Tennessee House had voted to decline the measure and House Speaker Seth Walker moved to table the issue until after the fall elections but upon counting votes on tabling the measure the vote was split 48 to 48 and the house was forced to vote on the measure once more. Harry T. Burn, the youngest member of the Tennessee State Legislature had voted twice against the measure 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, and help…Catt with her ‘Rats'” (Newman, 34). Her mention of Catt’s Rats was a reference to a political cartoon that had appeared in a local newspaper depicting Carrie Chapman Catt, 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 nay to aye, officially ratifying the 19th Amendment and sending the Tennessee house into chaos.

Figure 4 Letter to Harry Burn from Mother, August 1920 [Photograph found in Harry T. Burn Papers, C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library]

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 as a result of its passage women are afforded more rights than ever before, there is still work to be done.

 Women today are still fighting for some of the most basic human rights and some may argue that instead of moving forward and gaining more freedoms we are actually moving backward. Issues like body autonomy, domestic violence, women’s health, and equal pay are at the forefront of the women’s rights movement of the 21st century. When addressing these issues activists today are using similar tactics to those used by the suffragists of the early 1900s, calling upon their feminine instincts to spawn creative protest methods. One such method is the Women’s March on Washington which took place the day after the current President of the United States Donald Trump was inaugurated. This march was the largest single-day protest in U.S. History. Women gathered from all over the United States, “many sported pink knitted beanies with cat ears, called “pussy hats,” as a symbol of solidarity among protestors” (Garfield).

Figure 5 People gather for the Women’s March in Washington. Courtesy of Shannon Stapleton/Reuters retrieved from  https://www.businessinsider.com/pussy-hats-womens-march-washington-trump-inauguration-2017-2

The goal of this march was to bring attention to the women’s rights issues of today. This march is now held annually worldwide and organized through https://womensmarch.com, which has become the hub for the movement. The use of the internet and social media to bring activists of today together in real-time and allow people from all walks of life to contribute to the growing movement regardless of their location or social status.  This convenience is not a luxury the activists of the suffrage movement had. One might argue that today’s technological advances make it easier for a movement to thrive but it is quite the opposite. With the wealth of information found online, it is often difficult for people to distinguish between factual information and satire and misinformation tactics can be a ploy initiated in an attempt to hinder a movement. While the women of the suffrage movement faced similar opposition in the form of misinformation spread through newspaper articles, the misinformation ploys of today reach a greater number of people at a faster rate.  Had this technology been available during the suffrage movement the outcome may have been very different.

The suffragists of the Women’s Rights Movement are responsible for some of the most infamous and successful protests in U.S. History. They are an admirable lot and a beacon of inspiration for women everywhere. Their intelligence and grit were the foundation upon which the women’s rights movement thrived and those same qualities can be attributed to women’s rights activists of today. Activists of both eras have used outside-of-the-box thinking to help advance their political agendas. Women activists of today give nod to suffragists of the past by organizing marches, utilizing fashion as a form of protest, and in their child-rearing; spawning a generation of people who support gender and racial equality and are willing to stand up for their beliefs. Regardless of the era in which these women were raised or which issues they’ve been forced to tackle, activists of today and suffragists alike are all part of the same group. One aimed at bolstering the education, rights, and opportunities imparted to women everywhere. The freedoms women enjoy today are a product of the efforts of these suffragists, and while we may never be able to repay them for their efforts, we are eternally indebted to them.

Figure 6  Officers of the National Woman’s Party meeting in Washington to complete the plans for the dedication ceremonies on May 21st of the Party’s new national headquarters opposite the Capitol. Alice Paul, New Jersey, vice president, Miss Sue White, Tennessee Chairman, Mrs. Florence Boeckel, ex Courtesy of National Photo Co., Washington, D.C. (Photographer)from the records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript  Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Women play a very different function in society today. We are an integral part of the establishment and without us, the structure would cease to thrive. We are your mothers, your sisters, your aunts, your neighbors, your counterparts, your coworkers, and your bosses.

We are your equals.

During the pandemic, I supported your right to bodily autonomy because I believe that no one should ever be able to tell you what you can and can’t do with your own body. I support your right to make your own choices.

Please support my right to do the same.

Visit this article by NBC to find out which states would automatically ban abortion if Roe V Wade is overturned: Map: 23 states would ban abortion in a post-Roe America

#Bansoffourbodies #RiseUp4AbortionRights #TheirBodyTheirChoice #Mothersdaystrike2022


RESOURCES

Mother’s Day Strike 2022

Planned Parenthood

ACLU / Reproductive Freedom

United
Nations Human Rights: Sexual and reproductive health and rights



References

“Silent sentinel” Alison Turnbull Hopkins at the White House on New Jersey Day [Photograph found in Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]. (n.d.). Retrieved August 11, 2019, from https://www.loc.gov/resource/mnwp.160032/  (Originally photographed 1917, January 30)

Abby Scott Baker in prison dress, 1917 [Photograph found in Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]. (n.d.). Retrieved August 11, 2019, from https://www.loc.gov/item/mnwp000006 (Originally photographed 1917

Harris, & Ewing. (n.d.). Lucy Branham [Photograph found in Records of the National Woman’s Party, Manuscript Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]. Retrieved August 11, 2019, from https://www.loc.gov/resource/mnwp.274007/  (Originally photographed 1917, October)

History.com Editors (2017, November 10). Seneca Falls Convention. Retrieved August 3, 2019, from https://www.history.com/topics/womens-rights/seneca-falls-convention

Kelly, K. F. (2015, April 21). Performing Prison: Dress, Modernity, and the Radical Suffrage Body. Retrieved August 11, 2019, from https://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/doi/abs/10.2752/175174111X13028583328801

Leanna Garfield – https://www.businessinsider.com/pussy-hats-womens-march-washington-trump-inauguration-2017-2

Letter to Harry Burn from Mother, August 1920 [Photograph found in Harry T. Burn Papers, C.M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Public Library]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://cmdc.knoxlib.org/cdm/ref/collection/p265301coll8/id/699(Originally photographed 1920, August)

Newman, J. (2010). Mother Knew Best. American History45(4), 34–35. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=52722389&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Stapleton, S. (2017, January 21). Shannon Stapleton/Reuters [Photograph found in Reuters]. Retrieved August 17, 2019, from https://www.businessinsider.com/pussy-hats-womens-march-washington-trump-inauguration-2017-2

Stevens, D. (1920). Jailed for Freedom. NY: Bonnie and Liveright. doi: https://books.google.com/books?id=3eQm9wZIMEkC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Stillion Southard, B. A. (2007). Militancy, Power, and Identity: The Silent Sentinels as Women Fighting for Political Voice. Rhetoric & Public Affairs10(3), 399–417. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.snhu.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=28066235&site=ehost-live&scope=site

The Britannica – https://www.britannica.com/topic/National-Womans-Party

Thousands Of Women Wore Pink ‘pussy Hats’ the Day After Trump’s Inauguration https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=63&page=transcript

Transcript Of 19th Amendment To the U.s. Constitution: Women’s Right To Vote (1920) https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=63&page=transcript

One thought on “Women’s Rights: A History Lesson

  1. Thanks for your interesting and thoroughly researched post.
    If a woman decides to have an abortion, the man has no say in it. If the same woman decides not to have an abortion, the man is required to pay for child care. But not necessarily allowed any involvement in the child’s upbringing. I’ve heard that in recent years there has been a push for late term abortion. I understand that it’s not one situation fits all, sometimes exemptions are necessary, but at some stage, someone has to say, if it’s your body, then it’s your responsibility to take care. We are living in a disposable world. Ironically we are trying our best to recycle and minimise dumps.

    Like

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