Part I of III: Background
Individual letters have moved history and votes. Before tweeting and social media, penned (or penciled) letters were an excellent persuasive tool. This blog is in three parts: Part I deals with Suffrage and background on the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Part II considers a letter that moved Congress into action by moving a President of the United States. Part III deals with a penciled letter of a Mother to a Son, and that one letter sealed the deal on the 19th Amendment granting finally women the right to vote.
In 2021, looking back on Women’s Suffrage, it is hard to fathom this part of American history. Yet, factually the 19th Amendment was initially introduced to Congress as the 16th Amendment in 1878. Women received the Constitutional right to vote with the certification of the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920. By my count, that’s 44 years from start to finish, but I know from my research that it was more than 44 years. But, the initiation was as early as 1868.
In 1916, Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected as a Representative to the U.S. Congress from Montana. What would Ms. Rankin do with her one vote? My Father was born February 9, 1916, and I must say I am forever grateful that my Father, who was middle-aged when I was born, thought women were equal to men. His Mother (my Grandmother) was a creative, entrepreneurial soul, but operating from a home state of Alabama, the task of women’s equality was foreign to many. My Grandmother and Father taught me to move forward and ignore the detractors.
The price of Suffrage was high. Women went to jail to make the vote happen: first in England and then in the United States.
In 1999, Emmeline Pankhurst (July 14, 1858 to June 14, 1928) was named by Time as one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. She was shocking to many and militant. From Manchester, England, she founded the Women’s Social and Political Union, a women’s suffrage organization with the mantra “deeds, not words.” Authorities imprisoned and force-fed when she exercised hunger strikes in jail. While her early politics tended toward socialism, World War I seemed to change her views. Emmeline saw the Germans’ imminent threat and stopped her voting rights militancy, but not her mission. In 1918, women over the age of 30 and men over the age of 21 were granted the right to vote in the Representation of the People Act. Strange, huh? After all, men could not be the minority as many were killed in World War I. Later in Emmeline’s life, she joined the Conservative Party with the threat of Bolshevism. One has the right to change her mind with maturity and time.
Alice Stokes Paul (January 11, 1885 – July 9, 1977) was a White House, Washington, DC protester—jailed many times. Alice was a Quaker. Her education was impressive, with her first degree from Swarthmore College in 1905, a college her grandfather co-founded. In 1907, Alice moved to England. After hearing Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst) speak at the University of Birmingham, England, Alice converted to the militant suffrage movement. Alice sold Suffragist magazine on the street corners in England. Alice Paul was arrested seven times and imprisoned three times. During that time, she learned the art of civil disobedience, declaration of “I am a political prisoner” upon arrest, and hunger strikes.
After her last imprisonment, Alice Paul returned to the United States as a very public figure and re-enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania pursuing her Ph.D. with a dissertation on a comprehensive history of United States women’s legal status. My take away is that access to quality education makes a difference.
In 1913, the day before President-elect Wilson’s first inauguration, Paul organized the Woman Suffrage Procession. With the help of volunteers, she marshaled eighty thousand protesters. A riot ensued, and the police did little to protect the protestors. A senator documents 22 officers who watched. Alice Paul, the militant side of the women’s movement in the United States, was honored in 2012 on a $10 U.S. Gold Coin.
However, the brilliant strategist that crossed the finish line for equal voting rights to U.S. citizens was Carrie Chapman Catt. Carrie Catt was President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1900 to 1904 and again for the critical time of 1915 to 1920. She went to college, became a teacher, and then superintendent of the schools in Mason City, Wisconsin, in 1883. Catt married newspaper editor Leo Chapman; Chapman quickly died in California but perhaps gave her the needed insight into the press. In 1890 she married George Catt, a wealthy engineer, which afforded her the campaign road for women’s Suffrage. She believed in human dignity. The vote was as crucial to dignity as a human being. That accompanied her goal for world peace.
Catt’s winning strategy was to present Suffrage simultaneously i) to the States and ii) to Congress and the President. The Letters from Catt to President Woodruff Wilson were critical. I have attached perhaps one of the final critical ones to Part II of III, President Wilson’s letter responding to Mrs. Catts.