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Suffragettes: women who dared

Women called Suffragettes fought for women's rights. It took 70 years for them to win the right to vote. In a world ruled by men, 19th century women became revolutionaries and reformers who dared to confront their oppressors, not unlike the Occupiers of this century. Suffragettes were scorned by both men and women, religious leaders and in the press for challenging the social construct called the “cult of true womenhood” that defined women only as mothers and homemakers because they were wrongly characterized as not having the intellectual capacity to participate in worldly matters.

By law, women were forbidden to own property, sign contracts, sit on a jury, have custody of their children in the event of divorce, and get a college education. They also were denied one of the most important rights, the right to vote. In essence, women were the “property” of their husbands.
Susan B. Anthony, a lifelong single Quaker, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, married and mother of seven children, are the names most associated with the American women’s journey to obtain the right to vote. It was another Quaker woman, however, Lucretia Mott from Philadelphia, who founded the Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 as an abolitionist. She laid the groundwork for the women’s rights movement that culminated in their right to vote. In Quaker society, men and women are equal in the eyes of God, and the women of that era had many freedoms denied other women. As a result, Quakers were keenly aware of the oppression of slaves around them and women became some of the first activists and reformers.
The International Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 was where Stanton met Mott, the preacher and independent thinker. Their experiences in the abolitionist movement helped them model the women’s movement in America. Although it would be eight years until the first conference of women in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the kernel of civil liberty for women had been planted in Stanton.
At Seneca Falls in 1848, the first of many Women’s Rights Conventions began a prolonged struggle for women’s equal rights. Their first order of business was a Declaration of Sentiments modeled after the Declaration of Independence but with some important changes.
WE hold these truths to be self-evident, that men and women are created equal.
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “…all men are created equal.”
The Declaration of Sentiments contained several resolutions including that a man should not withhold a women’s rights, take her property or refuse to allow her to vote. The 300 participants spent July 19-20 arguing, refining and voting on the Declaration. Most of the resolutions received unanimous support. However, the right to vote had many dissenters, including one very prominent figure, Lucretia Mott. The male contingent in the Quaker audience declined to vote.
The eloquent Frederick Douglass, a former slave, supporter of the women’s movement and editor of the Rochester North Star, however, swayed the gathering into agreeing to the resolution. At the closing session, Mott won approval of a final resolve “for the overthrowing of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman equal participation with men in the various trades, professions and commerce.”
The Movement Marches on in America
In 1890, The National Women Suffrage Association and the American Women Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). As the movement’s mainstream organization, NAWSA waged state-by-state campaigns to obtain voting rights for women.
The federal woman suffrage amendment, originally written by Susan B. Anthony and introduced in Congress in 1878, was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was then sent to the states for ratification.
Beginning in 1893, Colorado was the first state to adopt an amendment granting women the right to vote. Utah and Idaho followed suit in 1896; Washington state in 1910; California in 1911; Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona in 1912; Alaska and Illinois in 1913; Montana and Nevada in 1914; New York in 1917; and Michigan, South Dakota and Oklahoma in 1918.
Responding to the states’ ratification and outcry for women’s rights and protection, the Department of Labor formed a Women’s Bureau to collect information about women in the workforce and safeguard working conditions for women.
On August 26, 1920, The 19th Amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote was signed into law by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.
In the song One Girl Revolution, “[suffragettes] shot the shot bang heard ‘round the world.” It celebrates women’s suffrage in Britain, but the words ring true for Americans as well because British women set the stage for the American women’s movement when they marched, demonstrated, got arrested, and went on hunger strikes in prison all to gain civil rights and freedom from oppressive laws and cultural stifling.
From Diary of a Militant Suffragette by Katherine Roberts, entry Feb. 4, 1909
That this is not a sex war. The women who are members of this union have no desire, I find, to neglect their homes, or to become like men: they are simply fighting against an over whelming force of prejudice to bring in what to them seems the biggest reform of modern times.
Indeed, with these prophetic words Katherine Roberts recognized that the cause for women’s rights would change American society forever. The debt owed to the suffragettes who dared and to whom the author and journalist Eleanor Clift named the “founding sisters” is still being felt today and positively influencing movements for equality all over the world.
By Dava Castillo

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