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NewsJan 25, 2021

From suffrage to the vice presidency

History professor Kimberly Lowe helps schoolteachers cover a century of U.S. women’s political progress

Suffragists protest woodrow wilson in 1916
Suffragettes protest Woodrow Wilson at a demonstration in Chicago in 1916. Source: Library of Congress

In recent years, a higher percentage of women than men have cast ballots in federal elections. A hundred years ago, the percentage of women voters was significantly smaller.

Try zero, at least around here. While a dozen states west of the Mississippi River recognized women’s right to vote beforehand, it wasn’t until after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920 that women in every state could legally cast a ballot.

That’s quite a long way from Jan. 20 of this year, which saw the swearing-in of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California as America’s first female vice president. But that’s not to say women’s electoral equality was an entirely alien notion at the nation’s birth.

‘The woman question’

“The debate over the nature of women and their rights, known as ‘the woman question,’ was a topic of discussion before, during and after the American Revolution,” Associate Professor of History Kimberly Lowe said at a Teaching Civics Through History lecture offered by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The event was in collaboration with Lesley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies.

Kimberly Lowe
Associate Professor of History Kimberly Lowe

More than 100 middle school history teachers from across the country attended the virtual forum, which was sponsored by a donation from Graduate School of Education alumna Tina Snider, who earned a master’s in elementary education and teaching in 1992. The forum’s theme was “The Electoral College and Woman Suffrage.”

Lowe’s lecture noted that in 1776 Abigail Adams wrote to her husband — the future first vice president and second President John Adams — and the rest of the Continental Congress to “remember the ladies,” warning that women “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

That turned out to be an idle threat or at least one that was delayed for another century.

Though neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights afforded women the right to vote, women’s rights activists turned their focus to access to education, property ownership and other civil liberties formerly denied to women, Lowe pointed out. But the ardor for suffrage never waned.

The 1848 convention on women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York, Lowe explained, is usually considered the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

“At the end of the convention, 68 women and 32 men signed a Declaration of Sentiments declaring that men and women were equal in all rights and explicitly calling for woman suffrage,” Lowe said in her presentation.

However, the effort to secure voting rights for women soon faced new barriers: the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“Suffragists hoped that the Republican Party’s postwar focus on equality and liberty would lead to a constitutional amendment enfranchising both men and women. They were severely disappointed,” Lowe said.

Lowe’s presentation highlighted many of the important dates and individuals instrumental in achieving nationwide women’s suffrage.

While in 1868 the 14th amendment guaranteed the citizenship rights of men and in 1870 the 15th Amendment barred them from being denied the right to vote because of race, color or previous condition of servitude, women were still left out. The omission, Lowe said, led to the creation of two suffrage organizations in 1869:

  • Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton created the National Woman Suffrage Association with headquarters in New York; and
  • Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell created the American Woman Suffrage Association with headquarters in Boston

In 1890 these two associations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, yet suffrage remained elusive until a new, more activist era took hold in the early 20th Century.

Young activists propel suffrage

In 1913, Lowe said, younger suffragists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns “used highly visible, militant protests to pressure Congress to pass a federal amendment for woman suffrage.”

“They organized a widely publicized suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913, and other parades and protest demonstrations soon followed,” Lowe said. “In 1917 the United States entered World War I and the (Paul- and Burns-founded) National Woman’s Party began a controversial campaign of picketing President Woodrow Wilson’s White House.”

Their tactics paid off as, in 1918, Wilson publicly declared support for a constitutional amendment, the 19th Amendment, ratified two years later.

Now, a century after nationwide women’s suffrage, the United States has its first female vice president, made even more historic in light of her Jamaican and Indian ancestry.

“In 1920, even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, a woman of color like Kamala Harris may not have been able to vote due to racially discriminatory voting restrictions and citizenship laws,” Lowe said this week after Harris was sworn in. “It is a historic achievement, made possible by a century of work by all of the women who succeeded the suffragists.”