In an audio story, Tufts experts talk about the flawed suffrage movement and how the struggle to be heard resonates in the newest generation of women voters
JULIE FLAHERTY: One hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the right to vote. The effort to win that vote was a long, hard slog—it lasted more than 70 years and took the work of a succession of leaders and thousands of foot soldiers.
And yet, as heroic as many of these women leaders were, their fight was marred by its treatment of immigrants and women of color. Plus, for a long time after 1920, it was really only some American women who were actually allowed to cast ballots. So how should we look back on this milestone?
I’m Julie Flaherty, and today I’m talking with an historian about what we should learn from those early activists who fought their way to the voting booth. Later, we’ll hear from a researcher who studies the newest generation of women voters, the 18- to 24-year-olds who are heading to the polls a century later.
Barbara Berenson, a former senior attorney at the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, is the author of several history books, including Massachusetts in the Woman Suffrage Movement. She also teaches a course on the women’s suffrage movement at the Ex College at Tufts. She said there are many reasons the story of the suffragists should resonate today.
What's the benefit of looking back a hundred years on this anniversary of the 19th Amendment? How do you think what happened then informs our civic life today?
BARBARA BERENSON: The women's suffrage movement was a very powerful, important social movement. And I think it's very important to always remember that some of the things that today seem to have an air of inevitability were actually very challenging to achieve. And that in hindsight, what looks like obvious justice or even common sense was not how it was. That this was a strategic, hard-fought campaign that took nearly a century.
It's important to celebrate the women who made this movement happen, some of whom sadly are not very well known. And also, though, to acknowledge the limits of the movement, and this was a movement that while it benefited women tremendously, also was plagued by classism, nativism, and particularly racism.
It's also important to think about who has the right to vote today. The issue of who the government permits to vote remains contested. And certainly as we approach the election of 2020, some people think that in fact, the results of this coming election may turn on who has the ability to exercise the so-called right to vote.
And also, as well as the issue of voting, the issue of women's equality remains contested today. Here we are 100 years after the 19th Amendment and we are now seeing a resurgence of interest in the Equal Rights Amendment. But it's critical to remember that even after 100 years, since women had achieved the right to vote, that the issue of women's equality is still an ongoing struggle.
FLAHERTY: So let’s go back to the beginning. The original suffragists, they started as abolitionists in the 1840s. How did one cause lead to the other?
BERENSON: Some of the early founders of the abolitionist movement invited Blacks as well as whites and women as well as men to join in this new fledgling abolitionist movement. And some woman took him up on the offer and began to speak out against the evils of slavery.
And when they did so, they were condemned. They were told that they were departing from the domestic sphere—that was the only sphere that women were allowed to operate, the sphere of taking care of children, the home, the husband, and so forth—and told that they had no business entering into public debates. And they pushed back against it.
And when they pushed back, they began to defend the rights of women, to have political opinions and to speak out in public life. So that's really how it emerged.
FLAHERTY: So how did that connect to the right to vote?
BERENSON: So initially women simply being able to stand behind a podium or pick up the pen and speak out on a public issue, to condemn slavery was itself very revolutionary. And early on not very many women were thinking beyond that.
By the 1850s, there were a series of women's rights conventions. This is when leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone really emerged as the trio at the leadership of this young women's rights movement. And they began more and more to talk about the right to vote as the right that was fundamental to the acquisition of all other rights.
FLAHERTY: Now, it was not just men who were opposed to women having the right to vote, and this, again, is hard for me to imagine, but there were women in women's organizations that argued against it. What was their reasoning?
BERENSON: Many women said that they had all the influence they needed by the moral influence they exerted over their family members. Some women who occupied positions of privilege—of course, usually their privilege was directly dependent on the roles of their husbands in society—thought that they had all the rights they could possibly need.
And early on, at least, and really arguably even throughout, there were simply many women who failed to recognize their own discriminatory treatment. And that of course, I assume, resonates with many modern people today when many women who, for example, support the Equal Rights Amendment or certain other rights find it very hard to grasp that other women are not lockstep in agreement.
Tufts students and alums reflect on what the right to vote means to them in the video A Hundred Years After the 19th Amendment.
FLAHERTY: So after the Civil War, people started talking about an amendment that would give Black men the right to vote, and that would become the 15th Amendment. But that had an effect on the discussions of the women's suffrage movement. What happened there?
BERENSON: The woman activists and some of their male allies very much hoped that after the Civil War, a proposed voting rights amendment would propose what they call universal suffrage—suffrage for all adults, regardless of gender and regardless of race. But the abolitionists who still for that brief moment after the Civil War controlled Congress chose instead to prioritize the rights of Black men.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton said that they refused to support the 15th Amendment because women were left out. And they did so in very racist terms, saying that if anybody were to be granted the right to vote, it should first be white, educated women.
Lucy Stone and her allies, for their part, were very disappointed about the terms of the 15th Amendment and that women were left out, but they nevertheless pledged to support it. And Lucy Stone herself stated that as terrible as it was that women were being left behind, she was pleased that anybody was getting out of the terrible pit of disenfranchisement.
FLAHERTY: Racism continued to pollute the movement, such as when suffragists tried to persuade the Southern states to enfranchise women.
BERENSON: After the 15th Amendment disenfranchised African American men, the Southern states systematically stripped African American men of their right to vote with the series of laws, sort of grouped largely under the Jim Crow era, that did things like impose literary tests and poll taxes and grandfather clauses, not to mention extralegal methods like intimidation and lynching and so forth. They certainly had no interest in expanding the vote to potentially include African American women.
Some of the white women involved in the women's suffrage movement attempted to play on the South's desire to preserve white supremacy by saying, "If you grant women the vote, and then you disenfranchise African American women, think of all the new white voters you will have." And they hoped that that argument would be successful in the South. It certainly was successful with some white Southerners, but by and large, the sentiment of the South was to restrict suffrage.
FLAHERTY: Although Black leaders like Ida Wells-Barnett spoke out for voting rights, the major woman suffrage organizations discouraged the participation of women of color.
BERENSON: In general, the suffrage leaders were, as you said, they weren't necessarily all wealthy, but early on in particular, white, native-born Protestant they were. And when they spoke on behalf of women, they were really speaking on behalf of women like themselves.
So they came in with their own biases. And then what happened in society after the Civil War I think helped to cement those—the rise of the Jim Crow era, the pouring into this country of immigrants, many of them Roman Catholics, some of them Eastern European Jews, and others, many of whom were looked upon with dismay by the white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. And so I think that the suffrage movement by and large adopted many of the same prejudices of society.
There were within the suffrage movement always a number of women who pushed back against those prejudices, but they were not the leaders. But yet throughout and particularly when we get to the late 19th and then into the 20th century, there were many African American suffragists and immigrant suffragists who worked very hard on behalf of women's rights.
Ultimately, the suffrage movement did embrace at least to a fairly large extent immigrant women, because it recognized very much that it needed the support of the laboring classes to possibly achieve the 19th Amendment. But these immigrants were white. Racism continued to plague the women's suffrage movement, despite the fact that African American women worked very hard on behalf of the struggle both for women's rights and against racism.
FLAHERTY: Early in the 20th century, the movement began to pick up steam, thanks to new leaders like Maud Wood Park.
BERENSON: Towards the final years of the movement, Maud Wood Park, having impressed so many people with her organizational and other skills, becomes the lead lobbyist for the National American Woman Suffrage Association in Washington, D.C., and is responsible for leading the efforts to convert many in Congress to support the 19th Amendment.
FLAHERTY: So she was one of the ones there on Capitol Hill, knocking on doors, asking to meet with congressmen, all men, one at a time trying to convince these men that women should have a say?
BERENSON: She herself was knocking on doors and she ran the whole lobbying effort. Because one of the things that they did, they understood—and these women were very savvy—was that the people who are going to have the most influence with congressmen and senators were women from their home states. And so they came and they stayed in Washington, D.C.; they had to fund their own journeys there.
By the time we get to the end of the suffrage movement, by the time we're talking about the front door lobbying efforts, many states in the country had already enfranchised women. Because suffrage was for most of the effort a state-by-state campaign, quite a number of women were able to vote before 1920. And that helped to push the movement finally to success because we already had a certain number of senators and congressmen who were beholden to women voters in their home state.
FLAHERTY: Other suffragists used different tactics. Some of the most dramatic efforts were from a small group called the National Woman’s Party, who became the first people to picket outside the White House, much to President Woodrow Wilson’s frustration.
BERENSON: Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and the other, mostly young, educated women who joined the National Woman's Party were frustrated by what they considered the focus of the National American Woman Suffrage Association on persuasion and education. And they said it was time to take action— in their words, "Deeds, not words."
And these are the women that did things like picketing in front of the White House. When they were arrested and not treated as political prisoners, despite their demand to do so, they went on hunger strikes. And they brought a whole new wave of very critical public attention to the women's suffrage movement.
I think it's important to note, though, that the National Woman's Party was very small. Historians estimate that it comprised no more than about 5 percent of active suffragists. They are very appealing to young women nowadays to see these young women who picketed and were such activists and so forth. And they were indeed very important to the overall success of the movement.
But it's very important to also realize that at the same time as they were doing those things, people like Carrie Chapman Catt and Maud Wood Park were also undertaking the continuing slog of persuading one-by-one members of Congress to support the women's suffrage movement.
FLAHERTY: So we should point out that the 19th Amendment in theory gave all women the right to vote, but in practice it didn't. So who did it not help?
BERENSON: So most importantly it did not reach African American women because in the South, African American women were stripped of their right to vote by the same tactics that had successfully stripped African American men of their right to vote. And many African American women in the South would not be able to vote until the mid 1960s, finally, with passage of the Voting Rights Act.
In addition, Native American women did not have the right to vote, nor did Chinese American women. That's one reason why as important as it is to commemorate the 19th Amendment in 2020, its centennial, it's also very important to recognize it as a milestone, as a marker, not as an end point.
Because what it is, it's an enormous milestone or marker on the continuing quest for expansion of the franchise in the United States of America. But it's certainly not the end of any story, including not the end of the story about women.
FLAHERTY: Which brings us to the question of today. Many state governments are imposing restrictions on voting rights. So what goes through your mind when you see that?
BERENSON: I think I have a number of reactions. One is the overwhelming sadness that we still, as we sit here in 2020, that there is not widespread acceptance of the fundamental importance in a democratic society of every adult member of that society being able to exercise the right to vote. That this is an ongoing struggle even today. It makes me very concerned with how we convince young people of the struggles that people have endured to try to have access to the ballot. How very important it is and the importance of persuading them, both those who are lucky enough to have that right, to exercise it, and also to work on behalf of those who continue to be denied that right. That this is very much not a story that's over, but the quest for who should have the right to vote is very much a live issue in the United States of America in 2020.
One of the things that I worry about with young people is the realization that change is long and hard. Change that you may want to see—that you have to be willing sometimes, just like the suffragists were, to work hard on behalf of change, even as you recognize that as much as you would like to see quick success, success could be decades or longer in coming. This march toward justice is something that may outlive all of us, but that that's not a reason to abandon effort or give up.
Because that's one of the things that has personally most impressed me about the suffragists, is their willingness and ability to persist and persist and persist, no matter the ridicule, the defeats, the length of time it took and so forth.
FLAHERTY: Noorya Hayat is a researcher at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts. She works at the nonpartisan Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement—or CIRCLE, for short. CIRCLE looks for ways to help young people—particularly those who are marginalized or underrepresented—participate in our democracy. Hayat told me that CIRCLE’s polling over the years has revealed a lot about young women voters today.
NOORYA HAYAT: We do know from our research that young women vote at higher rates than young men usually.
Other trends that we're seeing is that young people, but especially young women, are more likely to vote based on issue priorities. So it's not just candidate or platforms. It's more about what issues matter to them and which campaigns or which leaders actually pay attention to that.
We also know, and this is a trend that recently we've seen very visibly, that young women are most likely to support social movements and are most likely to engage in activism, particularly at the community level. So young women tend to be more involved in the grassroots movement of political and civic engagement.
And lastly, one trend that we've been observing very closely in the recent election cycles is young women, and particularly young women of color, are really feeling prepared and qualified to participate in civic life and particularly political leadership.
FLAHERTY: It was interesting that in your polling you found that just 38 per cent of young women said they feel they have a legitimate voice in the political process, which I thought was interesting compared to what we just said about a lot of them feeling well qualified to participate, but they don't feel that they have a voice. Can you talk a little about that?
HAYAT: Not feeling like they have a legitimate voice in the political process does not translate into lack of engagement or apathy from young voters, as it's typically believed, but rather actually fuels it. This feeling of not being heard, that's actually a sentiment that a lot of young people feel, and particularly young women in color.
In our study, we saw that young Black women were twice as likely as young Latina women or young white women to feel like they didn't have a legitimate voice in the process, because their issues weren't resonated at the highest level.
In the same poll, we saw that 81 percent of young people between the ages of 18 to 24 actually thought they had the power to affect change. Feeling like your voice isn't resonated didn't really— You know, that's more of an honest reflection of like, "We don't think we're represented, or our issues don't have center attention," but it does not dampen their civic engagement in any way.
FLAHERTY: Then, you also found young women are more likely than young men to be active in social movements. We certainly have a lot of social movements going on right now. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
HAYAT: Even in our most recent poll of young people that we talked to in May and June, we saw that almost one in three young people across the board say they attended a march or a demonstration, which is a phenomenal increase from 2016 and 2018. In 2016, five per cent of young people said they attended a march. In 2018, it was 16 percent, and today it's 27 percent, so it's almost doubled. That urge to participate in social movements, march, or a demonstration has increased.
But historically even, young women particularly have been involved in the grassroots movements of civic and political life, and particularly of social movements. And a trend that we saw in 2018 and I think will get carried over—and I don't think it's surprising to anyone—that a lot of women were involved in Black Lives Matter, in environmental activism, the Me Too movement. So it’s actually led by a lot of women, particularly young Black women. And we're seeing more and more of that, of young women and young women of color taking charge in social movements.
FLAHERTY: You might not have an answer to this, but do you know why? Why young women? Why particularly young women of color who are so engaged and motivated?
HAYAT: I think it's something we talked about earlier, like not having a legitimate voice in political process probably fuels this need to be heard from another source. I think a protest or a social movement that actually challenges status quo and have your voices heard, I think, is one of the reasons.
Young women's political participation and voter participation also tracks what issues they care about. Something like the Black Lives movement or environmental activism is something that you see across the board from a lot of young women.
Now, having said that, it sounds like a lot of young women just tend to support progressive issues, but they're not just a monochromatic group. They're also active in conservative movements. Depending on the issue they care about, they are very active and tend to, not only just be active in the social movements, but also bring in other people into the grassroot movements. I think it's one of their superpowers in the political field.
FLAHERTY: Do you think young women's voter participation rates are going to continue to grow? What do you think it is going to take, to take the next step towards more political engagement for them? They certainly seem motivated.
HAYAT: Definitely. I think definitely young women's voter participation rate will climb. As I said, if there is a systemic change in trying to have more outreach and contact and awareness building in young people, particularly young women, on issues they care about, this trend will continue and will climb.
What will it take for the next step towards political engagement? Addressing those systemic barriers to voting and access, particularly for young people, but also hearing out what issues they care about, because clearly any campaign or any political movement that wants to be successful will look at young women or women's efficacy or activism and leverage that towards turnout, towards increased participation.
I don't think any successful or broad ranging political movement or campaign can be successful without looking at young people, and particularly young women, and what they care about.
Young people, young women, and young women of color are ready. They feel qualified. They feel motivated to participate in politics. I think our society, cultures, and institutions will need to continue shifting to give these women that legitimate voice.
What does it mean to empower young women to lead? And not just put the onus of change on them, but what can we do to change institutions and the face of leadership at the highest level? I think a lot of that work happens at the cultural and societal level too. And that movement is there, but it's not enough.
FLAHERTY: Hayat, who is Pakistani American, was born in Illinois but has lived in Malaysia and other countries. She said that experience has helped shape her view of voting and political engagement.
HAYAT: I've lived and grown up in different areas, so women’s participation looks very different across the world. To me, it's both personal and almost sacred. Women's right to vote is not universal across the world. It's suppressed in a lot of places, particularly in places where democratic institutions don't thrive, right? But that’s one of the critical vehicles of change. If they can have their voices heard or have a movement to change their circumstances, that’s powerful.
Julie Flaherty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org