Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Women’s Suffrage Victory—165 Years Later

Women working at suffrage headquarters, 1913
BPL Digital Collections

The women’s suffrage movement was founded in the mid-19th century by women who had become politically active through their work in the abolitionist and temperance movements. In recognition of Women’s Equality Day, the event is observed annually on August 26. Some of the early organizers included Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. As early as 1837, Susan B. Anthony, a young teacher dissatisfied with her wages, asked for equal pay for women teachers; Sojourner Truth in 1851, defended women’s rights and “Negroes rights” at a convention in Akron, Ohio. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony campaigned to encourage women to register to vote using the 14th Amendment as justification.

On January 10, 1878, The “Anthony Amendment” was introduced for the first time in the United States Congress. If approved it would extend the right to vote to women. The amendment stated “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any States on account of sex. The Congress shall have the power by appropriate legislations to enforce the provisions of this action.”

After several failed attempts, the Amendment was finally voted on by the U. S. Senate for the first time on January 25, 1887, and also for the last time in 25 years. The hard fought battle was not won entirely state by state, so the women had to resort to using radical tactics for a federal suffrage amendment to be added to the Constitution: picketing the White House, staging large suffrage marches, demonstrations and going to jail.

Their actions worked and on June 4, 1919, the United States Senate endorsed the Amendment and sent it to the states. Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan were the first states to pass the law; (sadly), Georgia and Alabama rushed to pass rejections. When 35 of the 36 states had ratified the amendment, the battle came to Tennessee and the rest is history.

Votes for women a success, the map proves it, 1914
BPL Digital Collections
The long battle for the vote for women was won when a young legislator, 24 year old Harry Burn from Tennessee voted yes for the amendment. On August 18, 1920, this single vote gave the Anthony Amendment the thirty-sixth and deciding state needed for ratification. Up until this time Burns had often voted with the anti-suffrage forces. His mother had urged him to vote for the amendment and for suffrage. On August 26, 1920, the U. S. Secretary of State signed the Anthony Amendment into law giving women the right to vote in the fall elections and the Presidential elections.
1923: Equal Rights Amendment introduced into the U.S. Congress, proposed by the National Woman’s Party.

Even though the Civil Rights Act of 1866 granted citizenship, the right to vote was not given to all native born Americans. In 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment giving African American men the right to vote. Moving ahead to 1940, only 3 percent of eligible African Americans in the South were registered to vote. Jim Crow laws that required prospective voters to pass literacy tests and pay “poll taxes” served as deterrents to African Americans to vote, because they could not read and were not able to pay the unfair ‘taxes’ that had been imposed on them.

It took the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing the Voting Rights Act into law, to make voting a reality for everyone. My mother, a teacher, could not vote in Wilcox County. When white workers from the North came to assist African Americans in their efforts to vote, she allowed them to live in her home and often bailed others from jail that had been locked up. In 2014, minorities still face significant obstacles in registering to vote and casting ballots.

Women’s rights have come a long way. However, the fight for equality still continues. The Equal Pay Act put into law by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 helped ensure equal earnings for both men and women by illegalizing discrimination based on sex. The gap has lessened, but unfortunately, has not disappeared entirely. Women are still earning, on average about 80 cents to the dollar, sometimes even less in the case of minorities.

A local Alabama native Lilly Ledbetter, fought for 10 years to close the gap between women’s and men’s wages, sparring with the Supreme Court, lobbying Capitol Hill in a historic discrimination case against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Ledbetter won a jury verdict of more than 3 million dollars after having filed a gender pay discrimination suit in federal court, but the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the lower court’s ruling. On January 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the first new law of his administration: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter will never receive restitution from Goodyear, but she said, “I’ll be happy if the last thing they say about me after I die, is that I made a difference.”

As we recognize the strides women have made in all walks of life--from business to education to politics, we realize our work is not done. Women, and their families, still face tremendous economic pressures.

“I renew my pledge to keep fighting for laws that help America’s women. Because when women succeed, America succeeds: An Economic Agenda for women and Families, focusing on the issues that hard working American women struggle with every day: fair pay, paid maternity leave, and affordable Day care.” — Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT)

Related Readings:
History of Woman Suffrage
Failure is Impossible 
The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from the Classic Work of Stanton, Anthony, Gage, and Harper
Slavery and the Woman Question
Women of Uncommon Valor: Life Stories of Women from Birmingham, Alabama
Grace and Grit: My Fight for Equal Pay and Fairness at Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company

Claudette W. Camp
Avondale Library

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