By Pamala Nolan
“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform.” Susan B. Anthony
As the women’s movement advanced into the twentieth century, incremental changes were being made.
Laws pertaining to women were being revised and, in a few states, women could vote in municipal and school elections. Several western states had granted full suffrage.
The doors to higher education had been opened to women, and more were taking their place in professions once closed to them.
Carrie Chapman Catt became President of the National Association of Woman Suffrage (NAWSA) in 1915 after the administration of Rev. Dr. Anna Howard Shaw. Shaw had expanded NAWSA membership by recruiting middle-class and working women.
The movement had a challenge in the South and leaders tried to disquiet Southerners who feared advancing equality to women would include black women. Southern states were at the same time adapting impediments to black men’s voting rights.
White suffrage leaders were often forced to adapt moral compromises in their quest to move forward, which viewed today are particularly difficult to understand.
Although she did not personally agree, Catt went so far as to write that if women were enfranchised, the white vote in the South would be increased to more than ensure white supremacy.
Once members of NAWSA, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns founded the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1913 after a split over strategy. Paul and Burns felt it was time to hold politicians accountable.
They established their operation in Washington, D.C. with the sole goal of obtaining a federal amendment.
In response, Catt pivoted from NAWSA’s previous strategy of working for passage at the state level. She developed her “Winning Plan” which was a two-fold strategy designed to continue to work for state progress while also pushing for a federal amendment.
Paul and Burns organized the 1913 suffrage parade held in Washington, D.C. the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
Marred by mob violence and racism, black suffragists were asked to march at the end. Some chose instead to march with their state units, including influential journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Having participated in the British suffragette movement, Paul and Burns were open to using more militant tactics than the moderate NAWSA.
Brilliant strategists and public relations experts, they moved quickly to place the NWP at the forefront of the battle and literally took it to the streets.
Members of NWP began picketing the White House in 1917 declaring Wilson a hypocrite who worked for democracy abroad while denying it to women at home.
These “Silent Sentinels” were in place day after day in wind and rain and cold holding inflammatory signs and banners.
They included Mary Church Terrell, a black civil rights suffrage leader. Later, hundreds were arrested, imprisoned and force-fed when they underwent a hunger strike.
Paul well knew that it had not gained women anything to suspend their suffrage work during the Civil War. The NWP continued their peaceful protests even after the United States entry into WWI.
Initially labeled unpatriotic because they were targeting a war-time president, people began sympathizing with the suffragists after the infamous “Night of Terror” when many were brutally beaten while in prison.
The NWP made sure their treatment was reported in the papers and the situation became a public relations disaster for Wilson.
NAWSA leaders distanced themselves completely from NWP’s tactics with Catt organizing members to contribute to the war effort.
NAWSA’s work continued in a more traditional manner designed to prove that if women played an important role in supporting the country during the war, they could not be denied the vote afterwards.
The combined efforts of both organizations resulted in Wilson finally announcing his support publicly in September 1918. One could argue that it was simply that the time had come.
It really was a political calculation. Ultimately men realized that women were going to be enfranchised with or without them.
It was not in politicians’ interest to alienate half the country who would soon be in the position to vote them out of office.
The nineteenth amendment, known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment, was passed in June 1919 and sent to the states for ratification. Thirty-six were required for passage and it came down to the wire when Tennessee ratified in August 1920.
On August 26, 1920, U. S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the amendment into law.
Next week: The Alabama Story