In discussions about First Amendment rights, Second Amendment rights and the history of the Civil War, one important right – the right of women to vote – and the battles to secure that right, has been overlooked. The fight for woman’s suffrage predated the Civil War by more than a decade, and the suffrage war wasn’t won until 1920, after the end of World War I, when the 19th Amendment finally was ratified by Tennessee, the 36th state to do so. Ironically, only men could vote to grant suffrage to women.
With Tennessee’s ratification, more than 22 million women were eligible to vote in local, state, and federal elections. The non-partisan campaign begun in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, had taken 72 years to achieve its goal. Male and female attendees at the Seneca Falls Convention has adopted the Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined many issues, including the right of women to vote. Although some women (black and minority women excluded) in some states could vote in some elections, most women were denied this basic right of citizenship until August 26, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was formally adopted into the United States Constitution. Thirty-nine simple words had taken 72 years to achieve! August 26 is celebrated as Equality Day in many states.
Virginia rejected ratification in 1920, and finally ratified the amendment in 1952. Virginia also was the site of the most brutal battle for women’s suffrage. In 1917, dozens of suffragists, demanding the right to vote, were arrested and imprisoned at the Occoquan Workhouse for picketing the White House. Iconic photos at that time show well-dressed women in front of the White House with a banner reading “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty.” Letters from the time describe horrendous conditions – cells with no cots, only mats on the floor; brutal treatment – chaining women by their arms overhead on the cell door all night; and force-feeding some via nasal tubes. All for peacefully picketing the White House for the right to vote.
The Occoquan imprisonment was the turning point in the quest to get the right to vote, as President Wilson was prodded to seek a Constitutional Amendment from the Congress. To commemorate the decades-long struggle, and finally achieving the ultimate goal, the non-profit Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association is raising funds to create a memorial, on the grounds of Occoquan Regional Park, scheduled to open in 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment adoption. The memorial design features 19 education stations, reached through a replica of the 1917 White House gates, and a center rotunda featuring a Jail Door/Shackled Suffragist Sculpture. For more information about the memorial, and how to get involved, log on to www.suffragistmemorial.org.
When my mother was born in February 1920, her mother, my grandmother, was not allowed to vote, simply because she was female. As I was growing up, my grandmother always encouraged me to learn about government and get involved. I like to think I’ve helped keep that legacy alive.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor, in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be emailed at [email protected]