It’s 2020! And you know what that means, it’s finally the Centennial! The 100-year anniversary of all women in the United States gaining the right to vote will happen on August 26, 2020. This date commemorates the addition of the 19th amendment to the constitution. This amendment reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
This was the culmination of an incredibly long fight, lasting over 70 years and two generations in the making. Building the woman’s suffrage movement began in 1848, with a small group of reformers and Quakers who were discontented with their place in life. Women could not own property, have access to their wages, easily divorce, have access to an education or have custody of their children in case of divorce. They also were not allowed to vote.
Recent scholarship has brought to light that some of the early suffragists were aware of, or in contact with Native Americans in the Iroquois Confederacy, which included Indians in Onondaga, Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, and Cayuga nations. In these nations, women could own property, divorce, and vote. At least three of the early suffragists were in contact with one of these nations and impressed with the status of women. Feminist historian Sally Roesch Wagner gives some examples in her essay “The Untold Story of the Iroquois Influence on Early Feminists.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, for instance, met and talked with Oneida women during her frequent visits to her cousin, the radical social activist Gerrit Smith. Lucretia Mott and her husband, James, were members of the Indian committee of the Philadelphia yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends. In the summer of 1848, Mott spent a month with the Seneca and witnessed women share in discussion and decision-making as the Seneca nation reorganized their governmental structure. When the Seneca adopted a constitutional form of government, they retained the tradition of full involvement of the women. Gender equality existed in these First Nation societies well before white supremacist patriarchy was entrenched in the early American republic.
Early pioneers in the movement in the mid-19th century spoke out in public meetings. The Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention of 1848 is considered by many to be the start of the Women’s Rights Movement. Along with four other women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton planned the meeting and spoke at the convention. Her eloquent and sometimes bombastic oratory was astonishingly direct, “The right [to vote] is ours. Have it, we must. Use it, we will. The pens, the tongues, the fortunes, the indomitable wills of many women are already pledged to secure this right.” The Declaration of Sentiments, a document of demands inspired by the Declaration of Independence, states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal. . . .”
This convention, and the written manifesto created a firestorm of criticism and mockery in the newspapers. Some felt the use of the Declaration of Independence to be a sacrilege, others wondered who would cook dinner if there was “petticoat rule.”
Susan B. Anthony was introduced to Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851, and they became lifelong friends and political partners in the movement, with Stanton writing speeches and articles while she raised seven children, and the unmarried Anthony being free to be the outside organizer.
Also, in 1851, Sojourner Truth became the most famous African-American suffragist for a speech she gave in Akron, Ohio at a women’s rights convention with men and women present, where she felt compelled to responded a man’s comment about women getting helped into carriages. Her powerful oratory made a name for her: “I have heard much about the sexes being equal: I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much, too, if I can get it. . .” This speech was edited twelve years later and became known as the “Ain’t I a Woman” speech after embellishment by Frances Gage.
Anthony voted in the 1872 presidential election, was arrested and defended herself in another piece of compelling oratory, “Is it a Crime for a United States Citizen to Vote?” In this speech she declares: “It was we, the people, not we, the white male citizens, nor we, the male citizens; but we,the whole people, who formed this Union.”
All three of these women, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and Susan B. Anthony raised their voices in the 19th century, starting the movement that led to this Centennial year. Let us honor their memory by exercising our right to vote.