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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Does August 26 Mean Anything To You?

I write this column on Mondays, and today is Monday, August 26. Does that mean anything to you? It should, especially if you are a woman. August 26 is the anniversary of our right to vote.

It was less than a century ago. Depending on your age, your grandmother or great-grandmother was born without this basic right. Our freedom to cast a ballot was finalized on August 26, 1920, and in 1918, the United States won World War I, which was billed as “the war for democracy.” Yet that “democracy” legally excluded the half of the nation born female.

Much too frequently, women’s right to vote is treated in textbooks and by teachers as though it just fell from the sky after the war ended. But it was in fact a serious struggle, the longest and most sophisticated political campaign in American history.

* * *

It began on July 19, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York, a farming town near the Canadian border. Lucretia Mott, a Philadelphia Quaker, had gone there to visit her sister, Martha Wright. (As Martha Pelham, she once lived in Tampa, at Fort Brooke with her soldier husband. Marrying a soldier banished her from Quakerism, but that’s another story.)

A second reason for Mott’s trip to Seneca Falls was to see Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whom she had met in London in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention. A few years earlier, Queen Victoria abolished slavery in the British Empire, and abolitionists wanted to extend that ban to America. Despite Victoria’s leadership, though, Mott, Stanton, and other duly elected female delegates to the convention were banned from the gathering – because they were women. Black men did participate.

Mott and Stanton vowed then to create a new movement for women’s rights, as well as black rights, but motherhood got in the way. Mott had six children, and Stanton, who was on her honeymoon in London, eventually would have seven. She had moved from Boston to Seneca Falls for her husband’s business and felt terribly isolated there.

With two other women, these three ran a three-line notice in the local newspaper that they would be holding a meeting on women’s issues. To their great surprise, some 300 people turned up, including many men. The resolutions that they adopted aimed at improving opportunities in education (only one college in the world, Ohio’s Oberlin, admitted women) and in employment, inheritance, and other areas in which discrimination was perfectly legal. The right to vote was an afterthought, and that resolution was the most intensely debated.

Nothing came of it for decades – but victories were won in state laws on other matters, especially married women’s property rights. Even on that, however, almost three decades later, when the nation celebrated its centennial in 1876 in Philadelphia and feminists wanted visibility there, they had to wait for Susan B. Anthony to arrive from Rochester. She was the only unmarried woman among them and thus the only one who rent space for a headquarters: under Pennsylvania law, a married woman could not sign any contract, even one for a few days.

* * *

Instead of the supposedly urbane eastern cities, it was the western frontier that first enfranchised women. Men vastly outnumbered women in the Wyoming Territory, and at its organizational meeting in 1869, the legislature granted women the vote and other rights as an inducement for them to come West. Eastern newspapers that covered the first election were astonished at how well this worked out.

The Utah Territory followed just a few weeks later, early in 1870, but that had the effect of entangling women’s intellect with their physicality – a problem that still continues, as far too many men remain unable to separate the two. Utah women voted for seventeen years, until Congress removed their right as punishment for male polygamy.

Women in Washington also won and lost their enfranchisement, in an 1887 state court ruling on a technicality that overturned the legislature’s decision. But the real blow already had come in 1873, when the US Supreme Court ruled in a Missouri case that the 15th Amendment did not apply to the half of the population that was female.

That amendment had been added to the Constitution to assure the right to vote for former slaves. Its language, however, was gender neutral, and women – including black women -- in at least a dozen political jurisdictions attempted to cast ballots. They did so in elections in 1868, 1870, and 1872, but in 1873, the court ruled that the amendment did not mean what it said.

In a decision based largely on biblical quotations, the justices decided that women were “citizens” in terms of paying taxes, but not in terms of voting. It would take another amendment to the federal constitution to overturn the ruling. Citing “no taxation without representation,” several women refused to pay taxes and allowed local governments to confiscate their property. In Connecticut, for example, a sheriff seized cattle belonging to sisters Abby and Julia Smith – but newspaper pundits treated the “Gastonbury cows” as a huge joke.

At the same time that feminists worked for a federal 16th Amendment (which would be the 19th when it eventually came), women concentrated on states. They lost campaigns in Kansas, Nebraska, and Michigan, but in 1893, Colorado women won – and in 1894, three were elected to the legislature. Idaho followed in 1896, but the turn of the century brought a long dry spell.

There are many explanations for this particular exception to the so-called “Progressive Era,” but they are complex and specific to different states and you’ll have to read the book. Suffice it to say that women lost repeated campaigns in Oregon, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and other western states, as well as in the only two eastern states that put the question on the ballot, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

California broke the dam in 1911 with an expensive campaign that even included electric billboards. Women barely won: if one man per precinct had changed his mind, the referendum would have failed. They ran a very sophisticated effort, even employing men whose job was to casually engage other men on the topic at bars, barber shops, and other male gathering places.

That victory – as well as the Democratic presidential victory in 1912 – brought great momentum. Women won in Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon that year: for Oregon women, this marked their sixth statewide campaign. In contrast, when the Alaska Territory followed in 1913, women’s right to vote was the first item on the legislative agenda. As in pioneer Wyoming, men wanted to attract women there, and two legislators who lived thousands of miles apart arrived with bills that quickly passed.

Montana and Nevada followed in 1914, and finally, in 1917, New York became the first eastern state. By then, every western state except New Mexico had enfranchised women. (To New Mexico’s credit, though, in 1922, it would become the first state to elect two women to statewide office.)

Arkansas and Texas enfranchised women for the Democratic primary, the only election that mattered there. This was due to racism, and that was another political complexity that we’ll have to skip here. Read the book.

Oklahoma, Michigan, and South Dakota would join the list in 1918; in South Dakota, the victory was partially due to another legal complexity: the right of its many German immigrants to vote during World War I. Yes, millions of men routinely voted without bothering to become citizens, while women whose heritage traced to the Mayflower could not.

These victories finally got congressmen to sit up and pay attention, as 1920 would be the first true partisan contest for the presidency in a long time. Women had full voting rights in eighteen states -- and could vote for president in several others. This partial enfranchisement was another complexity, as many states allowed women to vote in some races but not others. Men were especially likely to grant the vote for school boards, with Kentucky being first in 1837. The hottest of the partial enfranchisement cases was municipal elections, where incumbents feared women would clean up city halls.

Illinois introduced a new kind of partial enfranchisement in 1913, when it granted the vote for presidential elections. Legislators intended it as a sop, given that the Electoral College makes the real decision on the presidency. By 1920, though, when President Woodrow Wilson would leave office, politicos of both parties saw that women might make a difference in a close election. They no longer dared to ignore the lobbyists from the Woman Suffrage Association.

On January 9, 1918, President Wilson formally endorsed the 19th Amendment, and the House agreed, with a tally of 274-136 – exactly the two-thirds margin that the Constitution requires. The Senate, though, was led by Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and he behaved like Mitch McConnell today. He didn’t believe in enfranchisement anyway, but Wilson’s support for it made him especially determined to kill it.

Carrie Chapman Catt, the astute woman who led the movement in this era and became the first president of the League of Women Voters, developed a strictly non-partisan strategy. She targeted four incumbents of both parties for defeat in the 1918 November elections. Feminists succeeded in ousting a Republican in Massachusetts and a Democrat in Delaware, replacing them with supporters.

The 19th Amendment finally passed the Senate 66-30, two votes over the essential two-thirds. Although this was a foregone conclusion after the November election, Lodge managed to delay the vote until June 4, 1919 – for reasons I’ll explain next week, when we’ll go on to the ratification campaign. Its final victory on August 26, 1920 is an exciting story, and I’ll add Florida’s role as the first to forego a vote on it.

Meanwhile, my major book on this is History of the American Suffragist Movement. This year is its 15th anniversary: I wrote it for the 150th anniversary of Seneca Falls in 1998. Although no one sends me regular royalties for it anymore, you can find it online. The late Geraldine Ferraro wrote the introduction to it.

If you have bigger bucks to spend, there’s a chapter on the vote in my Women in American Politics: History and Milestones published by Congressional Quarterly Press. It won a prize from the American Library Association last January, and I was surprised when CQ chose Florida’s own Debbie Wasserman Schultz to write its introduction. There’s so much more to this intensely political story that we all – especially politicos – owe it to ourselves to gain a sharpened understanding.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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