Are you a feminist – an advocate for social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men? The word may have its roots in the 20th century, but thousands of women and some men defined it on a large scale beginning in earnest in the mid-19th century. The American women’s suffrage movement involved thousands of women from every state, color, creed and nationality; it lasted over seventy years and hardly anyone knows anything about it! It was the genesis of the women’s rights movement much of which was omitted from history and our national consciousness because it never made it into our text books. The male authors ignored the significance of the movement and condensed those thousands of women and seven decades of determination, tenacity and accomplishments into a couple of paragraphs in the chapter on the Progressive Era (1890-1920). The first four decades were ignored abridging a significant piece of American women’s history.
Officially, the movement began with the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. The outcome of the two-day conference was the Declaration of Sentiments which listed the many inequities women suffered under the legal and political systems, i.e., they could not vote, they had to submit to laws the formation of which they had no voice, they had no representation in government, married women were civilly dead in the eyes of the law, husbands had the right to all his wife’s property and earned wages and could have her thrown in jail if he decided she had committed a crime, they could not become doctors or lawyers and could not attend college — the list went on and on!
The convention framed a national discussion about women’s rights that spawned numerous leaders and organizations. Susan B. Anthony joined the movement and became its symbolic face, but she died more than a decade before women were enfranchised. At the beginning of the 20th century, suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul each rose to national prominence within their respective suffrage parties. Catt sought suffrage through state-by-state legislation while Paul focused solely on a Constitutional amendment. Paul’s National Woman’s Party (NWP) used what were considered “militant tactics” to generate publicity and awareness – peaceful marches and picketing the White House. In 1917 hundreds of NWP members were arrested and jailed for silently holding banners in front of the White House. Those sent to the Occoquan Workhouse in Lorton, Virginia, endured humiliation, beatings, solitary confinement, forced feedings and inhumane prison conditions complete with rats and maggot-infested food. When word leaked out about this barbaric treatment, it became a significant turning point in compelling President Wilson to urge Congress to pass the 19th Amendment.
This bloodless revolution ended with Ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920, 72 years after the Seneca Falls Convention. It was also when the American woman finally entered the Constitution. We owe a debt of gratitude to the thousands of courageous and tenacious women who engineered the greatest expansion of democracy on a single day the world has ever seen. Twenty-two million women became eligible to vote with the stroke of a pen.
The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association is raising funds to build a national, garden-style memorial in Occoquan Regional Park, part of the prison grounds where Alice Paul’s suffragists were jailed and beaten. It will recall the entire suffrage history and pay tribute to these revolutionaries who ultimately won the right to vote, the first major step to equality. There is no other memorial in the country that commemorates all these women and their accomplishments. Our mission to educate, inspire and empower visitors will far exceed a contemplative walk through the memorial garden.
Consider gifting a tax deductible donation to your women friends and family in any denomination; donations of $1,000 or more will permanently inscribe their name on the memorial’s Donor Wall. When asked what you want for the holidays, suggest a donation to Turning Point. Wishing you and your loved ones a joyous holiday season!
Patricia D. Wirth,
Executive Director Turning Point Suffragist Memorial