Women’s History Month: The Suffragists | Patricia Depew Wirth

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Am I the only one who thinks it’s absurd that in America we need to have a month devoted to women’s history because male historians and authors neglected to acknowledge and write about women and their incredible accomplishments for decades and decades? I find it equally disturbing that every year I learn about more and more women of whom I have never heard! Unfortunately, this is what happened to the thousands of women who fought for 72 years to win the vote and citizenship for the American woman. Susan B. Anthony is the sole suffragist widely known and she died more than a decade prior to ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Did you know that, according to the Smithsonian, there are approximately 5,200 memorials in our country and less than 8% are of women? The Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association intends to ratchet up that 8% by building a memorial to commemorate the thousands and thousands of female foot soldiers who participated in the Suffragist Movement from 1848 to 1920. Without their tenacity and dedication to improving the lives of American women by gaining suffrage, our country’s landscape in areas such as government, business, science, medicine, military, education and all other area of employment would look significantly different.

May I introduce you to some suffragists you may not know?

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) was a prominent 19th century suffragist and civil rights activist who became involved in the abolitionist movement after a progressive upbringing. She helped organize the world’s first women’s rights convention in  1848 in Seneca Falls, NY, where she wrote the Declaration of Sentiments. She together with Susan B. Anthony established the National Woman Suffrage Association. With her advocacy of liberal divorce laws and reproductive self-determination, Cady Stanton became an increasingly marginalized voice among women reformers late in life. However, her efforts helped bring about the eventual passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave all citizens the right to vote.

Lucy Stone (1818 – 1893) was a prominent American orator, abolitionist, and suffragist, and a vocal advocate and organizer promoting rights for women. In 1847, Stone became the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She spoke out for women’s rights and against slavery at a time when women were discouraged and prevented from public speaking. Stone was known for using her maiden name after marriage rejecting the custom to take one’s husband’s surname.

Alice Paul (1885 –1977) was, arguably, the most influential individual in the fight for women’s rights of the 20th century. A Quaker, she studied biology at Swarthmore College, earned an MA in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, then studied social work in England. While there she joined Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant suffragist movement and was arrested and jailed several times. She returned to America armed with tactics to re-energize the suffrage movement here. In 1916 she and Lucy Burns formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP). They organized the Silent Sentinels who quietly picketed the White House for suffrage. They were arrested and jailed; those held in the Occoquan Workhouse endured humiliation, beatings, solitary confinement, forced feedings and inhumane prison conditions. When word leaked out about this barbaric treatment, it became a significant turning point in getting President Wilson to urge Congress to pass the 19th Amendment.

LoudounMarApr2016HRNB_Page_17Mary Eliza Church Terrell (1863-1954) organized a strategy for African- American women to become full citizens of the United States. Terrell lectured throughout the country on the importance of the vote for black women. She deemed the vote essential for the elevation of black women and consequently the entire black race. Terrell saw education as essential in obtaining racial uplift and respectability. As president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell campaigned tirelessly among black organizations and mainstream white organizations for black women’s suffrage. She even picketed the Wilson White House with members of the National Woman’s Party in her zeal for woman suffrage.

Lucy Burns (1879 –1966) was a versatile and pivotal figure within the NWP. Born in Brooklyn, New York, to an Irish Catholic family, Burns was a brilliant student of language and linguistics. She studied at Vassar College and Yale University in the US and at the University of Berlin in Germany (1906-8). While a student at Oxford College in Cambridge, England, Burns met Alice Paul in a London police station after both were arrested during a suffrage demonstration outside Parliament. Their alliance was powerful and long-lasting.

Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947) is one of the key leaders of the suffrage movement. She succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) from 1900 to 1904. She again assumed its presidency in 1915.  NAWSA had grown large and powerful with more than two million members in 44 states. When Catt assumed the presidency of NAWSA again in 1915, she changed their strategy of gaining voting rights state-by-state to pursuing a federal amendment.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) challenged racial and sexual discrimination through the power of the pen. She settled in Chicago where she met her husband, exposed lynching records, wrote a pamphlet about the exclusion of blacks from meaningful roles at the Worlds Columbian Exposition, started woman’s clubs, founded the Negro Fellowship League, and involved herself in suffrage. She marched in several national suffrage parades, lectured, and founded the first black woman suffrage organization – the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago. Wells-Barnett used her gift of language to challenge discrimination and sexism throughout the United States, revealing injustices and fighting for equality and fairness.

Please help us commemorate all these incredible women who positively affected your life and helped you be who and where you are today with a donation to the Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association at www.suffragistmemorial.org.

By: Patricia D. Wirth
Executive Director, Turning Point Suffragist Memorial

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