Protests, Prisons And Postcards

May 28, 2010

These days we’ve become accustomed to powerful women. All over the world we’ve seen women rise to such prestigious positions as Senator, Congressperson, Secretary of State, Supreme Court Justice, Prime Minister. In some countries, although not in America yet, women have served as President.
It’s hard to believe that it was less than a century ago, in August of 1920, that women in the United States were granted the right to vote. The fight for "women’s suffrage," as it was termed, began long before that. Back in 1872 Massachusetts-born Susan B. Anthony and some of her friends registered to vote. On election day, when Susan showed up at her local polling place and attempted to cast a ballot for Ulysses Grant, she was promptly arrested and ordered to pay a one hundred dollar fine! Susan refused to pay, and to this day that fine remains unpaid.
Susan and her friend, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, fought virtually all of their adult lives for women’s emancipation. Susan even published a magazine she called The Revolution, an official publication of the Women’s Suffrage Association (WSA). Their motto was, "the true Republic. Men, their rights and nothing more. Women, their rights and nothing less." The Women’s Suffrage Amendment was presented to Congress for the first time in 1876. It was reintroduced after that every year for forty years!
In 1906, Susan B. Anthony died. That same year, over in England, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence became a leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). With the support of her wealthy husband, Emmeline led demonstrations against the House of Commons, and once even chased after the Prime Minister on his golf course. She wrote articles for the WSPU newspaper, "Votes For Women". Such behavior finally got Emmeline arrested. She faced prison several times from 1906 on. Unlike Susan though, Emmeline lived to see her mission accomplished when English women were finally granted the vote by Parliament in 1917.
Throughout that same year of 1917, in America, women were regularly peacefully picketing the White House. They were trying to persuade President Woodrow Wilson to sponsor a Constitutional Amendment, giving American women the right to vote. Alice Paul was a leader of the National Women’s Party. Alice was one of the many women who stood at the gates of the White House holding signs that said such things as "Mr. President - How Long Must Women Wait For Libertys" Suffragettes were largely ignored by the President, and all around the country Anti-Suffragists provided arguments as to why giving women the vote was a bad idea. Some of the arguments seem ridiculous and insulting to us today, but back then, a lot of people believed what the "antis" said.
Many of the antis based their arguments on the basic difference between men and women. (Of course, they didn’t discuss the obvious biological differences very much, because they didn’t think such topics were appropriate for public discussion.) But they did emphasize the "frailty" of women. After all, they reasoned, just getting to the polling place was fatiguing. They pointed out that at the polls a woman would have to mingle with men, and would have to press her way through them to the ballot box. Assuming she reached the polling place, she might get caught in some sort of political brawl - and given her natural frailty - would surely get hurt. Some even stated that somehow, giving women the vote would lead to foreign aggression and war.
Some antis went back to the Bible to support their views. They referred to the story of Eve. "She got what she wanted," they said, "And we’ve been in trouble ever since." Some antis worried that women could vote more than once because they could hide extra ballots in the voluminous sleeves which were in fashion at the time. And anti-suffragette cartoon postcards made the rounds, illustrating such dire circumstances as a man actually feeding a bottle to his own child. Horrors!
The beginning of World War I slowed down the complaints, but not before Alice Paul was arrested and sentenced to seven months in prison for "obstructing traffic." Poor Alice had nothing to eat but bread and water. She soon began a hunger strike, and her captors decided to force feed her by pushing a tube down her throat a couple of times a day, pouring liquid into her stomach. After five weeks of this abuse, Alice was so ill that they freed her. Meanwhile, the attempts to stop the women picketers had failed. Newspapers began to write about the unfair jail terms faced by women. They wrote about the dreadful treatment Alice had received at the hands of her captors. Americans began to support the suffrage amendment.
Then on January 9, 1918, Woodrow Wilson announced that he would support suffrage. On January 10, the House of Representatives narrowly passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, giving suffrage to all women citizens. On January 4, 1919, the Senate passed the amendment (by ONE vote). A little more than a year later, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify and it officially became the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
So why did it take so long for the world to recognize the fact that women are indeed citizens, and were entitled to, as Susan B. Anthony had said so many years before - "Women, their rights and nothing less?" And why, when the Congress finally got around to recognizing women’s rights, had the vote been so close?
The Anti-Suffrage crowd in America and elsewhere had done a good job of arguing against it. Today their reasons seem wildly unfair and often downright silly.
Today’s collectors look for postcards recalling those bad old days. In 1909 the Dunston-Weiler Lithograph Company issued a series of comic postcards called the "Suffragette Series." In addition to the "Suffragette Madonna" card, showing the distressed gentleman feeding a bottle to his baby, there was the "Pantalette Suffragette" wearing overalls, a "Suffragette Coppette" where a uniformed, rollingpin wielding woman intimidates a top-hat wearing man. A cigarette smoking "district leaderess" is labeled "Queen of the Poll." These and other cards from the same series sell today in the range of $25 to $35 each.
Today there’s a one-dollar coin bearing the likeness of Susan B. Anthony. Twice now, American women have been nominated for the high office of Vice President. As a popular cigarette advertisement pointed out to us in the 1970’s, we have, indeed, come a long way.
But it was back in 1954 that Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, as she lay dying at the age of eighty-six, whispered to her care-giver.
"And how does the fight for equal pay go?"


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