As we saw in the first two episodes of “The Fight,” American women fought for decades in the 1800s for the right to vote at the state and the national level. But they hadn’t won it yet. In the 1910s, though, a new, younger, more radical generation of women’s rights activists breathed new life into the fight.
One of these women was Alice Paul, a young Quaker who had studied in England at the time that suffragists there were throwing rocks through windows and getting arrested. After getting a taste of this brand of activism, Paul returned to the United States and decided to make the fight for suffrage her life’s work.
Old divides between Black and White suffragists, though, had not disappeared. Alice Paul and the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA, had made the choice to sideline Black suffragists in order to win the support of White Southern voters.
Black suffragists such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett were told they would have to march at the back of the parade. Wells-Barnett was a journalist who had written a groundbreaking book on how lynching was a tool for political and social control. She had to flee the South under the threat of White violence, and she became a leader in the fight for civil rights and rights for women. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club to promote the cause of suffrage among Black women in Chicago.
At the D.C. parade, Wells-Barnett expected to march with the Illinois delegation. When asked to march at the back of the parade, she refused to do so, telling her state’s delegation, “Either I go with you, or not at all.” And so she marched with them, whether they liked it or not.
Furious men began to push into the parade and attack the women. The police didn’t stop them, and around 100 women ended up in the hospital. This caused outrage in the press and won new sympathy for the cause. And the parade ended up overshadowing President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
Once Wilson took office, suffragists worked tirelessly to try to win his support. The leader of NAWSA, Carrie Chapman Catt, wrote letters and met with the president. Alice Paul and her friends weren’t as civil, and they were expelled from the national organization after being too critical of the president.
Nowadays, there’s always someone protesting outside the White House. But in 1917, it had never been done before, and it was extremely scandalous. At first, Wilson seemed amused by the female protesters. But after a few days, when it became clear they weren’t going anywhere, they began to get under his skin.
When the United States entered World War I, Paul decided to continue the White House picket. The protesters used Wilson’s own words about making the world safe for democracy to lobby for their cause. This was seen as treasonous behavior by many Americans.
The women of NAWSA distanced themselves from the protesters, thinking they would set back the whole suffrage movement. The picketers, including Paul, were arrested over and over again, and they received increasingly severe punishments in the workhouse where they were imprisoned.
The women demanded to be treated with respect as political prisoners. Instead, they were force-fed, shackled and beaten. This created a media sensation. Wilson did not want suffragist blood on his hands in the midst of a war. The women were released, and the superintendent was investigated for inhumane treatment.
As the 1918 midterm election approached, Wilson needed to retain Democratic control of Congress. He realized he would not be able to if the Democrats were opposed to suffrage. He also needed to prove to the rest of the world that he was a leader in the cause of democracy.
American women were supporting the war effort, both at home and in Europe, and the tide of public opinion had finally shifted.
Wilson said: The war “could not have been fought by America if it had not been for the services of women.”
It took all parts of the women’s movement to win over Wilson, and the nation, to the cause of women’s suffrage. It took Carrie Chapman Catt’s relentless but polite lobbying in Washington. It took the public outrage over Alice Paul’s treatment in prison. And it took the enormous network of Black women’s organizations to rally Black men to support the cause.
At Wilson’s urging, Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919. It took another year for the necessary 36 states to ratify the amendment. It was a tall order, especially because most Southern states were opposed to the amendment. In fact, Mississippi didn’t ratify it until 1984.
But they only needed 36 states to make the 19th Amendment law.
The 36th state to ratify was Tennessee on Aug. 18, 1920. It almost didn’t happen — but one state legislator changed his mind at the very last minute after receiving a telegram from his mother telling him to be “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt.”
The struggle for the 19th Amendment was not simple or pretty or totally peaceful.
Native Americans didn’t win the right to vote until 1948, and even then, they were blocked from voting in some states until 1962. Chinese immigrants could not become citizens or vote until 1943. And it wasn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that Black Americans in the South would actually attain full citizenship and voting rights — nearly a century after the passage of the 15th Amendment.
Even today, the right to vote is not a given. Laws regarding voter registration and voter ID make it harder to vote in some states.
The fight for the vote has been a long one — and it isn’t over yet.