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Lynn Yeakel

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Remembering the Fight for Women's Suffrage

Posted: 09/17/2013 6:20 pm

"Remember the Ladies!" Abigail Adams urged her husband, John Adams, as he sat in the Continental Congress in 1776.

But women were not remembered in the Declaration of Independence, nor in 1787 with the adoption of the U.S. Constitution, nor in 1870 when the 15th Amendment granted the right to vote to all men, regardless of "race, color or previous condition of servitude."

Women finally took matters into their own hands.

As we observe Constitution Day on September 17, we remember those who struggled, marched, protested and even went to jail to obtain this most basic civil right for American women.

Some names are better remembered than others. Susan B. Anthony has a U.S. dollar coin in her honor. She and her suffragist sisters Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone campaigned tirelessly throughout the second half of the 19th century for women's right to vote.

But by 1900, women had the vote in only four western states. By 1910, the women's suffrage movement was stagnant. It took a slight, quiet Quaker woman from New Jersey to turn up the heat.

Alice Paul was a radical. She took the fight for women's suffrage to the streets.

In March 1913, Alice Paul organized a public march in Washington D.C. on the day before President Woodrow Wilson's first inauguration. More than 8,000 people paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue behind a yellow banner declaring, "We Demand an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Enfranchising the Women of this Country."

Many spectators in the crowd of 250,000 grabbed banners, toppled floats, and pinched and groped women marchers. The police did nothing; the federal cavalry was called in to restore order.

While Paul and her suffragists campaigned across the country for women's voting rights, they focused their attention on Washington. They didn't hesitate to embarrass President Wilson. During a 1914 presidential speech to Congress, suffragists unfurled a banner from the front row of the visitors' gallery, reading, "Mr. Wilson, what are you doing for women's suffrage?"

Paul and her National Women's Party continued to press Wilson and the Congress. Starting in January 1917, they took the fight to the gates of the White House. For 18 months, Paul and her "Silent Sentinels" maintained an almost constant vigil there.

At first, the White House and police ignored the protesters. But eventually President Wilson tired of the embarrassment and arrests were made for "obstructing traffic." Picketers continued to be arrested through the fall of 1917 with longer jail sentences imposed.

Finally, Paul and other prisoners decided to implement a suffragist strategy used in England - the hunger strike -- to protest their detention. Prison officials responded by force-feeding the hunger strikers. Paul was held in solitary confinement and even placed in a psychiatric ward.

The National Women's Party used the barbaric treatment of Paul and the other jailed suffragists to rally public sympathy for their cause. Responding to public pressure, President Wilson finally announced his support for a federal suffrage amendment and Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919. It was ratified and signed into law on August 26, 1920.

It seems inconceivable to us today that American women did not have the right to vote, to control their own wages, or to own property in their own names. That's why we salute the struggle, perseverance, suffering and dedication of Alice Paul and her fellow suffragists. We honor and we "remember the ladies."

 
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