Americans quickly forget their history. Contemporary feminism didn’t spring forth like a Phoenix from the ashes. As we celebrate the anniversary of the passage of women’s right to vote, let’s pause and honor the women who dedicated their lives to this cause— the indomitable Suffragettes. They paved the way for 21st century feminists, modeling courage and an unwavering commitment to women’s rights.
Susan B. Anthony rallied her followers with the famous words, “Failure is impossible.” Heeding Anthony’s clarion call, Suffragettes engaged in civil disobedience, got arrested, went on hunger strikes for which they were force-fed. They incurred the wrath of men whose national campaigns against them included local organizations with store front chapters advertising, “Headquarters Opposed to Women Suffrage” Newspapers from the turn of the century often carried stories blaming the Suffragettes on everything from arson to ruining the institution of marriage to poisoning young minds.
Here’s a short list of my favorite Suffragettes and their actions:
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), author of “The Women’s Bible,” which replaced the patriarchal slant of the Bible in favor of a version where women were equals. The controversy surrounding the publication of “The Women’s Bible” reverberated from coast to coast.
Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), besides her famous “Ain’t I a Women?” speech, she personally urged Abraham Lincoln to end segregation.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), repeatedly arrested for her attempts to vote and her refusal to pay related fines.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), as a precursor to Rosa Parks, Ida refused to give up her train seat to a white man and sit in the “Jim Crow” car. She was forcibly removed, biting the conductor’s hand in the process.
Jeannette Rankin (1880-1973), the first woman elected to Congress. In 1940 she was re-elected, running on an anti-war platform. At the age of 88, in the spirit of The Raging Grannies, Jeannette led the “Jeanette Ranking Brigade” of 5,000 women on a march down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue to demand the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam.
Mabel Vernon 1883-1975), picketed the White House numerous times for women’s rights for which she served several jail sentences. She publicly heckled President Wilson for omitting women during a speech he delivered on freedom.
Alice Paul (1885-1977), organized a contingent of women who picketed the White House and refused to leave when ordered to do so. During the group’s prison sentence, Paul arranged a hunger strike and was force-fed through a long rubber tube. Wilson’s 1918 proclamation advocating a woman’s right to vote is attributed to the pressure put on him by Paul and her supporters.
While it’s important to honor the Suffragettes who gained national and historic prominence, most of us can find a feisty, bold woman in our own families who bears the stamp of a Suffragette and who deserves our admiration. My paternal grandfather had two sisters who lived together and who remained single, turning down marriage proposals in favor of successful careers. Aunt Nell was a hat buyer for a large department store while Aunt Kit worked as a government administrative assistant. My own mother had a traditional marriage but when I participated in the second wave of Feminism, she cheered me on.
While life goes on, some lessons of history remain the same. Susan B. Anthony in her later years had these words for young women, which remain equally relevant today:
How can you all not be on fire? I really believe I shall explode if some of you young women don’t wake up and raise your voice in protest against the impending crime of this nation upon the new islands it has clutched from other folks. Do come into the living present and work to save us from any more barbaric male governments!