Guest blogger: Aditya Voleti
My Why is a series of Lean Lab stakeholders who we feature as guest bloggers. They describe their "why," or inspiration, for becoming involved in social change and reform. We hope you find similar inspiration in their stories
There is something about the story of American women’s struggle for suffrage that has always stuck with me. It is a history I keep close, and, every once in a while, revisit, like you would a book that has opened your mind to new ways of thinking. I am not a historian, nor have I ever been a formal student of history, so none of this exposition or my opinions are the result of endorsed, academic research. Rather, I use the history (or at least my understanding of it) as a framework to express what I find inspiring about the world.
Years ago in my high school AP U.S. History course, I learned that the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first women’s rights convention. Very little instruction followed this cursory snapshot of the women’s suffrage movement. In fact, this name, date, and short Twitter-like description, along with the names associated with the event, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frederick Douglas were the only things that were to be tested on the topic, I had to dig further outside of class to learn that there had been a vigorous debate at Seneca Falls about the right of women to vote even amongst those who believed in women’s rights. The resolution had barely passed: “Resolved,” it said, “that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
My teenage self was baffled that so few words could cause such controversy even amongst a deeply sympathetic audience. I became somewhat obsessed with the topic. I tracked down documentaries on YouTube, Googled my way through journals and articles, and even did the un-millennial act of borrowing books at the local library. What I discovered was this:
After much organization and mergers, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was formed. It was run by the Great Feminists my AP U.S. History curriculum had encouraged me to memorize: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna Howard Shaw, Carried Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell and Julie Ward Howe, among others (notice that all went by 3 names). Eventually, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns (known only by two names) broke off to form the National Women’s Party (NWP) due to internal politics, a fission not mentioned in the AP U.S. History curriculum.
NAWSA’s strategy was to lobby for suffrage state-by-state, while Paul and the NWP lobbied for more media attention and more militant tactics against an oppressive and often unsympathetic government. The NWP set up the famous “Silent Sentinels,” often pictured in history textbook holding banners outside the White House, and Paul is famous for organizing the Woman Suffrage Parade of 1913, also pictured in textbooks. But what the textbooks don’t show or address was the violence these marchers faced - their injuries, the police inaction, the human sacrifice.
The resonance of this story for me lies in the tension of what I was taught and what actually happened: the NWP Sentinels were eventually arrested on the charge of obstructing traffic, and were sent to jail where Paul instigated a hunger strike. Refusing to allow the women to become martyrs, the U.S. government approved the use of force-feeding by sticking a tube up the nose and down the throats of the protesters and pouring liquids down a funnel into their stomachs. It is not hard to imagine the pain and danger of the procedure.
Yet our national conscience of the suffrage movement does not often include pictures of women being force-fed, beaten to the ground by police and men, or bludgeoned by their own protest banners. I think that we collectively picture women walking outside of government buildings, peacefully protesting with signs, and a benevolent Congress collectively smiling and agreeing to pass an amendment. Instead, courageous women put themselves in grave danger against a powerful government that used physical force repeatedly to dissuade their efforts. These less appealing images destroyed in my mind the idea of the “benevolent paternalism” that I was taught to admire in history class, one that claimed to protect women even as they were brutally assaulted for overstepping socially constructed lines.
All of this is dramatized in the 2004 HBO film Iron Jawed Angels, which I did not see until years after my AP history class had brushed over the brutalization present throughout the movement. While the movie has flaws, I’m grateful that there is a new historical account about women’s suffrage outside of traditional textbooks, one that does not shy away from scenes of force-feeding.
But we’re still missing part of the story. There is no televised drama about the political theater of the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage, one that prohibits any United States citizen being denied the right to vote based on sex. After Woodrow Wilson introduced the passage of the amendment as a war measure, a special session of Congress was called on January 10, 1918, where all but 6 congressmen failed to vote on the amendment. There are many inspiring stories from this voting session, whether apocryphal or not I can’t say: there are tales of congressmen coming in and out in stretchers from sick beds and with broken arms from hospitals to cast their votes, with one congressmen even being said to have left his wife’s deathbed at her urging to vote for suffrage, later leaving the chamber to attend her funeral. After all of this effort and many retries, by June 14, 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment passed both the House and the Senate by one vote.
By then, the amendment had to be ratified by 36 state legislatures (a two-thirds majority at the time) in order to become the law of the land. Had all of the northern states ratified, there would have been no need to depend on the anti-suffrage southern states. Unfortunately, Delaware declined the amendment and all hopes were then put on Tennessee, which needed to vote and pass the amendment by August 19, 1920.
Lobbyists from the NWP and NAWSA descended onto Nashville the summer of 1920 along with anti-suffragists. All set up shop in the Hermitage hotel, one block from the state house, where the Tennessee legislators themselves were staying. It was a chaotic summer, with legislators cajoled and bribed by all sides, not to mention the liquor lobby pouring in tens of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the anti-suffragists (they believed women would vote in temperance; they were right).
Finally, tallying up the promises on the morning of August 18, 1920, the last possible day the Tennessee general assembly could vote on the issue in a special session, it seemed as though there would be a tie and that the amendment would not pass. Harry Burn, the youngest member of the assembly at 24 years old, walked into the session with a letter in hand. He had intended on voting “nay” for ratification, but he had received a long letter from his mother that read thus: “Hurrah and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt! I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Mrs. Catt saw her day and the rat was indeed put into ratification when Burns voted for suffrage. With his one, tie-breaking vote, a journey that started at Seneca Falls 72 years before, ended with the enfranchisement of 20 million American women.
It is important to note that the Nineteenth Amendment passed by one vote in the Senate, by one vote in the House, and by one vote in one state on the last possible day before the deadline in a special session. I find this inspiring, perhaps darkly so. For me, it is a constant reminder that justice and injustice are separated by the boundary of a hair’s breadth, upon which the world teeters. And while the world may tip to injustice at any moment, it can similarly be nudged in the right direction to right society’s wrongs.
Justice and injustice are separated by the boundary of a hair’s breadth, upon which the world teeters.
Too, lessons from the women’s suffrage movement have demonstrated that the meat of the fight against injustice is in the daily and small interactions we have with those we love. The collective efforts of women risking their lives to keep the story in the public eye, the wives urging their husbands to vote for suffrage, Burn’s mother writing him her thoughts - all of these small instances tipped America ever so precariously in the right direction. And even today, as America continues to teeter precariously on new and old challenges, we can tip it in the right direction starting with those we love.
Aditya Voleti is a Lean Lab Fellow and founder of ELL Teacher Archive. He makes fantastic chai tea, which he serves with a side of caustic remarks and hilarious stories.
Follow his blog: avoleti.wordpress.com
Find him on Twitter: @voleti_tweets