Long before the January 2017 Women’s March, the suffragists of New York City took to the streets to make their demands for political rights. Women demonstrating in public was still a new phenomenon, and it took considerable bravery for them to protest in public.
Like later generations, they marched proudly, arm in arm, all different classes and sometimes races. Their pride, discipline and determination announced that women were about to become powerful political actors. They had learned that the vote was crucial and they were willing to fight for it.
Today, on the eve of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment securing women’s right to vote, we should recall their courage — and find in it the inspiration for a new generation of advocacy.
The first act of the movement was upstate, in Seneca Falls, in 1848, where 33-year-old Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves the sacred right of the elective franchise.”
During and after the Civil War, from Stanton’s home in Manhattan, she and her partner Susan B. Anthony directed their movement through the shoals of Reconstruction politics, believing that because the enfranchisement of black men had major party support, they had a fighting chance to win woman suffrage.
When they failed, their disappointment and resentment that former male slaves had gotten the vote before educated, respectable middle-class women like themselves led to a break with champions of racial equality that burdened the suffrage movement up to and after its victory, a half-century later.
In the early 20th century, the women’s suffrage movement in New York City reemerged, drawing masses of women into the streets. The great suffrage marches of the 1910s galvanized the country and put politicians on notice that women would not cease protesting until they could vote.
British suffragists — nicknamed “suffragettes” by the press to trivialize them — had organized the first modern suffrage parade in 1908, when 250,000 marchers converged on Hyde Park. Inspired by their example, New York’s first suffrage parade took place in 1910, but only 400 working-class women, joined by college graduates in cap and gown, converged on Union Square. More conventional women, not yet ready to march, slowly drove behind them in their automobiles.
In 1911, the suffrage parade now drew 5,000 marchers (no automobiles!) and twice as many spectators. It was held just two months after one of the great tragedies of New York City history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, in which 146 workers died. “Women need votes to end the sweatshops,” marchers’ signs read. “You men need us as voters to clean your political house,” reprimanded labor suffragist Leonora O’Reilly, referencing a stereotypical role that women did and still do often carry out.
By 1912, suffragists were marching in disciplined ranks, dressed in white, and wearing matching suffrage hats that could be bought for thirty-nine cents at city department stores.
That year, attention was drawn to the Chinese “suffragettes,” actually Barnard College students standing in for the suffrage heroines of the short-lived Provisional Government of the Republic of China. If China could enfranchise women, they asked, how could America be so far behind?
The parade’s target in 1912 was to get Albany legislators to initiate a state constitutional amendment to enfranchise women. Western states had done this, but New York, home to the largest congressional delegation, would be the biggest prize.
“The enemy must see women marching in increasing numbers year by year,” declared parade organizer Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Suffrage parades now spread beyond New York. The most historic was held in the nation’s capital on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s 1913 presidential inauguration. Alice Paul, a young suffragist who had apprenticed with the British suffragettes, organized it. Inez Milholland, on the beautiful white horse that she had ridden in the 1912 New York parade, led it.
However, the 1913 national suffrage parade was remembered for other reasons: Black marchers being segregated, and hostile crowds attacking the parades. Wilson refused to be impressed and opposed a constitutional amendment well into his second administration.
Then, a May 1913 New York City demonstration dwarfed the D.C. parade. And the outpouring of support into the streets moved the powers that be to begin to rethink their priorities.
New York Senate Majority Leader Robert Wagner had finally given in to suffragist pressure and agreed to a referendum on a state constitutional amendment. Now New York men must be convinced to vote for it. More than 10,000 women of all classes marched shoulder to shoulder, as spectators lined the streets many rows deep and hung out from the windows along Fifth Ave. Even the lofty, often stodgy New York Times conceded “Woman suffrage is long past the experimental stage…It has ‘arrived’.”
A week before the 1915 referendum, a final parade drew an estimated 45,000 marchers and 500,000 spectators. This year, Black women marched, “showing up splendidly,” the New York Age bragged. But despite the thousands of women involved, the referendum was defeated by 200,000 votes in all the city’s boroughs and most upstate districts.
Were the marchers dispirited? Did they think their organizing had all been for naught? They were not.
Harriot Stanton Blatch and Carrie Chapman Catt, New York’s top leaders, decided to shift their strategy to fight for a federal constitutional amendment. They brought the experience and tactics they had refined in New York to the national stage. Others, among the city’s wealthiest suffragists, knuckled down to a second state referendum and immediately raised a war chest of $100,000.
Required to delay by state law for two years, the second referendum was scheduled for November 1917. By this time, the U.S. was at war and the influenza pandemic was taking hold. The parade that year was somber and marked by patriotic displays. The highlight: petitions including over a million signatures, mounted on large placards, each carried by two women.
This time, the referendum passed, with the victory coming largely from New York City. Now that the nation’s largest congressional delegation was obligated to women voters, the tide turned at the federal level.
Two months later, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing a federal amendment. Passage in the Senate and then the difficult ratification process took another 19 months. Finally, on Aug. 18, 1920, the 36th state, Tennessee, ratified, and on Aug. 26, the U.S. secretary of state announced that the women’s suffrage amendment was now part of the U.S. Constitution.
New York’s newest paper, the Daily News, editorialized: “We do not congratulate [women] on securing nationwide suffrage, but do congratulate the country.”
The Nineteenth Amendment did not automatically revolutionize American politics or make women the equals of men. That is up to the larger culture, and to millions of individuals charting their own course.
But suffrage leaders had never expected a formal constitutional act to do more than give women the tools of political citizenship and the opportunity to learn to use them.
Carrie Chapman Catt turned her organization into the nonpartisan National League of Women Voters, dedicated to women playing a critical role in democracy.
Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment, barring unequal treatment under the law on the basis of sex, in 1923. It remains unratified but has come back to life in the last few years.
African-American women living in the segregated South, for whom the 19th Amendment gave them votes in name only, realized their voting rights with the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act.
The long-awaited (or feared) women’s voting bloc finally began to appear in the mid-1970s. Though divided especially by race and by education, the political gender gap has been increasingly crucial, no more so, it can be anticipated, than this November.
Women running for elective office, which suffragists did not emphasize, has also accelerated exponentially and been increasingly diverse. As of this month 267 women of color were major-party candidates for Congress.
The implications of the suffrage movement continue to reach forward. We should expect nothing less from one of the great developments in the history of American political democracy.
DuBois is the author of “Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.”