This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the amendment that gave women the right to vote. In 1920, the state of Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify it and make it the law of the land.
As with so many other struggles for equality, the struggle for women’s rights began long before the fruition of that ratification. It began decades earlier, seeded in the fertile ground of the abolitionist movement. Historians trace the beginning of the Women’s Suffragette Movement to the First Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Five active women abolitionists were at the forefront as leaders of the movement: Jane Hunt, Mary Ann M’Clintock, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martha Coffin Wright.
All but Elizabeth Cady Stanton were Quakers. These five women wrote a Declaration of Sentiments that was modeled after the Declaration of Independence, beginning with the words that continue to empower women and men in the continuing journey for equal access and equality in all facets of life: “all men and women are created equal.” More than 20 years after their Convention, Lucretia Mott would become the first president of the American Equal Rights Association.
In 1916, Alice Paul, also a Quaker, helped lead a protest against Woodrow Wilson for his failure to support women’s suffrage, joining others in ongoing protests outside the White House, where they became known as the Silent Sentinels.
Alice, along with others, was eventually arrested and sent to a workhouse in Virginia. When she went on a hunger strike, she was taken to a psychiatric wing and force fed. Press coverage led to an outcry about the abuse of suffragettes in prison. Bowing to rising public pressure, President Wilson changed his position and eventually supported the 19th Amendment.
When the amendment became law in 1920, only one of the 64 women who had signed the Seneca Falls Declaration had lived long enough to see women vote. Charlotte Woodward Pierce was a young Quaker woman who in 1848 was working as a seamstress making gloves. She was still a teenager when she signed the Declaration. She was 91 years old in 1920, bedridden and too frail to cast the vote she had fought so hard to assure for herself and for the generations of women to follow her.
Historians have noted that women’s participation in the anti-slavery movement demonstrated their political power and effectiveness. It was not surprising that so many leaders in the Suffragette Movement were Quaker women, since they were considered equals within their own families and their Quaker meetings.
The right to vote and the need to vote have never been more important than in these troubled times. Charlotte could not make it from her bed to vote that first year that women could vote. Jane, Mary Ann, Lucretia, Elizabeth, and Martha did not live to see the outcome of their work, but each one of them paved the way for every woman and man today to continue the struggle for justice, equal access, equality, and acceptance.
Now 100 years since that ratification and all those years since the work of the Seneca Falls 64 and so many more, we were witness to the first woman (and first Jewish person) in our history to lay in state in our nation’s Capitol, she too a pioneer for equality and justice not only for women, but for all: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
May we remember always their passion and their work!