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D.C. Bar Kicks Off Pre-Conference Programming With Book Talk on Suffrage

By John Murph

November 20, 2019

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On November 12, the D.C. Bar kicked off its programming leading up to its 2020 Conference with a book talk by award-winning journalist Elaine Weiss. Weiss’s recent book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, recounts the decades-long battle for women to gain access to the ballot box, culminating with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Weiss described her book as a “rollicking political thriller with women as the central characters.” She teased that “it’s a tale of suspense, of double crossers, and of betrayal.”

“It’s really a book about political power and political will, it’s about race and gender politics, and fundamentally, it’s a book about the law,” Weiss said.

Weiss focused much of her hour-long discussion on the 72 years that led to that fateful day in Nashville, Tennessee, on August 18, 1920, when the women’s suffrage movement finally got the necessary 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. “The movement required three generations of fearless activists, working over seven decades, to secure the right to vote for American women,” Weiss said.

“The fight of the women’s suffrage movement was never just a political fight,” Weiss added. “It was also a debate about the role of women in [U.S.] society. It was a precursor to what we now call ‘the culture wars.’”

Setting the Stage

Weiss talked about some of the prominent figures in the fight for women’s voting rights, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton who became the movement’s leading philosopher. Stanton witnessed women seek legal help from her father, a noted New York lawyer and state assemblyman, on matters ranging from divorcing an abusive husband to dealing with financial hardship. Stanton’s father could do nothing to help them because they had few rights under the law.

Stanton’s father encouraged his incensed daughter to change the law if she wanted to see women treated more fairly. And that she did. At the 1848 Seneca Falls Women’s Convention, Stanton introduced Resolution No. 9, which some women’s rights activists thought was too radical at the time because it advocated for equal pay for equal work. Stanton was asked to remove the resolution from the agenda, but she refused. In fact, 30-year-old Frederick Douglass, whom she invited to the convention, encouraged Stanton to move forward with it. Douglass told her, “[The right to vote] will never be given to us unless we fight for it.”

Also attending the Seneca Falls Convention were Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Coffin Mott, two other key players in the suffrage movement. Weiss noted that all of these women and many others in the early movement started off as abolitionists. “They all believed that at the end of the Civil War all disenfranchised classes should be given the right to vote,” Weiss said.

The Role of Race

Weiss noted several times that race played a significant role in the struggle for women’s voting rights. Because the women’s movement coincided with the anti-slavery campaign, race became a political wedge. According to Weiss, the U.S. Congress sent out the message that “America can’t take two big reforms at once.”

Although Douglass called himself a women’s rights man, he later said that “the woman’s hour has not arrived.” For black America, the fight for full citizenship was “a matter of life or death.” Sojourner Truth, another influential figure in the women’s suffrage movement, was horrified that black women would not be given the right to vote. Stanton and Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment because it didn’t include women.

Several decades after Anthony and Stanton drafted a constitutional amendment, which stalled for 40 years, racial politics continued to play an integral role. Many southern states refused to support the 19th Amendment because they didn’t want black women voting. Also, in Nashville at the Hermitage Hotel, where the amendment was finally ratified, Wiess noted that anti-suffragists waved Confederate flags in defiance. “There were cries of white supremacy and states’ rights,” Weiss said. “The Ku Klux Klan was invoked as a dog whistle.”

“The 19th Amendment did give the vote to all women in every state and every election, but it was subverted and undermined by state laws, especially in the South,” said Weiss. “The Jim Crow laws imposed all kinds of restrictions, coupled with intimidation and violence. So, it was decades until black women would exercise their right to vote just as the [exercising of rights] from the 15th Amendment was delayed for black men.”

Other Significant Players

After the turn of the century, other players became involved, notably Alice Paul. She had earned her PhD, studied the women’s suffrage movement in England, then returned to the United States in 1913. Paul adopted more radical techniques, such as picketing the White House and President Woodrow Wilson, which earned her prison time. Paul was held in solitary confinement for months. To try to break her will, the U.S. government threatened to commit her to the Government Hospital for the Insane, later named St. Elizabeths.

As the movement steadily gained steam and nationwide coverage, the biggest collective opposing it was women, Weiss said. “Some were very sophisticated, well-educated women like Josephine Pearson [a college dean and president of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage]. Eleanor Roosevelt never supported the movement; she was ambivalent about it. When New York women got the right to vote in 1917, Roosevelt refused to vote. Weiss noted that after the 19th Amendment was ratified, Roosevelt joined the League of Women Voters.

“Lawyers were [also] very much in this drama,” Weiss said. “All sides lawyered up, as we say. There was the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, made up of lawyers who worked for the anti-suffrage side. The suffragists kept on retainer Charles Evan Hughes, a former Supreme Court justice who wrote their legal briefs.”

Weiss told the audience that she wrote the book before the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Her research gave her a deeper appreciation and understanding of grassroots activists. “These rights that we have assumed had been secured — voting rights, women’s rights, citizenship rights, and the freedom of the press — are endangered again,” she said. “I hope this [book] will inspire a new generation of activists to understand that protest is important and necessary, but it must be coupled with sustained and strategic political action.”

The centennial of the 19th Amendment will be a key focus at the D.C. Bar 2020 Conference on June 24 to 26 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, 500 Calvert Street NW, Washington, D.C. Featured speakers include world-renowned presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin.