• Barbara Tieken

August, 1920, Marked a Historic Moment for Women

In a recent on-line article about Women’s Suffrage by Ellen Carol DuBois, she noted the importance of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which marked a century of empowerment for American women. It was a hard-fought battle after three generations of suffragists finally won the fight against the nation’s political and economic establishment. This month, one hundred years later, the League of Women Voters of Lavaca County along with leagues throughout Texas and the nation are celebrating the landmark decision with historic accounts of how this came to be. 

Activist Maud Younger thought she would witness the dawn of women’s political power in America. Labor leader, Rose Schneiderman wrote, “Women needed the vote because they needed protection through the laws. Not having the vote, the lawmakers could ignore us.” Ida B Wells-Barnett, Black journalist and activist, wished that her friends Frederick Douglas and Susan B. Anthony “could have been here to see the day when a woman’s ballot will count equally with a man’s.”

In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., a time when American women were deprived of legal rights in virtually all dimensions of their lives.  Women were excluded from higher education and most professions. When a woman married, she lost all control over her finances. Any wages she earned went directly to her husband and she couldn’t own property under her own name. If the marriage dissolved, custody of the children automatically went to her husband.

Charlotte Woodward Pierce, 18 years old when she attended the Seneca Falls Convention, was the only woman there who lived to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Two years after Seneca Falls, the first nationwide women’s rights convention issued a call to “remember the two million slave women of the South, the most grossly wronged of all women.”

By 1920, one fifth of American women were working outside the home, approximately half of them in the industrial sector, primarily in textile and garment production. A majority of Black women worked as domestic servants, but they were beginning to break into factory work. Women had achieved significant standing in medicine, making up about 10% of practicing physicians in major cities.

Women also became major figures in American artistic and intellectual life. In 1921, Zona Gale was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and two years later, the Pulitzer  Prize for poetry went to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Both were advocates of women’s suffrage.

Even before the passage of the 19th Amendment, women wielded considerable influence in forging social and economic policy. In 1911, Frances Perkins, appointed executive secretary of New York State’s Commission on Safety, was charged with reforming industrial conditions after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. She rose to become Secretary of Labor under Franklin Roosevelt—the first woman to hold cabinet-level office. Women made their way into the federal government, forming the U.S. Children’s Bureau in 1912 to address high rates of infant and child mortality and the scourge of child labor.

President Woodrow Wilson resisted a suffrage amendment for years, but in 1918 he acknowledges that women’s contribution during WWI had earned the right to vote nationwide.Wilson told the Senate the U.S. had fought for democracy, and “democracy means that women shall play their part in affairs alongside men and upon the equal footing with them. “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of sacrifice and suffering and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

Upon ratification of the 19th Amendment, approximately 30 million women became voters. But this didn’t mean the end of the battle for equality. More next week.