Editor’s Log

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. On August 26, 1920, American women were at last given that most fundamental of rights in a democratic society: the right to vote. But “given” is the wrong verb; for just as African American men played a major role in both demanding and achieving their citizenship in the post–Civil War era, so too American women organized, lobbied, and protested their exclusion until they achieved their goal. Their persistence as much their success calls for our admiration. As historian Barbara Winslow reminds us in her essay, “No other group in the United States of comparable size had ever won the vote wholly on its own efforts.”

In this celebratory issue of History Now, our scholars remind us that the struggle to win formal political participation was long, difficult, and marked by moments of crushing defeat, exhilarating success, and lasting consequence. Some of the names you encounter here will be familiar, but others may be unknown to you, just as some of the events along the timeline toward woman suffrage may require you to rethink the origins and outcomes of the demand for the vote. But taken together, these essays provide you with enough new and important information to help you explain to your students why in this year, more than others, Women’s History Month is a month of celebration.

Most standard works on the origins of the suffrage movement begin with the Seneca Falls convention. But in her path-breaking essay, “The First Generation: America’s Women Voters, 1776−1807,” Marcela Micucci, Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of the American Revolution, shows us that the egalitarian promise of the Declaration of Independence was the source of a unique experiment in woman suffrage even before the war was won. Micucci and her colleagues at the museum knew that women—and free blacks—were granted suffrage in New Jersey’s first constitution. But was this just empty rhetoric by New Jersey legislators? Or did women of property actually go to the polls for over three decades? Fine historical detectives that they are, these researchers painstakingly examined polling records and found that women did indeed exercise their right to vote until political party rivalries intervened to revise the state constitution. The legacy of New Jersey women voters was, in fact, kept alive by nineteenth- and twentieth-century suffragists like Lucy Stone. The museum’s exhibition, opening this August, will encourage us to redraw the timeline for the suffrage movement and to understand the impact of the Revolution’s ideals on the birth of that movement.

We all know the names Carrie Chapman Catt, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Alice Paul. But, as Susan Ware reminds us in “Why They Marched: Rank and File Perspectives on the Women’s Suffrage Movement,” it was the followers as much as the leaders who won the suffrage victory. Ware introduces us to ordinary women, black and white, like Claiborne Catlin, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Mary Church Terrell who, from the earliest days of the movement, devoted their time and resources to the suffrage cause. Telling their stories, Ware explains, helps bring out the depth and diversity of the movement, regional as well as racial, and reveals the presence of queer participants in the suffrage struggle. Ware also urges us to see the movement as more than a political campaign; becoming a suffragist, she writes, “had the potential to change a woman’s relationships with her family.” Like many reform movements, suffrage built lasting friendships, deep loyalties, and a sense of pride in participation. As Ware notes, there are many suffrage stories still waiting to be told.

In her essay, “African American Women and the Nineteenth Amendment,” Sharon Harley introduces us to many of the black women who worked within interracial and exclusively black organizations to ensure the passage of woman suffrage. Although most of us know Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, we can now recount the roles of Margaretta and Harriet Purvis, Charlotte Rollins, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary—to name just a few—in advocacy for both woman suffrage and African American equality. Harley’s essay does not shy away from the tensions between white and black suffragists produced by the Fifteenth Amendment, tensions that continued even after the success of the Nineteenth Amendment. While black women argued that the battle was now over for white women but it continued for their own race, white women activists saw the Nineteenth Amendment as only the first step toward their own equality. These different perspectives remind us that race, as much as gender, shaped the movement’s trajectory. Today, Harley notes, black women form a critical voting bloc within the Democratic Party, building as they have on the pioneering work of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century activists who went before them.

Not all women supported woman suffrage, of course. In her essay, “With All Due Respect: Understanding Anti-Suffrage Women,” Susan Goodier takes us back to nineteenth-century New York and the rise of organized resistance to votes for women. When the 1894 state constitutional convention considered eliminating the word “male” as a voting restriction, anxious women organized to prevent what they considered a disaster in the making. Calling themselves “remonstrants,” or simply “anti-suffragists,” these women flooded the legislature with petitions. They argued that most women did not want the vote; that voting would be a burden; and that many women were too ignorant of politics to vote wisely. The anti-suffragists won that battle, but not the war. Over the next two decades both suffragists and their opponents fought to win support. Ironically, the fight to prevent women playing a role in politics carried the “antis” into the political arena as they competed for public support. Ultimately, in 1917, New York held a referendum and women won the right to vote in this critically important populous state. As Goodier shows us, the anti-suffrage forces took the fight to Washington—only to lose the war when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

In her essay, “An Arduous Path: The Passage and Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment,” historian Elaine Weiss drives home how uncertain victory was in the battle to pass and then to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. She puts it bluntly: “The success of the amendment was in grave doubt until the very last moment.” Weiss gives us a play-by- play account of this battle, and the ups and downs are riveting. The odds seemed stacked against success: state legislatures across the country had rejected referenda on the issue. The only hope was a federal amendment. But what was the best strategy for achieving this? The two major suffrage organizations, the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman’s Party, disagreed. While the former lobbied, the latter organized public protests. When in early 1918 the House agreed to the suffrage amendment, the Senate balked. Party politics, corporate influence, racism, and garden- variety misogyny led them to reject the amendment. Finally, in 1919, the Senate relented, and the battle for ratification began. Weiss takes us through the hurdles suffrage supporters faced—governors who refused to call special sessions of their legislatures; efforts by anti-suffrage southern political leaders to join forces to block ratification; blanket rejection by almost all southern states; surprise rejections by Delaware and petitions in Ohio to recall ratification. True, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and New York buoyed suffrage spirits, and victorious Minnesota suffrage supporters sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the floor of the legislature. In the end, however, it all came down to one state: Tennessee. Here, Weiss recounts the almost mythic story of young Harry T. Burn and his history-making vote.

In Barbara Winslow’s “The League of Women Voters: A Century of Voter Engagement,” we explore the “what next?” after suffrage was won. Winslow’s careful research lays out the origins and the goals of this nonpartisan organization begun by women who believed citizens should play a critical role in civic advocacy. The League grew out of the NAWSA—but not without opposition. Some women feared that it would siphon women off from the major political parties. Others worried that, in the new conservative climate of the 1920s, it would be seen as too radical. And the League had its rival in Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, which introduced the Equal Rights Amendment. The League opposed the ERA but worked over the next decades as an advocate for many progressive reforms. Despite its progressive agenda, the League had a shameful record in its support of racial segregation, which Winslow does not gloss over. Not until the post–World War II era did the League revise its racist stance. Today, the League continues to thrive; its membership has tripled since 2016 and its agenda is decidedly progressive. As Winslow notes, the twenty-first century League has moved far away from its origins but closer to its founding ideals.

As always, we offer special features along with these remarkable essays, including a compendium of Women’s History Month classroom resources from the Gilder Lehrman Institute, a set of Spotlights on Primary Sources from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, and a pair of lesson plans by master teachers.

Nicole and I wish you a happy Women’s History Month!

Carol Berkin, Editor
Nicole Seary, Associate Editor