Thursday, February 29, 2024

We Shall Overcome…

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

– Sojourner Truth, 1851

The struggle for enfranchisement

The history of freedom is also the history of struggle. In the past, there were those who governed through the doctrine of absolute or divine right. Such men placed themselves above others on grounds that their wealth or strength gave them such right. Sometimes, if not most of the time, they would appeal to the divine and claim that their supremacy had

been ordained by the Almighty. However, people gradually came to realise that they had the right to determine who will lead them and speak in their name, and so in England a king (Charles I) was beheaded, and another (James II) was deposed. In France, the head of the monarch (Louis XVI) rolled, while another two (Charles X and Louis-Phillipe) were forced into exile as popular sentiment turned against them.

But as hard fought these freedoms may have been, they did not extend to everyone. They definitely did not extend to women and for years all manner of argument and convoluted logic were used to deny the franchise to women. Amongst these arguments is that a woman’s place is in the house (or to be direct, the kitchen and the bedroom) and so they should not be allowed to vote. They said that women did not work in the same way as men nor did they serve in the armed forces and so women should not be given the right to vote. The proponents of such an argument also conveniently ignored the fact that it was men enacted laws that denied women the right to work.

These people argued that a woman’s intellect is not equal to a man’s and that a woman did not have the strength to withstand the physical pressures of waiting in line and voting. Of course, they also brushed aside the fact that the two greatest expansions of the British Empire occurred during the reign of Elizabeth I and Victoria, while George III saw the loss the American colonies. And women were considered frail despite being able to go through nine months of gestation and a usually painful birthing process. Then there was the all-popular appeal to religion, which had those who opposed women’s suffrage claiming that women were living under a ban from God and so to give them the vote would be to invite the displeasure of the Almighty.

Before 1893, no country had extended the national franchise to women. Although New Zealand gave women the right to vote in 1893, the major powers were still steadfast in their refusal to give women such rights. Britain might have been the foremost maritime power with an empire that spanned the world, but British women could not vote in Parliamentary elections. The same was true for women in the United States, which for all its rhetoric on democracy and equality refused to grant to its female citizens the same rights as enjoyed by men (although some states did grant women the franchise in state elections).

The struggle for enfranchisement in Britain and the United States is especially important considering the prestige of these two countries. One was the world’s largest democracy and the other was the world’s most powerful empire. Those women who fought for the right to vote did not have it easy, and some suffered ridicule, ostracism, maltreatment and even death for the cause.

That all men and women are created equal…

One of the greatest preambles in the history of writing is that of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. This famous piece goes, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As one might notice, the Declaration did not mention women and in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton put right to this oversight when she authored the Seneca Falls Declaration (or the Declaration of Sentiments), which placed the words “and women” next to “men”.

The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 was the first convention of women’s rights that was held in the United States and consequently marked the birth of feminism in the United States. To several delegates, which included men and women, the idea that a democracy such as the United States not extending the franchise to women was an anomaly and

anathema to the democratic ideals of the nation. In the Declaration, Stanton launched a scathing indictment on the treatment of women by men,

“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man towards woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world. He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. He has compelled her to submit

to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice. He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men – both natives and foreigners. Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides. He has made

her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead. He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.”

The cause of women, the cause of the people

The Seneca Falls Convention ironically had its birth in another liberation movement, which was Abolitionism. In 1840, the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention was held in London, but despite the liberal aspects of such a convention, the organisers were rather illiberal and women delegates were not allowed to speak. Amongst the delegates were two women

from the United States, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. During convention, the two women had a conversation, which led to the idea of a national convention for women’s rights.

However, it was not until 8 years later in 1848 that the convention was held. It came about, like many other delightful things, from pure chance. A meeting between Mott, Stanton, Martha C. Wright, Mary Ann McClintock and Jane Hunt led to a discussion of the New York Married Woman’s Property Rights Act. During the meeting, Stanton said that the time was

right for women to present their case to the public and that the long list of abuses and indignities suffered by women had to be told.

Thus on July 19 to July 20, the convention was held at the Weslyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls. Admittedly, the enfranchisement issue was a controversial one and there were a number of delegates who disagreed with the provision. One of the more prominent dissenters was Lucretia Mott. However, Stanton stood her ground and the call for enfranchisement remained.

The press reporting on the events in Seneca Falls were either dismissive or jeering. “Oh, these women,” most of them opined, “asking for things that are not their right and not knowing their place.” A Philadelphia newspaper even wrote, “True ladies would be foolish to sacrifice their status as Wives, Belles, Virgins and Mothers for equal rights.” The only newspaper that gave a sympathetic account of the convention was The Northern Star of Frederick Douglass.

Then raise the woman’s standard high

Who were these women who first raised the banner of enfranchisement? They had several aspects in common. Most of them were Northern women, members of the Society of Friends (or Quakers to give them their more popular name) and they were also members of the temperance society. Furthermore, the pioneers were actively involved in the Abolition

movement. Abolition and Enfranchisement – these two struggles for freedom walked hand in hand during the early years. In 1851, a convention was held in Akron, Ohio and Sojourner Truth became the first black woman to address it. Truth, a freed slave, who turned religious

preacher issued her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at this convention.

1851 was also the year when Stanton met Susan B Anthony, which would lead to these two women being the foremost leaders of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. For years, Stanton and Anthony would work together for the cause, with Anthony serving as the speaker and organiser while Stanton was the theorist and polemist of the movement. Anthony was also the proprietor of The Revolution, which was a newspaper that called for equal rights between men and women. Its now famous masthead declares – “For men, their rights and nothing more. For women, their rights and nothing less.”

However, the suffrage movement later split in two. Ironically, the cause of the split was that of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The Amendment came after the Northern victory in the Civil War, which freed the slaves, and so a Bill went before Congress that basically established the concept that everyone is free and equal before the law. The second article of the Bill was controversial though because it only mentioned voting rights for women and so the suffrage movement was split on whether to support or oppose the Amendment.

On one side, there were those who believed that supporting the 14th Amendment was necessary in closing the chapter on slavery. On the other hand, those who opposed it, felt that the Amendment should remove the term “male” and give women the franchise as well. Thus the woman’s suffrage movement underwent a schism with Stanton and Anthony establishing the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. In Cleveland, Ohio, Lucy Stone (who created a stir in 1855 when she kept her maiden name after marriage), Henry Blackwell (who was Stone’s husband), Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Julia Ward Howe (who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) founded the American Woman Suffrage Association.

1869 and all that

Split or not, it became obvious to reactionaries that the woman’s suffrage movement was here and it wasn’t going away. And thus in that year, Wyoming became the first state, which allowed women the vote in state elections. However, such paltry scraps when the men were gorging at the feast were, unsurprisingly, not enough. For those who struggled

and worked for woman’s suffrage, their demands were not unreasonable

and what they wanted were equal rights to men.

And so in 1872, Susan B Anthony attempted to vote in the United States Presidential elections. Although she was fined 100 dollars for her attempt, she refused to pay the fine and contented that the 14th Amendment gave her the right to vote. 6 years later in 1878, the “Anthony Amendment”, which proposed extended the franchise to women was introduced to the United States Congress. The Amendment would linger around Congress until the next century.

Meanwhile, 1880, saw the passing of one of the movement’s earliest figures, Lucretia Mott. 10 years later, the schism in the suffrage movement was partly healed when the AWSA and NWSA merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Enfranchised at last! Thank God, we are enfranchised at last!

The struggle for the vote ended on August 26, 1920, the day when the “Anthony Amendment” was signed in as law. However, it was not a fight that was easily won. In 1912, women marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City to demand for the vote and in 1913, 5,000 women did the same at Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. In 1916, Jeanette

Rankin was elected into the House of Representatives as a representative from Montana, thus making her the first woman to sit in Congress.

When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, one of Woodrow Wilson’s claims was that the war was a war of liberation as the German people were not free to choose their leaders. The woman suffrage leaders poured scorn on such polemic and said that the laws

in the United State that prevented women from voting could also be construed in the same manner. They began to picket the White House, with pickets that famously called Wilson, “Kaiser Wilson”.

These women were arrested and some of them were tortured at Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia. Forty guards with clubs went on a rampage, brutalizing thirty-three jailed suffragists. Lucy Burns was beaten while her hands were chained to the cell bars above her head and then left for the night. Dora Lewis was hurled into a dark cell; her head was smashed against an iron bed, which knocked her out cold. Other women were also beaten and choked. However, the times, they were a changing and no matter how much they tried, the reactionaries could not hold back the tide. The women could be beaten, they could be threatened, but they would not be cowed. And so on 4 June, 1919, the United States Senate approved the Anthony Amendment and it was signed into law on August 26, 1920. Women now had the vote.

Yet the pioneers, those heroines, who braved public scorn and ridicule, to fight for the cause were not there to enjoy the fruits of their labour. In 1902, Elizabeth Cady Stanton passed away and Susan B. Anthony followed her in 1906. These days, there is talk of a female President in the United States, and it is probably not wrong to say that any woman President, any woman Congressperson and Senator; any woman in the United States who vote, owe a debt of owner to these pioneers. And to have in their heart, that stirring peroration, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.”

[This article was originally published in PASSIONS Vol 3]
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