American Women Fought for Suffrage for 70 Years. It Took WWI to Finally Achieve It

American Women Fought for Suffrage for 70 Years. It Took WWI to Finally Achieve It

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Helen Dore Boylston was a young American nurse serving on the front lines of World War I, so she was no stranger to chaos. But the steady drone of hundreds of motors advancing towards her hospital in France in 1918 was unlike anything she had ever heard before. An air raid was underway and the shells came “so low that her hair stood on end with every screech,” she’d write later, but this sound was something else.

When she looked to the horizon, she saw the source of the noise: illuminated only by the moonlight were an endless string of black ambulances, snaking as far as the eye could see. When the men they carried began arriving, their faces were ghost white and their wounds gaping and uncovered. Rows of them, blinded by their injuries, clung to each other to stay upright. Many of them, she noted, were mere teenagers.

It was going to be a long night but she wasn’t daunted. Boylston’s unit would go on to treat more casualties than any other group of American doctors and nurses. When the Great War ended later that year, claiming a staggering 40 million lives, Boylston—who had attained the rank of captain—was distraught.

“What are we all to do now? How can we go home to civilian life, to the never ending, never varying routine?” She wrote in her diary. “And the Twenty-second General Hospital, that vital living thing, saturated with the heights and depths of human emotion, will become a slowly fading memory of days when we really lived.”

Boylston was one of over nine million American women who joined the war effort. Not all of them faced the ravages of war firsthand—though many did, working as ambulance drivers who hurtled through artillery fire to rescue the wounded from the battlefield or to deliver emergency medical supplies to the front lines. Many women stayed home but worked in munitions factories or stitched surgical masks and gauze as Red Cross volunteers. Even librarians mobilized for war, building makeshift libraries in camps that would distribute nearly 10 million books and magazines to soldiers.

In total, the number of American women who joined the war effort dwarfed the nearly 5 million men who served in the armed forces.

Women’s sudden entrance en masse into both the war and public life brought a central injustice of American life into sharp relief: though they fought and died in the war, they could not vote for it. This irony helped to crystallize the battle for the vote that suffragists had been fighting for almost 70 years.

“Who nurse the wounded, feed the sick, support the helpless, brave all danger? Who see their homes destroyed by shell and fire, their little ones made destitute, their daughters outraged?” read a sign by the Pennsylvania Women’s Suffrage Association. “Who dares say that war is not their business? In the name of Justice and Civilization give women a voice in Government and in the councils that make or prevent war.”

While there’s debate about how central World War I was to women achieving suffrage, President Woodrow Wilson himself would link the two, calling the women’s vote “vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged.”

President Wilson initially opposed women's suffrage—but the war swayed public opinion

In April of 1917, the United States entered the fray of the world’s first great conflict, declaring war against Germany. “The world must be made safe for democracy,” President Wilson told the American people, announcing his controversial decision.

To many suffragists, this was a slap in the face. It had been decades since the fight for the vote had kicked off at the Seneca Falls Convention and while women had gotten the vote in several western states, the national fight had stagnated–in part because Wilson opposed it, believing the decision should be left up to individual states.

Women protesting the president’s opposition to suffrage had been picketing outside the White House every day for months by then, waving signs with messages like "Mr. President, How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?" and "What Will You Do For Woman's Suffrage?"

But the country’s entrance into World War I gave a new impetus to their fight—one that the American public, and eventually the president himself, found hard to ignore.

A couple months after the first American troops arrived to Europe’s front lines, protester Virginia Arnold brandished a sign at George Washington University addressing President Woodrow Wilson as “Kaiser Wilson” and asking him if he had forgotten that his sympathy for Germans was because they were not self-governed when, in fact, “20,000,000 American women are not self-governed.”

Germany was being run as a military dictatorship at the time by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who enjoyed the title of “Supreme War Lord” and whose temper many blamed for the outbreak of the war. Needless to say, it wasn’t a favorable comparison.

Wilson would write to his daughter that the suffragists “seem bent on making their cause as obnoxious as possible.” Unfortunately for Wilson, it was also effective at a time when the majority of Americans were personally affected by the war and when the message of freedom served as powerful justification for its costs.

“Whoever denies that woman’s suffrage is not only an appropriate subject for discussion at this time, but an imperative war measure, is ignorant of the causes which led us into the war and the aims for which we are fighting in the war,” Carrie Chapman Catt would say the following year, adding that if this was truly a war for democracy and against autocracy, the United States could hardly continue to disenfranchise half its population by denying them the right to vote.

If the war’s symbolism wasn’t enough to sway public opinion in favor of suffrage, American women would soon offer another reason, the fact that they unquestionably carried a burden equal to, if not greater than, the men around them when it came to the war effort.

Millions of women around the world participated in the war effort

“Women were crucial to the process of mobilization of defense of the nation,” says Professor Lynn Duminel, the author of The Second Line of Defense: American Women and World War I, in a lecture on the topic.

Faced with a shortage of troops at the onset of war, Wilson ordered a draft for all men between 21 and 30 years old. Ten million men registered and 2.7 million were drafted. By the end of the war, over 4 million men had served in the Army, and 800,000 more had served in other military service branches. The millions of missing men left gaping holes in American industry at a time when the country couldn’t risk a hit to production.

Left without much choice, American women poured into the workforce. The change was sudden and staggering, dissolving the lines that once existed between where women did and didn’t belong.

On America’s railroads, for example, men held 98 percent of jobs. The women who were present worked behind the scenes in jobs like cleaning or catering. Once the war started, almost half of the railway workers of fighting age were recruited which meant that, almost overnight, the railroads became a decidedly female operation. Women were suddenly hyper-visible, doing everything from collecting tickets, to carrying luggage, to cleaning engines.

New jobs were also created because of the war–jobs that needed to be filled if America was to keep up with the pace of the war. Connecticut produced almost half of the country’s ammunition during the war and, from 1913 to 1917, the number of women working in factories in Connecticut increased by 105 percent because of increased demand and a decreased number of men.

A whopping 8 million women became Red Cross volunteers doing everything from sewing surgical dressings to working in canteens.

It wasn’t just men who went to war–many women also saw combat. The Red Cross trained 20,000 nurses to work, like Boylston, in the U.S. armed forces. Other women worked for the Salvation Army, darting in and out of the front lines offering coffee, doughnuts, and to write letters home to loved ones.

When the Navy came up short on recruits, women found a legal loophole that permitted them to enlist as yeoman, or non-commissioned officers, and work as everything from mechanics, to munitions workers, to translators.

Even for women who didn’t enter wage labor or go abroad, war permeated daily life. They were asked to sign a pledge committing to canning food, growing vegetables, and cutting out luxury items like meat and fats to help keep the country in fighting shape

Despite the trying and often violent circumstances, Boylston wasn’t alone in feeling empowered. “I think many women did find the war a genuinely liberating experience,” says historian Gail Braybon in a documentary about the war.

Photographs of women ploughing fields, working as carpenters, as machinists wearing overalls, even as war correspondents in trenches were circulated in newspapers and magazines around the world making their impact impossible to deny and turning the idea of what women were capable of on its head.

“Women were absolutely central to the process of fighting a global war,” adds Duminel. Suffragists, for their part, were determined not to let the country forget it.

It wasn’t just American women. In 1914, the German military equipment company Krupp had almost zero female employees; by 1917 they made up almost a third of their workforce. In 1914, Britain had 3.3 million women in wage labor and by 1917 that number had surged to 4.7 million.

World War I bolstered global suffrage movements

Women's massive participation in the war effort led, in part, to a wave of global suffrage in the wake of the war. Women got the right to vote in Canada in 1917, in Britain, Germany, and Poland in 1918, and in Austria and the Netherlands in 1919.

“The structures has fallen apart and created an opportunity for people to push for things they couldn’t push for before,” says Rebecca Mead, professor at Northern Michigan University. “It was a world war, it was a hugely disruptive influence.”

All of this, Americans suffragists believed, made their cause hard to refute. “The world expects America to be true to her ideals, to live up to the war aims she has set for herself. Woman suffrage is inevitable,” said Catt.

Despite the rhetoric at the time, there’s still debate amongst historians about how central the war was to American women finally getting the right to vote in 1920.

“It depreciates or obscures all of the hard work the women did decade after decade, continuing to persist even though they lost so many of these struggles,” says Mead of chalking women’s suffrage up to the war.

Change was also afoot before the war even started: Women were entering the workforce as early as 1910 and by the start of the war, women in 11 states already had the right to vote. Most of the professional gains women made during the war were also rescinded as soon as it ended. Men returned and wanted a return to normalcy, which meant taking their jobs back and returning women to the domestic lives they had left behind.

Still, that the war had an impact is irrefutable.

“We wouldn’t say the war explains it but the war allows us to look at it in very sharp ways,” says Duminel of women’s suffrage. “War is a marker of change.”

When President Wilson finally voiced his support for women’s right to vote on September 30, 1918, just over a month before the war ended, he reflected suffragists own language back to the country.

“We have made partners of the women in this war,” he said, “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege?”

Though it would take another year for women to achieve suffrage–and decades more for women of color to be recognized–the war’s impact would endure and women’s lives would never really be the same.


Helen Dore Boylston was a young American nurse serving on the front lines of World War I, so she was no stranger to chaos. But the steady drone of hundreds of motors advancing towards her hospital in France in 1918 was unlike anything she had ever heard before. An air raid was underway and the shells came “so low that her hair stood on end with every screech,” she’d write later, but this sound was something else.

When she looked to the horizon, she saw the source of the noise: illuminated only by the moonlight were an endless string of black ambulances, snaking as far as the eye could see. When the men they carried began arriving, their faces were ghost white and their wounds gaping and uncovered. Rows of them, blinded by their injuries, clung to each other to stay upright. Many of them, she noted, were mere teenagers.

It was going to be a long night but she wasn’t daunted. Boylston’s unit would go on to treat more casualties than any other group of American doctors and nurses. When the Great War ended later that year, claiming a staggering 40 million lives, Boylston—who had attained the rank of captain—was distraught.

“What are we all to do now? How can we go home to civilian life, to the never ending, never varying routine?” She wrote in her diary. “And the Twenty-second General Hospital, that vital living thing, saturated with the heights and depths of human emotion, will become a slowly fading memory of days when we really lived.”

Boylston was one of over nine million American women who joined the war effort. Not all of them faced the ravages of war firsthand––though many did, working as ambulance drivers who hurtled through artillery fire to rescue the wounded from the battlefield or to deliver emergency medical supplies to the front lines. Many women stayed home but worked in munitions factories or stitched surgical masks and gauze as Red Cross volunteers. Even librarians mobilized for war, building makeshift libraries in camps that would distribute nearly 10 million books and magazines to soldiers.

In total, the number of American women who joined the war effort dwarfed the 5 million men who served in the armed forces.

World War I poster in support of woman’s service, 1917. ’

Women’s sudden entrance en masse into both the war and public life …read more


In 1848, a small group of visionaries started a movement to secure equal rights for women in the United States. But it took more than 70 years just to win the right for women to vote.

After male organizers excluded women from attending an anti-slavery conference, American abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott decided to call the “First Woman’s Rights Convention.” Held over several days in July 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, the convention brought together about 300 women and 40 men. Among them was Charlotte Woodward, a 19 year-old farm girl who longed to become a printer, a trade then reserved for males.

By the end of the meeting, convention delegates had approved a statement modeled after the Declaration of Independence. The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments began with these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal . . . .”

The declaration then listed “repeated injuries” by men against women, claiming that men had imposed “an absolute tyranny” over women.” These “injuries” included forcing women to obey laws that they had no voice in passing. They included making married women “civilly dead” in the eyes of the law, without rights to property, earned wages, or the custody of their children in a divorce. The injuries included barring women from most “profitable employments” and colleges.

The convention also voted on a resolution that said, “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right” to vote. This resolution provoked heated debate. It barely passed.

In the middle of the 19th century, most Americans, including most women, accepted the idea of “separate spheres” for males and females. Men worked and ran the government. Women stayed home and cared for the family. This notion was based on the widely held assumption that women were by nature delicate, childlike, emotional, and mentally inferior to men.

In the United States and in other democratic countries, the right to vote (also called the “elective franchise” or “suffrage”) remained exclusively within the men’s “sphere.” The Seneca Falls declaration promoted a radical vision of gender equality in all areas of American public life, including women’s suffrage. Women in most states did not gain the right to vote until 1919, after their role in American society had dramatically changed.

Susan B. Anthony and the Women’s Suffrage Movement

One of the main leaders of the women’s suffrage movement was Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906). Brought up in a Quaker family, she was raised to be independent and think for herself. She joined the abolitionist movement to end slavery. Through her abolitionist efforts, she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851. Anthony had not attended the Seneca Falls Convention, but she quickly joined with Stanton to lead the fight for women’s suffrage in the United States.

The Civil War interrupted action to secure the vote for women. As a result of the war, however, the role of women in society began to change. Since many men were fighting, their wives and daughters often had to run the family farm, go to work in factories, or take up other jobs previously done by men.

After the war, Anthony, Stanton, and others hoped that because women had contributed to the war economy, they along with the ex-slaves would be guaranteed the right to vote. But most males disagreed.

The Republicans who controlled Congress wrote three new amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment awarded citizenship to all people born within the United States and granted every person “the equal protection of the laws.” The 15th Amendment dealt with voting. It stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It failed to grant women the right to vote.

In 1869, Anthony and Stanton organized the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) to work for a federal constitutional amendment, guaranteeing all American women the right to vote. Some activists disagreed with this tactic. They believed the best way to get the vote for women was to persuade the legislatures of each state to grant women suffrage.

Ironically, the first place to allow American women to vote was neither the federal government nor a state. In 1869, the all-male legislature of the Territory of Wyoming passed a law that permitted every adult woman to “cast her vote . . . and hold office.” In the West, pioneer women often worked shoulder-to-shoulder with men on farms and ranches and thus proved they were not weak or inferior.

Meanwhile, in Rochester, New York, Anthony conspired with sympathetic male voting registrars who allowed her and other women to cast ballots in the 1872 presidential election. The following year, she was put on trial for illegally voting, a criminal offense. The judge at Anthony’s trial ruled that because she was a woman, she was incompetent to testify. The jury found her guilty and the judge ordered her to pay a fine of $100. Anthony told the judge she would never pay it. She never did.

In 1875 in the case of Minor v. Happersett, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that women were citizens under the 14th Amendment. But the court went on to say that citizenship did not mean women automatically possessed the right to vote.

The “Anthony Amendment”

In 1878, the NWSA succeeded in getting a constitutional amendment introduced in Congress. The proposed amendment stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” This became known as the “Anthony Amendment.”

While NWSA lobbied Congress for the “Anthony Amendment,” another advocacy group, the American Woman Suffrage Association, concentrated on campaigning for women’s right to vote in states and territories. Before 1900, only a few of these efforts in the western territories succeeded.

When the Territory of Wyoming applied for statehood in 1889, Congress threatened to deny it admission because its laws allowed women to vote. In response, the territorial legislators wrote Congress, “We will remain out of the Union a hundred years rather than come in without the women.” The following year, Congress admitted Wyoming as a state, the first one with women’s suffrage. This set the trend for a few other Western states to pass women’s suffrage laws (Colorado, 1893 Utah, 1896 and Idaho, 1896).

In 1890, the two national women’s suffrage organizations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the president. Susan B. Anthony took over in 1892 and remained president until she retired in 1900.

In the late 1800s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was actually the largest national organization promoting women’s suffrage. The WCTU led a “Home Protection” movement aimed at prohibiting “strong drink” because of its damaging effects on men and their families. WCTU leaders realized that to increase its influence and affect lawmakers, women needed to be able to vote.

White and middle-class women dominated the WCTU, NAWSA, and most other national women’s groups. The groups usually rejected black women for fear of alienating white supporters in the racially segregated South. In addition, the groups rarely recruited immigrant women. The failure to include all women in the movement, while politically expedient, undermined the cause.

Toward the turn of the 20th century, Congress dropped its consideration of the Anthony Amendment, and in the states, most attempts to grant women the right to vote failed. Heavy opposition from traditionalists and liquor and brewing interests contributed to these defeats.

The Role of Women Continued to Change

The concept of a new American woman emerged after 1900. Writers and commentators described the “new woman” as independent and well-educated. She wore loose-fitting clothing, played sports, drove an automobile, and even smoked in public. She supported charities and social reforms, including women’s suffrage. She often chose to work outside the home in offices, department stores, and professions such as journalism, law, and medicine that were just opening up to women. The image of the “new woman” also usually made her white, native born, and middle class.

By 1910, “feminist” was another term being used to describe the “new woman.” Feminism referred to a new spirit among a few middle-class women to liberate themselves from the old notion of “separate spheres.” An early feminist writer condemned this traditional view of the role of women since it prevented their full development and robbed the nation of their potential contribution.

Of course, working outside the home was nothing new for poor white, immigrant, and black women. They toiled as housekeepers, factory workers, and in other menial jobs in order to survive. Female factory workers earned only a quarter to a third of what men earned for the same job. There were no sick days or health benefits. Women were known to have given birth on the floors of factories where they worked. Since they did not have the right to vote, they had little opportunity to pressure lawmakers to pass laws that would have improved their wages and working conditions.

The Final Push for Women’s Suffrage

Western states continued to lead way in granting women’s suffrage. Washington state allowed women the right to vote in 1910. California followed in 1911. Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon passed laws the next year.

The presidential election of 1912 saw the two major parties, the Republicans and Democrats, opposing women’s suffrage. But the 1912 election featured two major independent parties, the Progressives (led by former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt) and the Socialists (led by Eugene Debs). Both the Progressives and Socialists favored women’s suffrage. And they received about one-third of the votes cast.

Alice Paul headed NAWSA’s effort to lobby Congress to consider again the Anthony Amendment. Brought up as a Quaker, Paul (1885–1977) graduated from Swarthmore College and received postgraduate degrees in social work. Traveling to Great Britain, she encountered radical feminists demanding the right to vote. She joined them in hunger strikes and demonstrations. On returning to the United States, she joined NAWSA.

In 1913, 28-year-old Paul organized a massive parade in Washington, D.C. Hostile crowds of men attacked the marchers, who had to be protected by the National Guard.

Paul and the president of NAWSA, Carrie Chapman Catt, disagreed over using public demonstrations to promote women’s suffrage. Catt (1859–1947) had grown up in the Midwest, graduated from Iowa State College, and gone on to work as a teacher, high school principal, and superintendent of a school district (one of the first women to hold such a job). She worked tirelessly for women’s causes, and in 1900 she was elected to succeed Anthony as president of NAWSA.

Catt’s tactics contrasted sharply with Paul’s. She preferred to quietly lobby lawmakers in Congress and the state legislatures. Paul favored demonstrations. Both leaders, however, were dedicated to equal rights for women.

In the election of 1916, Catt supported Democratic President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was running on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Paul opposed Wilson. She parodied his slogan, saying, “Wilson kept us out of suffrage.”

Paul broke with NAWSA and founded the National Woman’s Party. Soon afterward, she organized daily picketing of the White House to pressure President Wilson to support the Anthony Amendment. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Paul kept up the picketing. The women demonstrators silently carried signs with slogans like “Democracy Should Begin at Home” and “Kaiser Wilson.” Onlookers assaulted the White House picketers, calling them traitors for insulting the wartime president.

In June 1917, police began arresting the picketers for obstructing the sidewalks. About 270 were arrested and almost 100 were jailed, including Paul. She and the others in jail went on hunger strikes. Guards force-fed the women hunger strikers by jamming feeding tubes down their throats. The force-feeding was reported in all the major newspapers. Embarrassed by the publicity, President Wilson pardoned and released them.

Meanwhile, women replaced men by the thousands in war industries and many other types of jobs previously held by men. By 1920, women made up 25 percent of the entire labor force of the country.

President Wilson was disturbed that the push for women’s suffrage was causing division during the war. He was also deeply impressed by Carrie Chapman Catt. In January 1918, he announced his support for the Anthony Amendment. By this time, 17 states as well as Great Britain had granted women the right to vote. Wilson’s support helped build momentum for the amendment. In the summer of 1919, the House and Senate approved the 19th Amendment by a margin well beyond the required two-thirds majority. Then the amendment had to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.

Those opposed to woman suffrage, the so-called “antis,” assembled all their forces to stop ratification. The liquor and brewing industries, factory owners, railroads, banks, and big city political machines all feared women would vote for progressive reforms. Southern whites objected to more black voters. Some argued that the 19th Amendment invaded states’ rights. Others claimed that it would undermine family unity. Besides, the “antis” said, wives were already represented at the ballot box by their husbands.

But state after state ratified the amendment. With one last state needed for ratification, the Tennessee legislature voted on the amendment. The outcome depended on the vote of the youngest man in the Tennessee state legislature. He voted for ratification, but only after receiving a letter from his mother, urging him to be a “good boy” and support women’s suffrage. Thus, on August 18, 1920, half the adult population of the United States won the right to vote.

Women voted nationwide for the first time in the presidential election of 1920. Among the new voters was 91-year-old Charlotte Woodward, the only surviving member of the Seneca Falls Convention. In her lifetime, she had witnessed a revolution in the role of women in American society.

For Discussion and Writing

1. In what ways did the role of women in American society change between 1848 and 1920?

2. Do you think Alice Paul or Carrie Chapman Catt had the best strategy for winning the right to vote for women? Why?

3. Why do you think women won the right to vote in 1920 after failing for more than 70 years?

Petitioning President Wilson

In this activity, students will petition President Wilson to support the Anthony Amendment.

1. Form the class into small groups. Each group will write a petition to President Wilson, listing arguments why he should support the Anthony Amendment.

2. Each group should review the article to find arguments in favor of the amendment. The group should also list counterarguments against the positions taken by the “antis” who opposed the amendment.

3. Each group should only list those arguments on its petition that all members of the group agree with.

4. Each group should read its petition to the rest of the class.

5. The class members should then debate what they believe was the best argument for persuading President Wilson to support the “Anthony Amendment.”

Women win the vote – gender inequality remains

Suffragists marching, probably in New York City in 1915. Photo from Library of Congress.

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted American women the right to vote on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920, after Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the official document certifying the successful ratification.

Women suffragists marching on Pennsylvania Avenue led by Mrs. Richard Coke Burleson (center on horseback) U.S. Capitol in background. Mar. 3, 1913. Photo from Library of Congress.

On November 2, 1920, for the first time, more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted in elections. An amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires 2/3 of the states to ratify the amendment. Of note, it took more than 60 years for the remaining 12 states to ratify the 19th Amendment, with Mississippi being the last state to do so on March 22, 1984. (Source: History)

Some of the leading figures of color in the suffrage movement were left to right, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells, and Mary Church Terrell. Photo by Meghan Smith/Creative Commons. Read more at 5 Essential Black Figures in the Women’s Suffrage Movement”.

The women’s right to vote came two years after the end of World War I. While historians question and debate how central World War I was to women achieving suffrage, it certainly brought the injustice to the forefront.

“Whoever denies that woman’s suffrage is not only an appropriate subject for discussion at this time, but an imperative war measure, is ignorant of the causes which led us into the war and the aims for which we are fighting in the war,” said Carrie Chapman Catt, a leading suffragette and founder of the League of Women Voters, would say the following year. She added that if this was truly a war for democracy and against autocracy, the United States could hardly continue to disenfranchise half its population by denying them the right to vote

Elizabeth Hommowun, current Union Ph.D. student and graduate of the UI&U’s Master of Arts program with a major in Literature and Writing degree, is exploring female experiences during World War I. She asks the following questions: Why has the 21st century entered its second decade with the female narrative of this war staying as static and narrow as it had been 100 years ago? Are we still painting women in certain roles because of gender norms of yesteryear? Are we still mired in ideas from 100 years ago?

Nannie Helen Burroughs (left) was a national leader within the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention, many of whose members supported women’s suffrage. Burroughs later became part of an important Washington, D.C., network of African American women. Photo from Library of Congress.

Help us to win the vote. Suffragist, “Mrs. Suffern,” holding sign crowd of boys and men behind. 1914. Photo from Library of Congress.

“Here is what articles and books will tell you: Women had a role during The Great War. They had always had a ‘place.’ Women were already a part of the workforce. You would find female police officers patrolling the city hotspots for undesirable behavior. They were continuing to develop the work of the Suffrage Movement,” said Elizabeth. “They were even part of the military. A point of fact is that the female experiences during World War I were as diverse and dynamic as any frontline soldier attempting to survive the conflict.”

In an article by Abigail Higgins titled “American Women Fought for 70 Years. It Took WWI to Finally Achieve It,” she points out that more than nine million women helped with the war effort, outnumbering the almost five million men who served. Women saw combat as nurses, ambulance drivers, and Salvation Army front line runners who delivered hot coffee and refreshments. Women served in the Navy in areas as mechanics, munition workers, and as translators. A staggering eight million women volunteered with the Red Cross. Librarians erected makeshift libraries in camps and distributed nearly 10 million books and magazines.

Elizabeth points out that, “Americans have a fascination with the soldiering aspect of war and women are often not seen as important. Today there are few movies about women in war but we know women are fighting we just do not represent their experiences on the same scale. It’s 2020 and viewers are still drawn to that stereotype.”

Theorist Janet Staiger is helping Elizabeth with how we should remember these women. “Staiger’s work helps me to understand the intersection of film, television, and reception. It’s about exploring how we consume popular media, like television and film, to contextualize or understand historical events. So, if we examine the way in which women are portrayed in stories about war, or the Suffrage movement in this case, what potential message is either being displayed or received by the viewer? It’s important to examine the narratives we consume,” said Elizabeth.

Inez Milholland Boissevain, wearing white cape, seated on white horse at the National American Woman Suffrage Association parade, March 3, 1913, Washington, D.C. Photo from Library of Congress.

As a female scholar, teacher, and citizen, Elizabeth says this is important because we are still grappling with notions of power, gender, and representation. “Here we are, 100 years after women won the right to vote, and there are still gender inequalities to overcome, including the wage gap. It seems obvious to point out, but if all of these years have passed, and there is still work to be done, how could someone suggest that sharing the stories of the women who have gone before us to fight for equality is not important?”

Elizabeth is a Disability Services Coordinator and academic coach at Illinois College. Born and raised in Illinois, she chose Union for her M.A. and Ph.D. because the programs have allowed her to develop as a scholar within her discipline and create learning experiences catered to her research interests. In addition to her doctoral studies at UI&U, she shares her life with her husband Jeremy and puppy Hazel. You can learn more about Elizabeth at LinkedIn.

Editor’s note: The suffrage movement was a decades-long battle that took many years and many people to finally win the right for American women to vote. To learn more:

  • Watch the PBS documentary “The Vote”
  • Go to the History website for historical overviews of the movement.
  • Read “5 Essential Black Figures in the Women’s Suffrage Movement” by Meghan Smith, that points out the conflicting priorities between white suffragists and suffragists of color, many of whom viewed their activism for women’s suffrage as intertwined with their efforts to attain racial justice caused tension within the movement.
  • Visit “The 2020 Women’s Vote Centennial Initiative” to learn more and explore the suffragist biography articles.

Learn more about Union Institute & University and the opportunities to complete your degree or start a new career at this link.

A century after women’s suffrage, the fight for equality isn’t over

Women struggled for decades to win the right to vote, but it’s taken even longer for all to be able to exercise it.

“Well I have been & gone & done it!!” Susan B. Anthony wrote to a friend on November 5, 1872.

That day Anthony and her three sisters managed to vote in Rochester, New York. Nearly a century after the nation’s founding, seven years after the end of the Civil War, and two years after the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to African-American men, it was still illegal for most women to vote. Anthony and her sisters had been sure they would be denied. Indeed, that’s what they had hoped would happen. They wanted grounds for a lawsuit.

But Anthony, a well-known and intimidating figure, couldn’t help herself. A few days earlier, she had browbeaten the young officials who were registering voters at a local barbershop into putting the women’s names on the voting rolls. When that proved an unexpected success, she spread the word.

On Election Day, some 15 women in Rochester voted. “We are in for a fine agitation in Rochester,” wrote Anthony to her friend and fellow campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although she hadn’t expected to vote, she knew her defiant act would have ramifications.

Two weeks later, the opportunity she’d been aiming for arrived on her doorstep in the form of a well-mannered federal officer. He was there to arrest her.

By that point women had been campaigning to get the vote for decades. They’d begun to question their subordinate role in society, rallied to improve women’s rights within marriage, and called for universal suffrage. They’d ventured beyond the domestic sphere of their homes and neighborhoods, into spaces where no “respectable” women would go, and had spoken in public before mixed crowds, which no respectable women would do. They’d inserted themselves into a political process that made no room for them. They’d insisted on what they believed were their rights as citizens. They’d elevated women’s voting rights to an issue that national politicians could no longer ignore.

And yet, they still had a very long road to travel—a nearly half century–long campaign to press their cause across the country. The 19th Amendment, which decreed that no citizen could be denied the right to vote based on sex, became law on August 26, 1920—a tremendous accomplishment. Some 27 million women became eligible to vote, the largest increase in potential voters in American history. But the victory was incomplete: Because of restrictive state and federal laws such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and ethnic barriers to citizenship, many nonwhite women—African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas, and Asian Americans—still didn’t have access to the ballot. Nor did many nonwhite men, despite the 15th Amendment.

It’s easy to consign the suffragists to the past—to imagine them as severe Susan B. Anthony and fussy Elizabeth Cady Stanton, stiffly posing in a black-and-white portrait or as long-skirted women brandishing quaint banners, demonstrating for something we take for granted. After all, more women now vote than men, nearly 10 million more in the 2016 presidential election. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of the most powerful people in the country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for president in 2016, and six women competed to be the Democratic nominee in 2020.

But the past is still with us. My grandmothers were born into a world in which they couldn’t vote. A girl born in the United States today arrives in a country that a woman has never led. Nearly 51 percent of the population is female, but far fewer women hold elected office than men. Efforts to limit who can vote persist. Clinton lost to a man known for sexist behavior, and none of those female presidential candidates made it to the top of the ticket. The campaign for political equality that began in the 19th century shows no sign of being over in the 21st.

The push for women’s suffrage began in 1848 in part because Stanton, a socially active woman from a prosperous and prominent family, was chafing at her circumscribed life. Stanton had moved from Boston to the small town of Seneca Falls, New York, for the health of her husband, Henry, an abolitionist who began leaving her alone with their three sons as he traveled the state agitating against slavery. As much as she loved her children—she would end up having seven—Stanton found the limitations on what women were able to achieve maddening.

“I suffered with mental hunger,” she later wrote.

When Lucretia Mott, a noted Quaker abolitionist, came to the area for a visit, Stanton welcomed the chance to see her. The two had met several years earlier at an antislavery convention in London. Over tea with Mott and a few friends, Stanton “poured out the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent,” she wrote, “with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself, as well as the rest of the party, to do and dare anything.”

What they dared to do was organize their own convention, the first to be held on women’s rights in the U.S. They did it quickly, in little more than 10 days, because Mott, the most experienced activist of any of them, would be leaving soon.

The women drafted a “Declaration of Sentiments” to be presented to the convention for approval. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, the document decried men’s “absolute tyranny” over women, citing grievances that reflected the very limited rights women had in the United States then.

Married women, for example, were “civilly dead” because they did not have legal rights separate from their husbands’, nor could they own property or even keep the wages they’d earned themselves. Colleges were closed to women so were professions. Man, the declaration stated, “has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy [woman’s] confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”

Appended to the declaration were resolutions that claimed equality for women on many fronts, but Stanton realized that without political power, these positions just amounted to wishful thinking. What women needed was the vote. She added this resolution: “That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”

Several hundred people attended the two-day meeting. Roughly a hundred signed the declaration, but many balked at the resolution advocating suffrage. Mott feared that pursuing the vote would “make us ridiculous.” Politics were considered excessively corrupt for women and perhaps, for some, a step too far out of the domestic domain.

But Frederick Douglass, who had fled slavery and founded the North Star antislavery newspaper in nearby Rochester, spoke in support of it. As he wrote in his account of the convention, he believed “if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise.”

The resolution passed, and the campaign for American women’s right to vote had begun.

Eighteen years later, in 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet and novelist, took the stage at the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City. The Civil War was over, the Union had won, and now the burning question was how emancipated people would be incorporated into the reunited country. Women wondered whether that solution would include them.

At the meeting, Harper spoke of the injustices she’d experienced as a woman, telling the crowd that when her husband died suddenly, all their property had been taken away from her. She also recounted the wrongs she’d suffered as an African American.

The listeners, most of them white women, gasped when Harper described the brutality she had experienced while traveling by streetcar and train. She impressed upon her audience that for her and many like her, their rights as women and their rights as African Americans could not be disentangled—and that the two causes must be aligned.

“We are all bound up together,” Harper said, “in one great bundle of humanity.”

And, for a time, they were. The seeds for women’s suffrage first grew among the abolitionists, with people such as Mott, Stanton, Douglass, and Sojourner Truth active in both causes. They were united in their wish to be treated as full citizens of the United States. But after the Civil War, the groups fractured over whose rights came first.

What the suffragists wanted was universal suffrage. “No country ever has had or ever will have peace until every citizen has a voice in the government,” Stanton declared. But many states were reluctant to cede their authority over who could vote. So the 14th and 15th Amendments, two of the amendments addressing African-American rights, were drafted to prohibit states from denying the franchise to eligible voters, who were explicitly defined for the first time as male.

Stanton and Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment because it removed race but not sex as a barrier to voting. Turning away from longtime friends and allies such as Frederick Douglass, Stanton decried granting the franchise to “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung” rather than to “women of wealth and education,” whom everyone understood to be native-born whites.

Not all white suffragists took that route. Some saw an opportunity in the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 and granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” That included recently freed slaves. Arguing that citizenship should include the right to vote, hundreds of women, along with Anthony, showed up at the polls in the early 1870s, with uneven results. After her arrest for voting in Rochester, Anthony hoped to take her case to the Supreme Court, but a technicality squashed that plan.

Of all the attempts to exercise the franchise, Virginia Minor’s bid to register to vote in St. Louis proved to be the most significant. When she was denied, the Missouri suffrage leader sued the election official in charge—or rather, her husband sued him because, as a woman, she did not have the legal right to do so. Her case, Minor v. Happersett, made it to the Supreme Court, where the Minors argued that the state of Missouri had violated the 14th Amendment by abridging her privileges as a citizen, which included the right to vote.

The outcome was devastating. The court ruled that “the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone.”

If suffragists’ interpretation of the amendment had been accepted by the Supreme Court, says historian Ellen Carol DuBois, author of Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote, “we ourselves would not be in the situation where states are constantly depriving people of the right to vote, what we call voter suppression.” If Minor had won, it would have set a strong precedent for universal suffrage.

In 1913, Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights leader in Chicago, refused to be shunted to the sidelines. Woodrow Wilson had just been elected president, and Alice Paul, a young militant, organized a large suffragist parade in Washington, D.C., on the day before his inauguration.

Paul, who would go on to lead the National Woman’s Party, was intent on launching a nationwide campaign. In a strategic move with far-reaching consequences, she and other white voting rights activists opted to cultivate the support of southern white women—and to diminish the role of Black women.

Wells had faced off against lynch mobs in Tennessee and founded the first African-American women’s suffrage group in Chicago. She was one of the strongest voices for women’s suffrage in Illinois. But when she arrived in Washington for the parade, she was told she would not be marching with the Illinois delegation. Instead, she could bring up the rear of the procession with other Black women. She refused.

“If the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade, then the colored women are lost,” she declared. Her voice trembled with emotion and her face was set in lines of grim determination, according to newspaper reports. “I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.”

When the parade began, Wells wasn’t in it. But midway through, she walked out of the crowd and assumed her place among the Illinois women. No one dared remove her. When Illinois opened the vote to women later that year, she led a registration drive among African Americans that eventually helped elect the first Black alderman in Chicago.

Abigail Scott Duniway

Abigail Scott Duniway (1834–1915) was a true pioneer who rose from simple beginnings as an Illinois farm girl to become a nationally known champion of women’s suffrage in the Pacific Northwest, as well as a significant author, and editor and publisher of a pro-women’s rights newspaper.

Well-read, well-informed, and interested in public issues, Duniway was particularly concerned about women’s economic plight. She fought for a woman’s right to own property in her own name and to secure that property from her husband and his creditors. She objected to the moral double standard, early marriages of young girls, and debilitating ‘excessive maternity.’

Early Years
Abigail Jane Scott was born in a log cabin on October 22, 1834, on the frontier of Groveland Township, Tazewell County, in central Illinois, a few miles from Fort Peoria. She was the third of nine children born to Ann Roelofson Scott and John Tucker Scott. She grew up on the family farm and attended a local school intermittently.

In 1852, when Abigail was 17, the Scott family joined the largest migration to Oregon in American history, leaving Groveland on April 2. The eleven members of the Scott party traveled in five ox-driven wagons. Abigail’s mother and youngest brother died along the way, and they lost nearly half of their forty-five cattle and two horses during their six-month journey on the Oregon Trail.

It was a formative experience for Abigail. She kept a journal of the migration and filled it with expressions of joy and wonder at the magnificent landscapes they traversed, as well as with heartfelt sorrow. Duniway’s experiences along the Oregon Trail surfaced time and again in her writing, first in a fictionalized account of the trip, and later in many serialized novels which recount tales of strong pioneer women.

The Scott family arrived in French Prairie in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in October 1852, joining relatives who had preceded them. The Scott family settled near Lafayette, in Yamhill County, Oregon shortly thereafter. In the spring of 1853, Abigail opened a school in Cincinnati (now Eola), near Salem.

Marriage and Family
On August 2, 1853 Abigail married a handsome young rancher, prospector and horseman named Benjamin Duniway, and began life as a pioneer farm wife. The couple settled on his donation land claim in the heavily forested hill country of Clackamas County. They had six children: Clara Belle (born 1854), Willis Scott (1856), Hubert (1859), Wilkie Collins (1861), Clyde Augustus (1866) and Ralph Roelofson (1869).

For nine years Abigail endured the hardships and toil of a farmer’s wife, including five in the ‘Hardscrabble’ region. In 1858, she and her husband bought a farm in Yamhill County, which Abigail dubbed Sunny Hillside.

During this time Abigail Duniway authored Captain Gray’s Company, or Crossing the Plains and Living in Oregon (1859), the first novel to be commercially published in Oregon. This and others she wrote drew repeatedly on her experiences as a young woman on the Oregon Trail.

In the autumn of 1862, in what her biographer calls “the turning point in the Duniway marriage,” the Duniway farm was sold to cover debts after Benjamin endorsed notes signed by a friend who defaulted. The Duniways moved into a small house in Lafayette, where Abigail opened a boarding school and Benjamin took a job as a teamster.

Soon thereafter, Benjamin was permanently disabled when he was run over by a team of horses pulling a heavy wagon, leaving Abigail to support the family. She found that, as a woman, employment opportunities were severely limited. At first, she opened and ran a small boarding school in Lafayette.

In 1865, Abigail sold her school and moved the family to Albany, Oregon, where she taught in a private school for a year. However, the teaching profession paid women only a fraction of what it paid men. She then opened a millinery and notions shop, and built a successful business which she ran five years.

Angered by stories of injustice and mistreatment of women relayed to her by married patrons of her shop, in 1870 Abigail sold her shop and moved the family to Portland, where her husband got a job with the U.S. Customs Service. There she began to campaign for women’s rights in earnest.

Career as a Feminist Author
At the time Abigail began her career, women’s civil disabilities extended far beyond the mere lack of the vote. Married women had no legal existence apart from their husbands. They could not sign contracts, had no title to their own earnings, no right to property, nor any claim to their children in case of separation or divorce.

In Portland in 1871 Abigail Duniway founded The New Northwest, a weekly newspaper devoted to women’s rights, including suffrage: the right to vote and run for office. This weekly newspaper also discussed marriage, divorce, and the general social and economic conditions of frontier women. According to Duniway’s biographer Dorothy Morrison, the paper “supported women’s rights without making them a bore.”

Duniway published the first issue of The New Northwest on May 5, 1871, and within a few years the paper was financially self-sustaining. The boys (Willis, Hubert, Wilkie, Clyde and Ralph) all worked closely with their mother in the publishing business as they grew to maturity – first learning to set type, later writing copy as well. With their help, Duniway continued to edit and publish the paper until 1887.

In 1871 Duniway became acquainted with prominent women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony. The Revolution, a reform newspaper edited by Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had influenced Duniway to start her own paper. But far more important was the three-month campaign Anthony waged with Duniway in the Pacific Northwest.

Duniway cut her teeth on the lecture circuit during Anthony’s thousand-mile speaking tour of Oregon and Washington in 1871, for which Duniway was business manager and delivered speeches of introduction. She also learned the ins and outs of politics from the veteran suffragist. The pair organized the Washington Woman Suffrage Association while canvassing in Olympia.

Thereafter Duniway’s most treasured goal was to achieve the right to vote for women in the three states she designated as her ‘chosen bailiwick’ – Oregon, Washington and Idaho, the states that had comprised the old Oregon Country. She divided the first twelve years between Oregon and Washington, delivering about 70 speeches in each place every year from 1871 to 1884. In 1883 the Washington legislature passed a measure, drafted by Abigail Duniway, that granted the vote to women.

In 1886, Duniway reported walking five miles every day of the year (except Sunday) to collect subscriptions, writing one hundred pages of manuscript each week, and delivering three to four public lectures per week. She gave speeches throughout northern California and other states (including Illinois, Iowa, Wyoming, Utah, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio) on her way to and from national suffrage conventions, and participated in temperance organizations and women’s clubs.

The January 21, 1886 issue of The New Northwest contained an account of Abigail Duniway’s vigil over the deathbed of her daughter, Clara, who passed away at the age of 31 from tuberculosis, the “plague of the 19th century.” Because all of Duniway’s other five children were sons, she felt the loss of her eldest child and her only daughter most keenly.

In 1887 that Duniway sold The New Northwest and went to Idaho where sons Willis and Wilkie had purchased a ranch in the Lost River Valley in south central Idaho and where her husband was raising horses and cattle. Benjamin’s health was getting steadily worse and they thought that fresh air and country life might help.

Abigail Scott Duniway became the chief advocate for women’s rights and suffrage in the state of Idaho for nearly twenty years her work there, she estimated, involved 140 public lectures and 12,000 miles of travel from 1876 to 1895. As a result of her hard work and that of countless other suffragists, women ‘got the vote’ in Idaho in 1896.

Duniway then returned to Oregon, and revived the suffrage association there. She took a job as editor of The Pacific Empire, a magazine sponsored by suffragists. She did not have to sell subscriptions or advertisements she could instead devote all of her time to writing and trying to further her cause.

Benjamin moved back to the Portland house, his health declining seriously. She had to give up the magazine when his care demanded more of her time. Benjamin Duniway passed away in 1896. A saddened Abigail wrote that not only had he been a devoted husband and father but he had always supported the work for equal suffrage and her part in it.

Throughout this period, Duniway suffered personal setbacks such as poor health, money problems and staunch opposition from some of the most influential men in Oregon. She persisted despite the consistent failure of women’s suffrage referendums on state ballots, and divisions with Eastern suffrage organizations. She actively supported the Married Women’s Property Act which gave Oregon women the right to own and control their own property.

Late Years
Duniway’s relentless work for the cause of women’s rights gave her near legendary status. When the Lewis and Clark Centennial was celebrated in Portland in 1905, it featured an ‘Abigail Scott Duniway Day,’ and contemporaries honored her as the quintessential ‘pioneer mother,’ as well as the ‘Mother of Woman Suffrage.’

Duniway and countless others waged five unsuccessful campaigns for women’s right to vote in Oregon (1884, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1910). Duniway maintained that the close election in 1900 failed because her brother Harvey Scott, longtime editor of the Oregonian, opposed her efforts. This resulted in a bitter public feud between the two siblings.

During the 1912 Oregon campaign, Duniway’s health was failing. She was confined to a wheelchair, and unable to participate much in the work. When the suffrage amendment finally passed in 1912, Governor Oswald West asked Duniway, who was then 78, to write and sign the Equal Suffrage Proclamation in recognition of her long role in the struggle.

Abigail Scott Duniway was the first woman to register to vote in Multnomah County, and is credited with being the first woman in the state to actually vote.

In 1905, Duniway had published her last novel about the Oregon Trail, From the West to the West, with the main character moving from Illinois to Oregon. Her last publication was Path Breaking: An Autobiographical History of the Equal Suffrage Movement in Pacific Coast States in 1914.

Abigail Scott Duniway died on October 11, 1915 at age 80, and was buried at River View Cemetery in Portland.

Duniway devoted more than four decades of her life to the cause of equal rights for women. With little education, and with responsibility for an invalid husband and six children, Duniway became a social reformer, businesswoman, author, journalist and the first female newspaper publisher in Oregon. Above all, she fought for that one right upon which she believed all improvements of women’s lot in life depended: the right to vote.

The Day Women Went on Strike

O n Aug. 26, 1970, a full 50 years after the passage of the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, 50,000 feminists paraded down New York City&rsquos Fifth Avenue with linked arms, blocking the major thoroughfare during rush hour. Now, 45 years later, the legacy of that day continues to evolve.

Officially sponsored by the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Women’s Strike for Equality March was the brainchild of Betty Friedan, who wanted an &ldquoaction&rdquo that would show the American media the scope and power of second-wave feminism.

As TIME observed just days before the march, the new feminist movement emerged out of a moment in which &ldquovirtually all of the nation&rsquos systems &mdash industry, unions, the professions, the military, the universities, even the organizations of the New Left &mdash [were] quintessentially masculine establishments.&rdquo The notion of women&rsquos liberation was extremely controversial, and the movement was in its infancy.

Friedan&rsquos original idea for Aug. 26 was a national work stoppage, in which women would cease cooking and cleaning in order to draw attention to the unequal distribution of domestic labor, an issue she discussed in her 1963 bestseller The Feminine Mystique. It isn&rsquot clear how many women truly went on &ldquostrike&rdquo that day, but the march served as a powerful symbolic gesture. Participants held signs with slogans like &ldquoDon&rsquot Iron While the Strike is Hot&rdquo and &ldquoDon&rsquot Cook Dinner &ndash Starve a Rat Today.&rdquo

The number of marchers exceeded Friedan&rsquos &ldquowildest dreams.&rdquo TIME described the event as &ldquoeasily the largest women&rsquos rights rally since the suffrage protests.&rdquo It brought together older, liberal feminists like Friedan and Bella Abzug with a younger, more radical contingent of women. As Joyce Antler, a historian who participated in the demonstration, told me, many of these women &ldquowere veterans of civil rights marches and anti-war protests of the 1960s. We marched throughout the &lsquo60s and we had faith that this mattered.&rdquo

The day of activism reached beyond New York City, as thousands of feminists across the country coordinated sister demonstrations. A full range of creative, confrontational tactics was on display, as activists infiltrated &ldquoall male&rdquo bars and restaurants, held teach-ins and sit-ins, picketed and rallied, in Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston, Berkeley and New Orleans. One thousand women marched on the nation&rsquos capital, holding a banner that read &ldquoWe Demand Equality.&rdquo In Los Angeles, feminists wearing Richard Nixon masks enacted guerrilla street theater. &ldquoThe solidarity was completely exhilarating,&rdquo Antler recalls.

The organizers of the day&rsquos events agreed on a set of three specific goals, which reflected the overall spirit of second-wave feminism: free abortion on demand, equal opportunity in employment and education, and the establishment of 24/7 childcare centers. Over the next several years, activists would use multiple techniques &mdash from public protest to legislative lobbying &mdash in an attempt to turn these goals into realities.

The women&rsquos movement was most successful in pushing for gender equality in workplaces and universities. The passage of Title IX in 1972 forbade sex discrimination in any educational program that received federal financial assistance. The amendment had a dramatic affect on leveling the playing field in girl&rsquos athletics. Also, feminists made the workforce a more hospitable space for women with policies banning sexual harassment, something the Equal Opportunity Commission recognized in 1980. Women&rsquos participation in college, graduate school and the professions has steadily increased over the past several decades, although a gender wage gap still exists.

In terms of abortion access, activists have also made great strides since 1970, but have suffered serious setbacks as well. In 1973, after legal strategizing by NOW and other reproductive rights groups, the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in all fifty states. This was a major feminist victory, but it was also limited, as the decision only protected a woman&rsquos right to terminate during her first trimester of pregnancy, allowing for state intervention in the second and third trimesters. Furthermore, Roe v. Wade did not address the cost of an abortion, which was high enough to be out of reach for many women. In the years after the decision, backlash to Roe triggered many varieties of legislation that further eroded women&rsquos access to the procedure.

Perhaps the least amount of progress has been made in the area of childcare, which remains prohibitively expensive for many American women. In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, which would have set up local day care centers for children on a sliding scale based on family income, but Nixon vetoed the bill. While President Obama has spoken about making affordable childcare a national priority, there are no current plans to offer government-funded, round-the-clock care in the United States as feminists had initially envisioned. As of 2014, the average annual cost of enrolling in a daycare center for an infant is, in most states, higher than the cost of a public college in that state.

So the long-term results of the Strike for Equality March have been mixed. But in the short-term, the event did accomplish one major goal: it helped make the feminist movement visible. In the immediate aftermath, a CBS poll showed that four out of five adults were aware of women&rsquos liberation, and NOW&rsquos membership grew by 50%. &ldquoThe huge number of marchers, young and old, made a convincing case that this was a movement for everyone,&rdquo Antler explains. In this sense, the event exemplified cross-generational solidarity among women. Today&rsquos intersectional feminist activists hope to build coalitions across race, class, and sexuality as well, as they work to fulfill the unfinished mission of their foremothers.

Historians explain how the past informs the present

Sascha Cohen is a PhD candidate in the history department at Brandeis University, specializing in the social and cultural history of 1970s America.


One hundred years ago August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States was ratified, giving all women the right to vote. For more than 70 years, women had fought to gain enfranchisement, and take some power over their own lives. Through steady perseverance, they finally gained the prize.

As early as 1797, the New Jersey Assembly passed a law recognizing women’s right to vote. In 1807 however, the Assembly overturned the right by passing a vote allowing suffrage only by white males. For the next 60 years, women found themselves without enfranchisement in the United States.

Women played an important role during the 1820s and 1830s organizing and popularizing groups like religious movements, temperance leagues, and anti-slavery associations. By the 1840s, many longed for the same rights and opportunities as men, be it voting, owning property, or even controlling their own lives.

Reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott invited abolitionist activists - mainlly women - to Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 to discuss women’s rights. The convention came to the conclusion that women should be autonomous individuals in control of their own political and social identities, just like men. They produced a Declaration of Sentiments, reworking the Declaration of Independence, stating, “…all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The Civll War halted the group’s momentum, but it returned with a vengeance after the War’s conclusion with the passage of the Fourteenth and Amendments Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment gave protections to citizens, defined as males, while the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed African American men the right to vote. Women were ignored, and they began demanding universal suffrage at this time.

In 1869, Cady joined with Susan B. Anthony to form the National Woman Suffrage Association fo fight for the adoption of a universal suffrage amendment to the United States’ Constitution. Another group formed the American Woman Suffrage Association to fight for enfranchisement on a state-by-state basis. The two groups merged in 1890 for strength in numbers as they patiently and persistently continued their battle.

For decades the groups circulated petitions, held marches, organized meetings and rallies, and pressured Congress to pass the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, especiallly after the United States Supreme Court turned away their petitions to give them suffrage. The Wyoming Territory gave full voting rights to women in 1869, with women’s groups working state by state to convince men to recognize a woman’s right to sovereignty and citizenship. The State of California itself voted in 1911 to give its women citizens the right to vote.

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, women’s reform groups joined the Suffrage Assocation to achieve not only the right to vote, but greater social reforms across the United States. Greater numbers gave them more power and voice. Within a few years, the movement splintered, with the more moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association working state by state to gain female enfranchisement and promoting the universal suffrage amendment to the Constitution, while the more militant National Woman’s Party picketed the White House, held hunger strikes, and actively fought for their cause.

By Winsor McCay (September 26, 1871 - July 26, 1934) - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress

By 1915, more states began approving women’s enfranchisement, pressuring Congress to act. Women’s suffrage dominated headlines in 1916, as the NAWSA became the nation’s largest volunteer group. Both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in 1916 endorsed woman’s suffrage, but only on a state-by-state basis. The NAWSA focused on getting the national suffrage amendment passed, and gained power as women began replacing men in factory positions as they departed to serve in World War I.

President Woodrow Wilson finally proposed the suffrage amendment in 1918 as a war measure, since women were now actively working and supporting the war effort. While it passed the House with one vote to spare, the measure fell short in the Senate, failing again when brought before both houses in 1919.

President Wilson called a Special Session of Congress in spring 1919 to get the amendment passed. Both the Senate and House now ratified the amendment, influencing states to vote their support. As states fell like dominoes one by one towards the required 36, Tennesse provided the ultimate vote when it narrowly approved the Nineteenth Amendment August 18, 1920, making it law across the United States. That November, all American women for the first time could vote in the Presidential election.


FlourishAnyway from USA on January 18, 2019:

What a great article. I love the action by Harry Burn&aposs mother. Women in men&aposs lives yield great influence, then and now. It&aposs also good that you pointed out differences in definitions of suffragette nd suffragist.

Mary from From the land of Chocolate Chips,and all other things sweet. on January 14, 2019:

I love this, we as women have come very far. Thanks for sharing this.

Carson Lloyd from Idaho on January 14, 2019:

Really insightful, detailed work here. And an incredibly worthy topic, one we all need to be educated on. Well done.