Monday, August 26, 2013

Young Women Gave Us the Right to Vote

Women's Suffrage Monument in the Rotunda 

Ninety-three years ago today, women in American finally won the right to vote.  On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became law and declared "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."  To date, the Equal Rights Amendment has not passed, so the Nineteenth Amendment is the only Constitutional protection explicitly including the term "sex."

The fight for women's right to vote began in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the Seneca Falls Convention.  However, it took 72 years of activism to successfully achieve suffrage.  Young women such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns carried the torch that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony first lit.

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were American students who met in London while protesting with the Pankhursts, Britain's suffrage movement.  They were inspired by the militant tactics of the Pankhursts which included mass public protesting.  Upon returning to the United States, they joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).  NAWSA was using traditional lobbying methods to advocate for suffrage.  Alice and Lucy thought these strategies were ineffective, so split and formed the National Woman's Party (NWP).

If you pass by the White House today, seeing protestors in front of it is a common sight.  However, the first political organization in the United States to picket the White House was the NWP, founded by young Alice Paul.  The NWP still exists today and you can become a member!

The women picketing the White House used nonviolence, and stood for hours in the cold, well dressed, holding banners with political messages.  At first President Wilson tolerated them, but not once the nation moved into World War I. Alice, Lucy, and the young women leaders of the NWP decided to still picket even through the country was at war.  Not much later, the suffragists were arrested on the bogus grounds of obstructing traffic.

The women were sent to the Occoquan Workhouse where they were treated poorly as common criminals.  The prisoners, including Alice and Lucy, went on extended hunger strikes.  They were violently force fed, with tubes painfully shoved down their throats.  Once the public learned of this brutality, Wilson had no choice but to support suffrage.  While not entirely historically accurate, a recommended film to learn more about this is Iron Jawed Angels featuring Hillary Swank.  You can also visit the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in DC or the Alice Paul Institute in New Jersey to learn more about Alice Paul.

Thanks to the sacrifice of young women activists such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, YOU can vote! Women in America have only been able to vote for less than 100 years, so use your right and vote in all elections, from municipal to presidential.  Women voters make or break candidates.  In every presidential election since 1980, a gender gap has been apparent.  In 2012, women voters favored the successful candidate Barack Obama ten percentage points over Mitt Romney.  Women in the United States are 51% of the population, 53% of voters, but hold less than 20% of elected offices in America.  Let's change those statistics.

Alice Paul was 35 years old when the Nineteenth Amendment passed.  Alice and Lucy are role models to show us you do not need to wait until you finish school or have decades of experience to start changing your country and the world.  The fight for women's equality is not complete.  What torch will our generation carry?  The movement begins today!

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