Last Wednesday, which also happened to be Constitution Day, the Atlanta History Center partnered with Tech’s library to celebrate the centennial of the 19th amendment. Jessica Vanlanduyt presented the center’s new exhibit on the amendment through BlueJeans, and discussed the ways women have used political power over the years.
Vanlanduyt began by emphasizing that the history of the amendment is not one-sided. The women involved in the suffrage movement often differed greatly in their motives for advocating the right to vote.
Lucretia Coffin Mott, an American Quaker, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate, held the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. Mott is important in showing the long and complicated history of voting rights in the United States. Citizens play an important role in establishing democracy, because although we are all entitled to the right to vote, individual states decide how the voting process works. This leaves a lot of room for discrimination at the state-level, which we are dealing with today and which women historically faced as well.
In 1870, the 15th amendment eliminated race as a barrier to voting, but states quickly made laws such as the infamous literacy test and the grandfather clause to keep Black men from voting.
“I want to have a say, I want equality, I want to be represented,” explained Vanlanduyt of the general goal of suffrage advocates. Seneca Falls was an important moment in the declaration of these desires: for the first time, a document written by the organizers declared that all men and women were created equal.
Vanlanduyt was quick to point out the varying views these women held. We usually think about Susan B. Anthony, or rich white women in general, as the face of the cause, but she is of course only one of many.
Mary Bottineau Baldwin was an indigenous woman of the Métis group who fought for Native American rights and women’s rights. Adelina Otero-Warren wrote pamphlets in both English and Spanish. Ida B. Wells fought for anti-lynching as well as suffrage and Dr. Mabel Lee was a Chinese immigrant who fought for women’s right to vote even though the Chinese didn’t have this right at all until 1943. These important women and their causes are often forgotten.
Interestingly, not all women who supported suffrage believed that women were equal to men. They wanted the right to vote so that they could have political power for other purposes.
The Temperance movement required votes to change legislation, and women understood that their political voices were crucial for this reform.
Another division within the women’s movement was the question of voting rights for Black men and women. Some followers believed in universal suffrage, but many believed that voters should be white-only.
In Georgia, Helena Augusta Howard founded the Georgia Women’s Suffrage Association, which lobbied for the National American Woman Suffrage Association conference to happen in Atlanta. Mary McCurdy, another Georgian, wrote about universal suffrage and voting for Black women in particular. Emily MacDougald of Columbus headed the Equal Suffrage Party (ESP), one of the most progressive organizations. Once the 19th amendment passed, ESP turned into the Georgia League of Women Voters, which educated girls about the government and taught them why they should want to vote.
The National Women’s Party, led by Alice Paul, was the first group ever to picket the White House. For months, there were protests and hunger strikes — the only time the movement became violent.
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson finally openly supported the movement, largely because of the role of women in WWI. In 1920, the amendment was ratified by an all-male senate. Women were not allowed to vote in Georgia state elections until 1922. Surprising is the length of time it took Georgia to fully support the movement: the Georgia legislature didn’t actually ratify the 19th amendment until 1970.
The Atlanta History Center is open to the public. “Any Great Change: The Centennial of the 19th Amendment” and their many other exhibits are on display, so go check it out and don’t forget to register to vote!