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Celebrating the 19th Amendment At 100 Years
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This year, we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. That amendment and its political movement brought about the largest expansion of voting rights in the history of our country. Dr. Susan L. Poulson is professor of history at the University of Scranton and author of the book, “Suffrage: The Epic Struggle for Women’s Right to Vote.” She recently sat down with Paul Lazar via Skype to talk about the suffrage movement and the obstacles those taking up the battle had to overcome.

Watch American Experience: The Vote Monday, July 6th & Tuesday, July 7th on VIA TV.


PAUL LAZAR: Hi, I'm Paul Lazar, and thanks for tuning in to this special Keystone Edition segment on VIA Public Media. I'm speaking today with Dr. Susan L. Poulson, professor of history at the University of Scranton, and author of the book, "Suffrage: The Epic Struggle For Women's Right to Vote." Dr. Poulson, thank you for joining us today.

DR. SUSAN L. POULSON: Thank you, it's my pleasure.

P.L.: Dr. Poulson, this year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Now it was initially introduced in 1878, but didn't pass for more than 40 years after its introduction in Congress. Why did it take so long?

S.P.: That's a good question and we historians actually consider it a much longer struggle than 40 years. The first time that women actually called for the right to vote was in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention, and it didn't get ratified until August 25th of 1920. So we consider it a 72 year struggle and the reason it took so long was there was a different conception of womanhood in the mid-1800s when this movement first began. And it was a seamless construction of women as subordinate and dependent people. Scientists, including Charles Darwin, asserted that women were incapable of intellectual equality. Religion, as it was interpreted at that time, taught women to be subordinate to male leadership. And the legal tradition, the English common law tradition in the United States merged women's legal existence into their husbands when they got married and in that era, 90% of American women married. So they lost their rights to their wages, their earnings, their inheritance, and they couldn't sign contracts. And then socially, many people believed that if women had the right to vote and they differed from their husbands, that it would become very divisive. So they feared a kind of social division if women were empowered with the right to vote. So it took a couple of generations to transform this conception of womanhood.

P.L.: Okay, and we touched on the Seneca Falls Convention. Even before the Civil War, women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott were active in the anti-slavery movement. Now, how did that movement intersect with the suffrage movement?

S.P. It was deeply intertwined. In fact, race, and women's suffrage, is an issue before the Civil War and after the Civil War. So the very origins of the organized women's suffrage movement came out of the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London, where British abolitionists had ended slavery in their empire and they wanted to do so around the world. They invited hundreds of delegates from around the world to attend this convention for two weeks, and 40 Americans showed up. They were elected delegates by abolitionists groups back home. Eight of them were women, including as you mentioned, Lucretia Mott a 47 year old Quaker woman involved in many reform movements, a mother of six and she was one of the delegates. Well, the very first day of the convention. The convention erupted into a very rancorous debate on whether or not to have women participate and they voted not to have women participate. In the audience was a young bride, a 24 year old bride of one of the delegates, Henry Stanton. Her name is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. And these two women Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton decided at that time, that when they returned to the United States, they would hold a convention for women's rights. Now that took eight years to actually meet, but they did so in Elizabeth Cady Stanton's hometown in upstate New York. And that was the Seneca Falls Convention, where hundreds of men and women first called for women's right to vote. And then after the Civil War, actually when the 14th amendment was passed, that had the word male in the amendment, and that divided the women's suffrage movement over women who supported this amendment, because it was so important that black men got the right to vote, and women who were outraged that basically their former allies were betraying them. And that's how they saw it.

P.L.: And what were some of the different tactics used by leaders of the suffrage movement?

S.P.: A good question. Well, it varied by the era. In the beginning, there were several conventions, just of men and women to figure out what women's rights should look like. So at the Seneca Falls Convention for example, many of the people there felt that to ask for the right to vote was too much. And so in the beginning it was simply to figure out what rights meant, what kind of rights women should ask for. Then, many women tried to get their rights through the court system. They tried voting, they got arrested. Most famously, Susan B. Anthony in 1872 went through the trial, went all the way up through the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court decided in the mid 1870s that citizenship did not come with a guarantee to the right to vote. Another major tactic that took about four decades of effort were state campaigns to convince men to give women the right to vote by popular referendum. This first succeeded in the state of Colorado in 1893. And then when you turn the century, turn into the 20th century, you get militancy arriving with the younger generation of women who were less patient than their elders, and they took to the streets with parades and protests. Most famously, in front of the White House, the National Women's Party with the large banners, pointing out the hypocrisy of fighting for democracy in Europe, when there was not full democracy at home.

P.L.: Now were attitudes towards women's right to vote uniform across America, or did they vary from region to region?

S.P.: They varied quite a lot. In fact, this is one of the most striking features of the women's suffrage movement. In the West, they were very open to women's suffrage. That's where you have the first wins in 1869. Wyoming, an all male legislature there, gave women the right to vote. It was a territory at the time. And then a few months later, the territory of Utah, under the leadership of Brigham Young gave women the right to vote. And so you have most of the Western areas having given women the right to vote before the 19th amendment. Now at the opposite end, you have the South. The South had a different conception of womanhood. Whereas in the West they valued strong women, and they didn't fear independent strong women. It wasn't as disruptive to their society, they valued it. Also, there was a striking gender disparity in the West. So in Wyoming, for every one woman there were nine men. And they hoped to attract women by making it more politically attractive. But in the South, there was a different conception of womanhood, a more tender, more vulnerable, more dependent. And also there was a persistent fear that by giving black women the right to vote, that they could undermine white supremacy, which was being asserted in the south after the Civil War, because black men were being intimidated violently out of voting. But that would be harder to do, and less palatable to do against black women. So that was a persistent fear and in fact, if you look at the patterns of ratification, the states that came in the easiest and the quickest were in the West and the South, although not uniform, was the strongest source of opposition. The last state to ratify in the United States was the state of Mississippi and that was in 1984.

P.L.: Now momentum for the movement seemed to kick up after the First World War. What is it about that era that led to women's right to vote?

S.P.: Well I think we'll return back to our first question, which is by then the whole concept of womanhood had changed. And that women now were more educated. They had entered the professions. There was also the context of more than two dozen countries around the world had already given women the right to vote by now. The United States had the first call for the right to vote but they were a little bit down the line. There was also a rise in militancy which meant that it was, there was a greater sense of urgency, it was always kept before the public. Wilson changed his mind somewhere around 1918 it wasn't exactly clear why he changed his mind, but probably, maybe the most important factor was the political calculations changed, that enough states have passed referendums giving women the right to vote. Most importantly, New York State, which was the most powerful political state, and the most populous state passed it in 1917. So that more and more politicians were representing women voters. In fact, in 1919, two thirds of the states had given women the right to participate in the electoral college. And I think when you add up all of those changes, there was simply an unstoppable momentum. It was a matter of time.

P.L.: Dr. Susan L. Poulson, professor of history at the University of Scranton, and author of "Suffrage: The Epic Struggle For Women's Right To Vote." Thank you for joining us today, doctor.

S.P.: My pleasure.

P.L.: And thank you for tuning into this special segment of Keystone Edition. For VIA Public Media, I'm Paul Lazar. Thanks again for watching.