A lot of significant history was made in the year 1917 in the United States. One hundred year later, this historic year is commemorated in museums, history broadcasts, news feature stories and more. The focus seems to only acknowledge the United States entry into World War I. War is generally the top story in history books. For the 116,566 American men who shipped across the ocean, never to come back, it certainly was significant. And, it impacted the 116,566 American families that mourned their loss.
Nineteen seventeen was also an incredible year for women’s rights progress in the United States. The plans made in 1916, and executed in 1917 led the way to the ratification, three years later, of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women nationwide the right to vote.
I recently attended a lecture talking about 1917 and Woodrow Wilson. My interest in this talk was to learn more about Wilson, as he was president when votes for women was finally made part of the US Constitution with the passage of the 19th Amendment.
During the talk, the gentleman presenting mentioned that Wilson backed women’s suffrage but it really was “not such a big deal” to get the federal amendment into the constitution, as women already had the vote in many individual states.
Hold on! This is a bit of “truthiness”, but not exactly factual.
At the beginning of 1917, American women had full voting rights in 11 states or 23 % of the 48 states in the Union. Seven million women could vote, and another 20 million were without voting rights. And those 11 states were incredibly hard won victories over decades.
This memorable year saw the first White House non violent protests, the first seating of a woman in Congress, and the first electoral vote-rich, Eastern state, New York, to give women the right to vote.
On January 10th, suffragist leader Alice Paul led the first of the many protests in front of the White House.
Called “Silent Sentinels”, these women carried
cloth banners with words, often quotes from President Wilson. This was the first known organized picketing of the White House.
“How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty” was the first banner message.
The first female member of Congress, Jeannette Rankin, Republican from Montana,
was seated in the House of Representatives on March 4, 1917.
She was also a pacifist.
Not many Republicans call themselves pacifists today.
When Wilson declared war on Germany in April, 1917, a debate raged within the women’s movement. Should demonstrations and political pressure cease and energies be directed to help with the war effort? Suffragist leaders Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt wanted the federal amendment to the constitution, but they differed on tactics and the response to the war.
For Alice Paul, the answer was clear. She knew what had happened in the 19th century during the Civil War when Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton gave up their women’s rights activism to roll bandages in an effort to do their duty as good citizens during wartime. After the war, the women were told it was not their turn to have the vote, that the freed male slaves came first. Paul was determined in 1917 to keep up the pressure during wartime.
Carrie Chapman Catt, who headed up the National American Women Suffrage Association,
had the ear of the president and she believed in strongly backing Wilson in the war effort.
Even though she personally was a pacifist, she saw value in cultivating Wilson’s support
for women’s suffrage.
Catt had a battle plan for the passage of the suffrage amendment to the constitution. She kept her ‘army’ of 2 million women in every state engaged in the effort, poised and ready to take on the role of ratification state by state, once the federal amendment could make it through congress.
The women in Alice Paul’s camp, The National Women’s Party, continued the White House protests even after war commenced. Many in the public thought these women protesters were disrespectful during a time of war. The protestors were hassled, jostled, grabbed, and ultimately arrested. They were thrown into a Virginia work house with terrible conditions. These protests and reprisals gave the women’s suffrage cause much needed attention in the press and the public mind.
Eventually, Alice Paul herself was jailed in October 1917. She went on a hunger strike, was force fed, and thrown into the psychiatric hospital in an attempt to declare her insane. Word leaked out about the women’s treatment and it became a huge point of embarrassment for Wilson.
On November 6, New York State gave women the right to vote. This was important, as this was the first east coast state with a huge cache of electoral votes to give women voting rights. All of the earlier states to give women the right to vote were mostly low population Western states. Other international women’s suffrage victories happened in 1917. The Russian Revolution gave Russian women the right to vote, and Canada granted female suffrage. These two countries’ actions gave a sense of inevitability to the worldwide women’s suffrage cause.
Under pressure from both Paul and Catt, Wilson finally went to Congress and asked them to support the federal amendment as a war measure. “We have made partners of the women in this war. Should we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toll and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
Finally, after 41 years of women petitioning Congress, on June 4, 1918, the 19th amendment had passed both houses of Congress and it moved to ratification by the states.
Let’s Celebrate Our History!