“There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride” ― Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Following the French Revolution in the mid 1700’s, Mary Wollstonecraft noted that women fought alongside men for freedom and basic human rights. Wollstonecraft also noted that once the rights of men had been vindicated the women who fought for those rights were relegated back to the parlors and not given a voice in the government they had fought for. In France, women did not have the right to vote nor have a voice in government until 1944, two hundred years after Wollstonecraft argued for that right.
In the United States, New York revoked the right to vote for women in 1777, with Massachusetts following suit in 1780. By 1807, all women in the United States were denied the right to vote. Seventy years later, the women’s suffrage movement gained momentum under Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. These efforts for the equal rights of women was met with strong resistance. Susan B. Anthony registered and voted in New York and was subsequently arrested, denied a trial by jury, and lost her case.
In Battle Creek, Michigan, Sojourner Truth tried to register to vote, but was denied. Truth, a former slave, was one of foremost leaders of the abolition movement and an early advocate of women’s rights. She is also remembered for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”
Following these efforts by Truth and Anthony, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment did not give women the right to vote (even while the 15th Amendment granted suffrage to male African-Americans).
After Woodrow Wilson promises that the Democratic Party will support women’s suffrage, the National Women’s Party pickets the White House. Nearly 500 women are arrested in June of that year, with many serving jail time. On November 14, 1917, the “Night of Terror” occurs in which suffragist prisoners are beaten and abused. (A timeline of women’s suffrage in the United States is available on Wikipedia).
The movie Iron Jawed Angels (2004) depicts the circumstances faced by the women who participated in the efforts to gain voting rights for women. Alice Paul, who led the movement, was thrown into a psychiatric hospital in the hopes of breaking her so that she would stop getting women all worked up. After staging a hunger strike to protest, she is force fed.
When President Wilson learned of the treatment of the women suffragists, he finally stepped in to speak on their behalf. In his speech to Congress on September 30, 1918, Wilson acknowledged that the country owed a debt to women, who had been asked to support the war effort. Wilson said, “we have made partners of the women in this war . . . Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Still, the 19th amendment would not be ratified until August of 1920, granting women the right to vote. It is important to remember that women were not “granted” anything in this movement, they fought for it.