Remembering the suffragettes
NEW YORK – 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 – 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote, Aug. 26, 1920.
“All men are created equal,” says the Declaration of Independence, except when it came to voting rights. Without property, (white) men couldn’t vote and it left out women entirely. It would take the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adopted in August 1920 to finally guarantee women the right to vote (owning property as a qualification was discontinued by 1856). It was a long struggle that would take 144 years from the founding of the United States before half of its population could participate in its democratic principles through the simple act of voting.
The struggle known as the women’s suffrage movement began soon after the Constitution went into effect in 1789. While women in many Colonies were allowed to vote before its adoption, the Constitution left it up to the states to determine voting rights. And none immediately granted that right to women, except New Jersey, which then rescinded the right in 1807.
Popular opinion was changing, though. The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 was the first women’s rights convention that demanded the right of women to vote in its Declaration of Sentiments. Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others emerged as leaders of an activist movement intending to secure that right across the country, instead of state by state. Adoption of a federal statute, though, was slow. Wyoming Territory was the first to grant full voting rights to women in 1869, with Colorado, Utah and Idaho granting women the right to vote in the 1890s, mostly to attract more women into these mostly desolate regions. No other state would comply.
World War I was the catalyst for the suffragette movement both in the United States and the United Kingdom. With men on the battlefields in Europe, women were granted the right to work in factories and other wartime occupations not normally available to them before the war. This led to an increase in popular opinion that women can contribute more to society than just as housewives and schoolteachers. “Votes for Women” became less of a slogan and more of a genuine movement, especially with the increased cooperation of men.
And it was a tortuous movement. Labor and hunger strikes, parades, editorials, court cases, legal arguments, large demonstrations, abuse, legal torture and jail time were the norm. Demonstrations in front of the White House were unheard of before a “picket” of women from the National Women’s Party in 1917 camped out day and night to bring the cause directly to the president. They wore sashes and pins, held up banners, carried flags and waved signs with the ubiquitous “Votes for Women” specifically directed at President Woodrow Wilson. All the while, they were routinely carted off to jail, where they were often abused and sometimes beaten while in custody. Yet the pickets continued.
The focused picket worked. President Wilson, at first reluctant, finally supported the adoption of a constitutional amendment. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally adopted on Aug. 18, 1920 with the vote of Tennessee and certified eight days later on Aug. 26 guaranteeing women the right to vote. Their first federal election was for president that same year.
Throughout the struggle for women’s right to vote, getting the message out without social media was a difficult, time consuming and a constant process. Yet, after World War I, suffragettes in the United States and the United Kingdom were creative in the use of visual items to keep “Votes for Women” in the public eye. Of all the protest movements throughout the history of the United States, auction values for women suffrage items are increasing because so many types of buttons, flags, playing cards, sheet music, posters, broadsides, clothing, sashes, signs, banners, salt shakers, currency, coins, jewelry, ceramics and other items exist that were made in relatively small batches. The book Women’s Suffrage Memorabilia: An Illustrated Historical Study by Kenneth Florey highlights the sheer number of collectibles the movement produced.
Another reason for suffrage collectibility is in the branding. The slogan “Votes for Women” carried well throughout the movement in the United States and the United Kingdom for its clear and concise message.
Part of the movement’s branding was the adoption of official colors. Buttons, ribbons, sashes and banners are usually yellow and black because the colors simply stood out well (although yellow may have been adopted because the Kansas cornflower was favored by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton). Purple, white and green were UK movement colors while U.S. suffragette colors were purple, white and yellow.
Most clothing worn by suffragettes was mostly white, especially in parades and demonstrations to contrast with the darker clothing normally worn by spectators. Their white attire was also intended as a subtle sign of nonaggression signaling that the votes of women would help keep politics “clean.” In fact, wearing all white outfits by women in power today is a tribute to the women’s suffrage movement. All the women members of Congress did just that during the State of the Union address of President Donald Trump in 2019 when all 126 women of both Houses of Congress – only 26% of the total elected members – wore all white outfits to show the under-representation of women in Congress.
So it seems that even with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, issues of representation and electability still persist. Electing a woman as president of the United States still hasn’t been achieved while the UK has had only two women prime ministers since they gained the right to vote there in 1928.
As a protest movement, ‘Votes for Women’ has come a long way, but much still needs to be done. Women have voted in higher numbers, around 55% or so, since the first election of 1920 when only 34% voted. Women legislators have steadily increased since the 1960s from the courthouse to Congress and continue to make a difference with their votes overall. However, women are still in the minority in economics, housing, finance, careers, education, as business CEOs and as major power brokers overall.
Perhaps just collecting and displaying women suffrage memorabilia will serve to underscore that no man is created equal until women are, too.