Speaker details how suffrage for women unfolded in United States

Keri Thornton | Daily Press

Dr. Cheryl Van Den Handel spoke about women’s suffrage at Northeastern State University for a humanities discussion project.

Local professionals took part this week in a discussion at Northeastern State University about women’s suffrage and how it has continued to affect American history.

On Wednesday, March 30, Dr. Cheryl Van Den Handel spoke about suffrage as part of a humanities discussion project from the American Library Association, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The event was part of Women's History Month activities.

Handel offered the historic timeline about the struggle for women's voting rights.

“Women tried to get suffrage, to be enfranchised, well before 1920. As a matter of fact, they started organizing pre-Civil War, and then they were interrupted by the Civil War. After the Civil War, they started up again and moved forward,” said Handel.

In 1787, the second Constitutional Convention delegates decided the states have the right to determine qualifications for the vote. Handel said citizenship didn’t confer voting rights.

“We need to keep in mind that at that period of time, only white men with property could vote. That would change later to all white men and then, following the Civil War reconstruction, we have Black men who are enfranchised for about a 20-year period of time,” she said.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and others organized the first women’s rights convention. They founded the Women’s National Loyal League in 1863, which sought to end the war and slavery.

“They had hoped that perhaps having their movement for suffrage following that loyalty movement would grant them some rights,” said Handel.

During the two-day convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, Stanton drafted the first organized demand for women’s suffrage in the U.S.

“During that two days, they wrote the Declaration of Sentiments, and there were many speeches. Frederick Douglass, the famous author and journalist, also spoke about the right to suffrage, and not just for women, but for African Americans, who were free at the time,” said Handel.

Handel said the suffrage movement was divided over race, temperance and labor rights post-Civil War. Two organizations formed: the American Women Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Suffrage Association. Those two groups eventually combined. Their leaders feared they lose sight of the racial injustice once they merged.

“That was lost sight of. It was shoved to the background as African American women and the African American suffrage movement was shoved to the background,” said Handel.

Women from the AWSA began to picket outside the White House, and that led to women being arrested and placed into work houses, where they were beaten and force-fed.

“When the public found out women were being horribly mistreated, things really went south very quickly, and the treatment had to stop because of the backlash against the treatment,” she said.

Handel then discussed the regional movements as those look different from one area to another.

The West was the first region to acquire the right to vote for women, and that began in the San Francisco area in 1868.

“The Wyoming territory, in December 1869, was supported by the Republican Party, and some from the Democratic Party also supported women’s suffrage. It sort of depended on where they were and who they were,” said Handel.

Kansas was the first Midwestern state to adopt women's suffrage in 1916, and Michigan and South Dakota soon followed. Most Midwest states passed their suffrage measures shortly before 1920, when the 19th Amendment was established.

Handel said the Northeast region is the “big seat” of the women’s suffrage movement.

“It’s really because this is where your primary movers and shakers were from – New York, Massachusetts, Ohio,” she said.

Women weren’t supposed to be engaging in politics at the time, and they were defending women’s rights to speak out against slavery in 1847.

“They also worked to persuade women to use Abolitionist Movement to push forward women’s rights, particularly the right to vote,” she said.

The New England Suffrage Association was formed by a group of women 1868.

“In New England, one of the largest impediments came from the Irish Catholics. In the United States at this time, there’s religious and tolerance between Protestants and Catholics, and Irish Catholics believed that women’s suffrage undermined the traditional male-led family,” said Handel.

Vermont was the first state to enfranchise women in municipal voting, but not in other balloting.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement got a late start in the South and was for white women only. Handel said the way they approached women’s rights was rooted in racism, as they did not want Black women to have any kind of rights.

“There were some African American women who came from the South, and when NWSA would send women to the South, they would get the clubs going but the moment they left, the clubs would all apart,” she said.

There was very little movement until the 19th Amendment was passed.

Jeannette Rakin, of Montana, was the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress, and she introduced the 19th Amendment on floor of the House of Representatives on Jan. 10, 1918.

“The following day, the Senate voted, but it fell two votes short a two-thirds majority. Henry Cabot Lodge and John Weeks voted "no," and women campaigned so that Weeks would lose his seat in the Senate. He did lose his seat and was replaced by a Democrat who voted for women’s suffrage,” said Handel.

On June 4, 1919, the Senate passed the amendment, which sent it to the states for ratification.

“The 19th Amendment was certified on Aug. 26, 1920, and it states, ‘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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation,’” said Handel.

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