Marsha Mercer

Marsha Mercer

Old photos show suffragists in prim white dresses and hats, but they were taunted as unladylike, unpatriotic and worse.

Men spat on them, tore at their clothes and threw lighted cigarettes their way when women marched on Washington in 1913.

In 1917, suffragists picketed the White House — the first group to do so — and, for months, in good weather and bad, silently held banners.

“FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE,” one banner read — but the picketers were fined for “obstructing traffic” and, when they refused to pay, incarcerated.

The women protested prison conditions with hunger strikes, and authorities forcibly fed them a mixture of eggs and milk by tube through a nostril or down the throat — three times a day.

These courageous and inspiring women kept fighting for the most American of rights for half the population: the vote.

Two compelling exhibits in Washington commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which says the right of citizens to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

The Library of Congress exhibit “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote” and the National Archives’ “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote” both use original documents, photos, videos, artifacts and interactive media to tell the stories of suffragists and the suffrage movement and women’s participation in government to the present.

After spending an afternoon at the two exhibits, I left convinced we owe the suffragists more than a debt of gratitude. We need to vote.

We tend to take the right to vote for granted, but American women fought seven decades for the vote.

The first women’s rights convention drew 300 women to Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. Many signed Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “Declaration of Sentiments,” that pointedly began: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.”

The battle for the vote was on. Blacks were also disenfranchised, and suffragists first allied themselves with abolitionists. Later, the groups went their separate ways. Suffragists split among themselves over how militant their tactics should be.

While many chose confrontation and went to jail, there were light moments. The suffrage movement even had its own music. One popular song in 1916 was arrestingly titled “She’s Good Enough to be Your Baby’s Mother and She’s Good Enough to Vote with You.”

An anti-suffrage movement contended political activity would ruin women’s morals as well as destroy the social order. Some arguments were racially charged.

The Georgia Association OPPOSED to Woman’s Suffrage, based in Macon, Ga., sent postcards to Congress in 1915 urging a no vote on suffrage. The cards listed seven reasons, starting with “BECAUSE the women of Georgia don’t want the vote” and included “universal suffrage wipes out the disenfranchisement of the negro by State law” and “the danger to farmers’ families if negro men vote in addition to 2,000,000 negro women.” Finally, “White Supremacy must be maintained.”

The House finally passed the amendment May 21 and the Senate June 4 of 1919. It then went to the states where three-fourths or 36 states needed to ratify. The 36th state — Tennessee — ratified it Aug. 18, 1920, and it went into effect Aug. 26, 1920.

The struggle wasn’t over. White women had the vote, Southern states used unfair laws to create obstacles. Virginia didn’t get around to ratifying it until 1952. It wasn’t alone. Several Deep South states also took their time.

“Shall Not Be Denied” at the Library of Congress runs through September 2020, and “Rightfully Hers” at the National Archives through Jan. 3, 2021. Both are free.

At the Archives, you can use a touch screen ballot box to choose your top three contemporary issues. And if you’re not registered to vote, you can find out how to be #electionready just down the hall. A nearby screen shows that while voter turnout in the 2018 midterm elections soared compared with that of other midterms, only 49.6 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Turnout in the 2016 presidential election was 60.1 percent.

We can do better. No excuses.

Mercer writes from Washington. Email her at marsha.mercer@yahoo.com. ©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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