Peter Takes on History
August 18, 1920
Don't Call Them Suffragettes!
In part the 19th Amendment to the Constitution says, “[t]he 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.” A revolutionary thought when the amendment was first introduced in 1878. That amendment was ratified on August 18th, 1920. And while you might think of the 19th amendment as ancient history … the last state in the Union to ratify the 19th amendment was Mississippi … in 1984.
This is fun. If I asked you the word for women who marched for voting rights I bet many would answer Suffragette.
It’s Suffragist, from the latin root for a supplication or prayer. And the original term for people who were asking for the right to vote, the term was Suffragist. But you’ve mostly heard Suffragette, right? The “ette,” for those of you who know French, is a suffix that indicates something small, like a kitchenette or a cigarette with an implication that it is minute or inconsequential. Newspaper coverage of the era usually showed the word Suffragette in sneering or dismissive quotes.
To Suffragettes the 19th Amendment was anything but inconsequential. And the movement was not just about voting. Women were demanding equal access to education and employment, marriage equality and the right to own property and wages, custody over their children and control over their own bodies. Basic stuff. And rights were wildly varied all over the US.
The original 1776 constitution of New Jersey gave “all inhabitants” who were “worth 50 pounds” - about $150 in today’s money - the right to vote. But married women weren’t allowed to own property or collect wages. That all belonged to the husband. So only single women who had 50 pounds could vote … and did … until the law was updated in 1807 to specifically limit voting to free white male citizens who were worth 50 pounds.
Surprisingly, Wyoming was the first U.S. state to give women the right to vote, and wouldn’t back down even when Congress threatened to deny them statehood.
Sadly, their reasons were a bit cynical involving some gotcha politics and also a calculated effort to attract single women to a new state where men outnumbered women 6 to 1.
The Suffragists or Suffragettes were some bad-ass women, many of whom had come out the abolitionist movement. They understood what fighting for rights was all about. We always see pictures of them marching in their white dresses and bustles, politely asking for rights but there were also firebombings, suicides and riots. And these women were often met by force.
On what became known as The Night of Terror: In November of 1917 33 Suffragists peacefully demonstrating in front of the White House, were arrested and endured a night of brutal beatings at the hands of police who just wanted to teach them a lesson.
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was first proposed and rejected in 1878, then reintroduced every year for the next 41 years.
Ratification proceeded slowly until finally, in 1920, Tennessee was in line to become the 36th and final state needed to pass the amendment. The eyes on the nation were on the Tennessee capital but while their Senate voted yes, their House was deadlocked. Vote after vote tied 48 to 48 until one man, a 24 year old legislator named Harry Burns changed his vote. In the melee that followed Burns reportedly escaped from a violent mob of anti suffragists by climbing to the state capital’s attic and crawling out on a ledge.
The next day in a press conference the young man gave the reason for his change of heart. He showed the crowd a letter from Phoebe Burns (his mother), that read in part, “I notice some of the speeches against.” Suffrage. “They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.” She ended by imploring her son to “be a good boy” and vote yes. He did and I have to guess that the conversation around the Thanksgiving table was considerably more amicable than it might have been that year.