Let me start by saying this is NOT a political post.
Now that we got that out of the way…
On the way to school today the kids (10, 8 and 3) were asking me about election day. They wanted to know things like if I could predict who would win, when we’d know the results and if we’d know before they had to go to bed.
The history teacher and all around history nerd in my was pretty excited that they know anything about this and that they care.
Finley asked me what the difference between Democrats and Republicans was and then we got into some heavy stuff.
These 20+ minute car rides are often the highlight of my day. It is time to be alone in a small space with the 5 little humans we are responsible for on this Earth to talk about many important things. I pray that the kids look back on this time spent together as fondly as I do.
Sometimes, these car rides are stressful, because they ask tough questions, ones I’m not always prepared to answer. I just do the best I can and ask forgiveness for what I don’t know or can’t explain very well.
One of the things we discussed was how things become a law. Ellen has been very interested lately in how women got the right to vote and has a lot of questions why they couldn’t in the first place. I think it’s safe to say that this child is 100% related to me.
So I tried to explain the process of how the 19th amendment became law.
As a history teacher I believe that a huge part of my job is to make the story come to life, to tell an interesting story, because a lot of kids don’t like or see the point of studying history. It’s my job to change that.
The year of 2020 has been my favorite year so far teaching this subject matter that I love because there have been so many parallels between what we are learning (things like the Spanish flu pandemic in 1919, women’s suffrage, equal rights, Plessy v. Ferguson-the start of legal segregation, the Great Depression, election drama of the 1930s) to what we are experiencing right now.
I feel like (or maybe this is just wishful thinking) my students are seeing things in the world they are living in right now and understanding how they are related to things that happened 100 years ago. It’s been really cool to get into incredibly meaningful conversations with 15 and 16 year old kids about these similarities and the importance of learning history.
So, when, my own kids, through no prompting of my own (I promise), ask questions about history, I cannot help but get excited and geek out on a major level.
So, on election day, a day that is filled with stress and anxiety for many, I want to share a few of my favorite things about our election history, specifically for women in this country.
First, there were many suffragists. There were even men, lots of them, that fought for women’s right to vote. These men are my favorite.
There were also many anti-suffragists, men and women alike. In preparing for one of my classes years ago I stumbled across this gem and I had to share it here with you as well. It was written by a J. B. Sanford, the chairman of the democratic caucus and it was an appeal to not grant women the right to vote. This is just a snippet of what he has to say:
“The men are able to run the government and take care of the women. Do women have to vote in order to receive the protection of man? Why, men have gone to war, endured every privation and death itself in defense of woman. To man, woman is the dearest creature on earth, and there is no extreme to which he would not go for his mother or sister. By keeping
woman in her exalted position man can be induced to do more for her than he could by having her mix up in affairs that will cause him to lose respect and regard for her. Woman does not have to vote to secure her rights. Man will go to any extreme to protect and elevate her now. As long as woman is woman and keeps her place she will get more protection and more consideration than man gets. When she abdicates her throne she throws down the scepter of her power and loses her influence.”
This statement was of course only part of the discourse on why it was dangerous to let women vote. Some others suggested the allowing women to vote would make them more “masculine” or that they were simply too irrational to vote. My personal favorite argument was that women were too physically frail to vote and that they would get physically exhausted simply walking to the polling station.
Regardless of these facts, today, on election day I want to celebrate the awesome of one of my favorite suffragists, (besides Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, both of whom really got the ball rolling) Alice Paul.
Alice Paul was not your typical suffragist. She was educated in tactics that were used in places like Great Britain and those tactics were frowned upon by the leadership of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association at the time. So instead of fight with this organization, she formed her own that could focus on lobbying Congress for a Constitutional Amendment rather than the state by state approach used by the NAWSA.
One of my favorite Alice Paul moves was when she organized a march on Washington the day before President Wilson was supposed to be inaugurated into the office of the Presidency. Paul marched with 1,000’s of women down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capital building to the White House and they were met with nearly half a million spectators, some who supported and others who harassed them and their efforts. Just days later she met with President Wilson who told her it was “not yet time for time for an amendment to the Constitution.”
This is what I love the most about the suffragists. They were told no for 72 years. From the first convention for women’s rights in 1848, they were told no, mocked, repeatedly heard “it will never happen,” yet they kept fighting for that right until it happened 72 years later. These women are my people. Seriously.
Paul’s next move after being told “no” again, was to organize what she called “Silent Sentinels,” in January of 1917, to picket the White House. Over 1,000 women volunteered to take turns standing in front of the White House for over two years with signs that said things like “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” These women were met with both verbal and physical attacks in their efforts to exercise their constitutional right to peacefully protest. When WWI started there were many that saw their efforts as treasonous. As a result they started arresting the picketers for charges like obstructing traffic. The day Paul was arrested violence broke out in front of the White House and Navy officers began tearing down the banners the women held and attacking them physically.
When the police came to break this up Paul herself was arrested and sentenced to 7 months in prison for “obstructing traffic.”
This is where the story gets really interesting. While in prison Alice Paul went on a hunger strike and refused to eat in protest of the way the women in jail were being treated and of course the fact that they were there in the first place. When Alice Paul was assessed by the prison doctors and a doctor sent from the White House she simply stated what she had been saying all along…all she wanted was equality. She wanted access and rights to all the things men had the opportunity to enjoy.
If you have not ever seen the movie “Iron Jawed Angels” I cannot recommend it enough. Hillary Swank plays Alice Paul and it is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen regarding historical events. While all Hollywood movies about real life history aren’t perfect, this one is no different, but it does a masterful job of explaining the events as they happened and gives you insight into a woman and a movement that is not widely known.
I can still remember the first time I saw it. I sat on my bed wondering how as a history education major and a teacher I had never heard of any of this before. I was not taught this history in school and I felt sick to my stomach that women endured this abuse simply put, so that I could exercise my right to vote.
When I learned all of this, I vowed to never again take the right to vote for granted.
So on election night, I am happy to say I voted. I am happy to say that I engaged in conversation about democracy with our kids and I am proud to say that anyone who takes my class learns this side of history and it’s importance.
So if you want to avoid the news tonight, which I plan to do, watch Iron Jawed Angels and learn a little more about a person who was incredibly focused, incredibly brave and really inspirational.
To close, I will tell you that Alice Paul worked her entire life for women’s rights. After the 19th amendment was passed she spent her focus on the Equal Rights Amendment which was written and designed to guarantee women constitutional protection from discrimination. It’s original text said the following: “Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction.”
In the 1970’s the ERA was ratified by 35 states but failed to get the 38 states it needed to pass.
The current version of the law reads like this: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.
Some other interesting tidbits about it…(just from a historical perspective, because again, this is NOT a political post):
- The 19th amendment is the only place the word “woman” appears in the Constitution.
- Consequently, voting is the only right guaranteed to women by our federal government.
- The 14th amendment providing an equal protection clause for US citizens was not originally intended to apply to women (obviously it passed before the 19th amendment). History proves this when Susan B Anthony attempted to vote in a presidential election and was arrested for illegal voting. She tried to use the 14 amendment in her defense. The judge ruled the amendment didn’t apply to her because she was a woman.
- It is recorded that women still make only 81 cents to the man’s dollar. An estimated loss of over $900,000 in a 40 year career.
- Mainly, the ERA amendment would affirm the basic human right to constitutional protection for all people.
If you didn’t know any of this, don’t be ashamed. Most don’t. It’s not widely taught and is not much more than a page in a lot of history text books. I do this for a living and was teaching a year before I knew all of this history existed. Never one time, did I learn about these people or this story in school. So I’m grateful I stumbled upon it, because it’s an amazing story.
I will leave you with this video to lighten the mood on election day!