In defense of passionate women
March is Women’s History Month, a fitting precursor to an even bigger celebration. On June 4, 2019, the United States will begin its centennial commemoration of the nineteenth amendment, which states that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged” on the basis of sex. On that day in 1919, the Senate passed the constitutional amendment with the two-thirds required majority, sending it to the states for ratification. Between June 4, 2019 and August 26, 2020, the United States will have the opportunity to honor the women who led and participated in the longest social movement in American history.
The woman’s suffrage centennial comes at a fortuitous time in the evolution of our own nation’s democracy. The 116th Congress welcomed a record number of women to its ranks. One hundred and twenty-seven women now serve in the United States national legislature, comprising 23.7 percent of the total seats allotted. It is truly a landmark opportunity in our political development to recognize the paths women have traveled in previous eras.
Contrary to the popular notion of well-heeled women politely petitioning their husbands for the right to vote, the suffragists were warriors. Susan B. Anthony flouted the law in 1872 and voted in an election, only to face prosecution in a court of law. An African American civil rights advocate and suffragist, Ida B. Wells, refused to march at the back of the famous 1913 parade in Washington, D.C. and instead joined the Chicago delegation. After a protest outside the White House in 1917, suffragists representing the National Women’s Party were arrested. At the Occoquan Workhouse, only a short drive south of our capital city, Lucy Burns was shackled to the bars of her own cell while others were denied counsel and engaged in hunger strikes, led by the courageous Alice Paul. In the House of Representatives, the lone female Member in the entire body, Jeannette Rankin (R-MT), opened the debate on the nineteenth amendment on the floor in January 1918.
These women were passionate, fierce, and undeterred. Consequently, many male (and female) contemporaries viewed them as difficult and incorrigible. Suffragists challenged the prevalent political culture and social norms. No wonder they were viewed as outliers and rabble-rousers who needed to be silenced. It is fortunate that the three largest federal government cultural institutions have decided to tell the stories of these women. Beginning this spring, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian will each debut major exhibits on the woman’s suffrage movement and the passage of the nineteenth amendment. To understand the full exposition of this seven-decade trial, be sure to visit these insightful displays of democracy’s evolution.
Though women have fully entered the political sphere, there are still many more battles to fight. Several women have already thrown their hats in the ring for the presidency. Without a doubt, there will continue to be critical discussions of women disrupting institutional norms, changing traditions in Congress, and challenging previously held conceptions of power. Looking back at the suffragists should remind us that such indictments are familiar territory for female change makers in the United States.
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