Over the course of the nineteenth century, the suffrage movement grew from a small, fractious campaign into a powerful, unified movement. As my last post discusses, the suffrage movement flourished partly because suffragists increasingly appealed to traditional images of womanliness as well as the racial prejudices of the white middle class. By the early twentieth century, the movement had further expanded to become not only an influential part in women’s organized activities, but also a prominent force in the spectrum of American politics. As a result, the passage of a federal amendment that affirmed women’s right to vote seemed increasingly possible. There are three main reasons for why suffrage-ism became such an overwhelming force: the rise of the progressive movement; the evolution of suffragists’ tactics; and the decline of the masculine political culture of the nineteenth century.
As we mark the anniversary of our nation’s independence, it is important to remember that our founding fathers’ imagined their nation as a domain ruled by equally independent male agents. Until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920, the status of being a rights-bearing citizen excluded all women. Now it is also true that since the amendment only affirmed women’s right to vote, it ultimately failed to fully dislodge the masculine model of rights-bearing citizenship. Consequently, restrictions on women’s citizenship have persisted in our country’s laws and customs. Even so, we should not dismiss the immense historical importance of the amendment. Why? Because it constitutionally recognized women’s right to represent themselves in the polity and directly participate in the governance of the country.
Further still, there is a lot that can be learned from the tremendous social movement that brought about the passage of federal woman suffrage. For the most part, there are plenty of heroic moments within the history of the woman’s rights campaign. But, there are quite shameful instants too. We should not cast aside these negative parts, but rather recount them with the good, so that we remember there are cautionary elements even when one is on the “right side of history.” On this point, I will discuss in two installments the good, the bad, and what we can learn from the suffrage movement in America.
On a muggy summer morning in August 1920, House Speaker Seth Walker of the Tennessee State Legislature declared: “The hour has come!” He was attempting to call to order a special session that was set to vote on the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The seventh name on the speaker’s roll call list was Harry Burn, a young twenty-four-year-old Republican lawmaker from McMinn County. Unbeknownst to the suffragists, and Burn’s own colleagues, he carried in his breast pocket a letter from his mother, Phoebe Ensminger Burn. His mother’s note instructed him to “be a good boy” and vote for ratification. When the clerk called Burn’s name, he surprised almost everyone by voting in favor of the amendment
Sorry for the delay in posting. During my absence, I was working on a piece that has been published in New America Weekly. The article looks at the history of child care in America. It argues that we will not solve our child care problem until we recognize that women have always worked in ways that extend beyond their conventional roles as mothers. In the spring, I will be back with new posts on the history of fascism, the woman suffrage movement, and women’s wartime experiences in WWII. Until then, you can read my child care piece here.
How did we get here? I can barely even type the words that will encapsulate our collective future: President Donald Trump. Even now, I have a visceral reaction to typing out those words. But, that is enough about my emotions. This piece is not about my personal distress over the election of Donald Trump. I know a number of good people who voted for Trump. I do not want to alienate them; I do not want to argue with them. Rather, I want to understand their position. Moreover, as a historian, I want to unpack how we got to this place so that we can learn from the historical factors at play.
Donald Trump spent half as much money and had far less official infrastructure for voter turnout than Hillary Clinton, but he still won the election. Trump won fifty-one percent of voters without a high school diploma. He gained the rural vote by sixty-two percent and the suburban vote by fifty percent. Fifty-three percent of men backed Trump and fifty-eight percent of white voters went for Trump. One of the few people to predict a Trump win was historian Allan Lichtman. Lichtman, who was also my PhD advisor, explains Trump’s victory as being a result of the larger forces that shape American politics. According to Lichtman, presidential elections are primarily a referendum on the performance of the party in power. Despite President Obama’s strong approval ratings, the American people wanted a change from the Democratic Party’s leadership.