Visible Women

The story of the American suffragette movement is also the story of the UK’s fight

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Women suffragette

100 years after the US Women’s Voting Rights Amendment was passed, we remember the events that helped shape the movement.

Alice Paul had never heard anything like it.

The Quaker girl from New Jersey was walking down a street in Birmingham in 1907, where she was studying social work, when she heard it. A woman, speaking on the subject of equal voting rights, caught Paul’s attention. But all too soon, it was over. The woman’s speech was jeered and booed by the crowd so loudly that she was forced to end her speech prematurely.

As the woman regrouped offstage, Paul approached her and introduced herself. The woman’s name was Christobel Pankhurst, daughter of the renowned suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Paul’s education in Pankhurst’s particular brand of militant protest was about to begin.

Paul is one of the most important figures in the history of American suffragette movement, a key person who agitated for the voting rights of women. This month, the US Women’s Voting Rights Amendment turns 100, marking a century since the US Congress approved a constitutional change guaranteeing that women would be afforded the chance to vote. 

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“Women earned, worked for, marched, fought, starved, were starved, sacrificed everything for expanding freedom in our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on 4 June. “Since the birth of democracy, women have not waited for change but have worked for change.”

Emmeline Pankhurst statue, Manchester
Emmeline Pankhurst’s statue

So what is the story of the suffragette movement in the US? And how was it inspired by the UK? 

What is the history of the suffrage movement in the US?

National suffrage organisations first sprang up around the US in 1869, first by Susan B Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and secondly by Lucy Stone. These two organisations merged in 1890 under the banned of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with Anthony at the head.

Like Paul, Anthony was born to a Quaker family and prior to campaigning for women’s voting rights she fought against slavery. Alongside her close friend Stanton, Anthony published a women’s rights newspaper called The Revolution and organised petition drives agitating for voting rights.

In 1872 Anthony and almost 50 other women registered to vote in the presidential elections, and some were even able to convince officials to allow them to cast their ballots. In November, Anthony was elected for “illegally voting” and was taken to court in a case that garnered mass national attention. 

Susan B. Anthony: "Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less."
Susan B. Anthony: "Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less."

“Is it a crime for a US citizen to vote?” Anthony said during her trial. “We no longer petition legislature or Congress to give us the right to vote. We appeal to women everywhere to exercise their too long neglected ‘citizen’s right to vote’.”

Anthony was found guilty, but she refused to pay her $100 fine or any “dollar of your unjust penalty”. The battle for the right to vote had begun, and women including Ida B Wells – a journalist who was devoted to fighting for suffrage for black women – and Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to the US Congress, became central to the cause. 

How Alice Paul fought for voting rights

After meeting Pankhurst, Paul’s desire to win the right to vote kicked in. She began in the UK, joining Christabel on protests, breaking 48 windows, undertaking hunger strikes and being imprisoned alongside her fellow suffragette.

By 1910, Paul returned to the US, determined to use the same tactics she learned in the UK at home. “The militant policy is bringing success,” she said at the time. “The agitation has brought England out of her lethargy and women of England are now talking of the time when they will vote, instead of the time when their children would vote, as was the custom a year or two back.”

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As a key member of the National American Women’s Suffrage Assocation, Paul was named the head of the Congressional Committee. In 1913 she travelled to the Capitol with friends Lucy Burns and Crystal Eastman to speak on the subject of a woman’s right to vote. During a march designed to coincide with the presidential inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, Paul and her comrades were viciously attacked by male onlookers. The violence achieved the 1913 equivalent of viral, and Paul’s march was front page news around the world.

How American women got the vote 

Emmeline Pankhurst with daughters Christabel and Sylvia 

In the UK, the suffrage movement was a national one, but in the US protesters focused their efforts in particular states. The first US state to gain the vote for women was Washington in 1910, which was followed in 1911 by California and Oregon, Kansas and Arizona in 1912. Illinois followed suit in 1913. By 1916, suffrage was one of the biggest issues on the national agenda.

World War I changed everything. The entrance of the US into the First World War in 1917 led to a depletion of men on the home front and an increase of women entering the workforce. President Woodrow Wilson came out in support of suffrage.

“We have made partners of the women in this war, shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Wilson said at the time.

The 19th amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was born out of this. In 1918 the bill was put to the House with Wilson’s approval firmly behind it. The bill passed by just one vote, but was defeated at the senate on two occasions. Finally, on 21 May 1919 the amendment was approved, and was passed into law on 4 June that same year.

“What happened 100 years ago also set the stage for the record number of women serving in and running for office, making boardroom decisions and raising the next generation of America’s leaders,” Kay Coles James, chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, said on 4 June. “The women who fought for the right to vote did so because they believed the best way to change the laws that treated women as second class citizens was to have power over those who made the laws.”

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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