Building a Movement to Amend the Constitution: Lessons from Women's Suffrage

December 14, 2015
Renee Babcock

Part I: Universal Suffrage, Allies, and Difficult Decisions

With the release of the film Suffragette (2015), based on events from the British Women's Suffrage Movement, we take time to celebrate and look back on our own Women's Suffrage Movement in America. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, took 80 years to accomplish. It took a movement of millions demanding change, beginning with a few outraged women meeting in their homes to forming minority political groups, and growing into national organizations committing dramatic acts of civil disobedience. Throughout, they maintained a fierce determination to never surrender. Now, as we engage in the long and messy process of movement building to Move to Amend our constitution a 28th time, it is important to learn from the experiences our brave historical sisters.

The women's suffrage movement in the United States began in 1840 when U.S. women delegates were barred from participating in the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, two of the first leaders of the woman's rights movement, saw the fight for woman's rights as intrinsically tied to the liberation of slaves and freed black men. From this, a strong alliance was formed with the American abolitionist movement in 1850, including Frederick Douglass. At a time when only white property-owning men had full rights, the abolitionist and woman's rights movements struggled over whom they would champion. The American Equal Rights Association (AERA) was formed, dedicated to obtaining the right to vote for all, regardless of gender or race. These aspirations were soon put to the test in the post-Civil War era.

In 1867 the Kansas legislature put two popular referenda on the ballot, one for black suffrage, the other for woman's suffrage. AERA saw this as their opportunity to show that woman's and black suffrage could be united successfully and prove to the dominant Republican Party that there was popular support for woman's suffrage. This was quickly met with a hostile anti-feminist campaign by the Kansas Republicans; justified by saying that woman's suffrage would only hurt black suffrage. Women had to make a tough decision: abandon woman's suffrage for the time to retain the good graces of the powerful political party or remain firm on woman's suffrage now and lose the party support.

While Stanton and Anthony remained unyielding in their call for women's full political equality, other suffragists, like Lucy Stone, one of the first women to receive an academic degree, were willing to step aside; arguing that retaining support of the Republicans and abolitionists would benefit woman's rights once black suffrage had been achieved. Thus began a rift, which would unravel the woman's suffrage movement for the next several decades.

As Stanton and Anthony continued their Kansas campaign, their motivations changed. In anger, desperation, and resentment, they partnered with racist men who supported woman's suffrage and by the end were themselves preaching black inferiority. With such a divisive campaign, neither referendum passed. Reflecting back, Stanton remarked, "I believe both propositions would have carried but with a narrow policy of playing one against the other, both were defeated."

This divide intensified in the debate over the 15th Constitutional Amendment, which enfranchised black men. But this time, with a federal amendment on the line, the stakes were higher, and the already struggling AERA was again wracked with disagreements over whether to support the proposed amendment.

Stanton tried to appeal to potential supporters of white middle-class women by insinuating that they were more worthy of the vote than uneducated, poor black and immigrant men. This rhetoric alienated many pro-black activists. The divided movement put the heaviest burden on black women forced to choose between their race and their sex; dividing their support between Stanton and Anthony's coalition and the abolitionists. In the end, the 15th Amendment passed, but the women's movement was in tatters. The AERA was unable to reunite. Douglass and others could not forgive Stanton and Anthony's racist campaigns.

With the women's leadership so heavily divided, Anthony and Stanton started their own organization, which sought universal suffrage by a constitutional amendment. While Stone's coalition created a separate organization focused on state-by-state campaigns. With two competing organizations and strategies, neither was able to gain any real power or momentum.

As is usually the case in extended, deeply held disagreements, no one person or group was the cause of the split. Abolitionists and Republicans refused to unite equally with woman suffragists. Stanton and Anthony, blinded by their desperation to succeed, pitted blacks and women against each other at a time when each needed the others support most. On both sides, deep stubborn eagerness blinded them to compromise or shared power, hindering their efforts.

Given the current and diverse movement building efforts in America, Move to Amend has much to gain from these lessons, both internally and externally. To remain strong enough to build a national movement, we need to avoid these pit falls by talking through disagreements of strategies, not holding on to uncompromising stubbornness and by committing to diverse inclusiveness. Working together through difficult decisions will ultimately make us stronger.

Part II: Social Change, Direct Action, and National Movements

In 1890, after years of being at odds; the leaders of the woman's movement recognized the need for a united, more powerful front to keep the movement alive. They set aside their differences and merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which adopted a compromised strategy of primarily pushing for suffrage at the state level, believing that state-by-state support would gain the momentum to eventually force the federal government to pass a national constitutional amendment.

To build the support and groundwork needed for this new strategy, NAWSA functioned as a national parent organization. It represented millions of women in hundreds of local and state chapters across the nation, hosted annual conventions, and sponsored a suffrage press, which published newspapers, pamphlets, and books to disseminate their political analysis.

At the turn of the century a dramatic cultural shift was taking place in American life, women from all classes and backgrounds were entering public life. Their roles expanded beyond the domicile into labor and the political arena. A multitude of new woman's suffrage groups emerged, adding strength, numbers, and visibility. The woman's suffrage movement was becoming a mass movement.

Understanding that women's liberation was tied to the liberation of other marginalized groups, the women's suffrage movement began building ties across groups including labor, immigration, social work, and race. In 1910, NAWSA aggressively organized state campaigns that reached beyond the traditional white middle-class base of college-educated, privileged, and politically influential members, to include immigrant and working-class women. Between 1910 and 1912, six states gave women the vote, and more followed each year.

But still, only a few states were responding, and the national political arena refused to give the movement the time of day. A new generation of activists saw the desperate need to shift to strategy and tactics to make Washington hear their voices. To re-ignite the fight for a constitutional amendment, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, American activists who participated in the militant tactics of the British Woman's Suffrage Movement, brought these direct action strategies to the American movement.

Paul and Burns sought to directly protest their injustice, knowing that the male-dominated power structure would not relinquish any of their power to women unless it was demanded and taken, not politely asked or campaigned for. This did not go over well with the older and more conservative NAWSA leadership, who feared that such tactics would be "too aggressive," endanger state victories, antagonize Congress, and lose supporters. In 1915, after failing to reconcile these views, Paul split with NAWSA and formed the National Woman's Party (NWP), which sought to take on the United States federal government all at once and began an intense period of direct action.

From 1913 to 1918, the NWP conducted a national speaking tour, organized state branches, and collected half a million petition signatures. They held mass parades, and, in Washington, D.C., were attacked by men in the crowd while the police looked on. NWP picketers protested in front of the White House starting in January 1917. As the U.S. entered World War I, picketers were arrested. Undeterred, the picketers continued to hold banners demanding woman's suffrage everyday. From jail, Paul led her fellow activists on hunger and work strikes, facing physical brutality from the guards. Paul was put into solitary confinement in an attempt to discredit her and the woman's suffrage cause.

In response to the resulting public outcry, combined with the government's inability to stop the hunger strike, the government released the prisoner activists in November of 1917. The next year, the woman's suffrage amendment was proposed and passed in the House of Representatives and formally supported by President Woodrow Wilson. After President Wilson addressed the Senate on woman's suffrage, they too passed the amendment and ratification began. On August 26, 1920 the last needed state legislature ratified the 19thAmendment. At long last women had full voting rights in the United States.

The tactics of mass demonstration and civil disobedience were integral in raising wide awareness and public support. It garnered national attention and a spotlight in the press. The actions of men who threatened or injured women in mass demonstrations, the complete lack of protection by police, the arrests of picketers, and their brutal treatment in prison caused a national outcry, which brought thousands more women, and men, into the movement and generated so much national attention that woman's suffrage could not be ignored. This national outcry and demand was the force of the People putting pressure on their government to act.

The success of the later state campaigns demonstrate the necessity of building and organizing across social, racial, age, and class lines to gain the wide support needed to win. Now with a country that is more diverse than ever before, no movement can build the support necessary to demand real change without the support of all these different peoples. This understanding is why Move to Amend looks across causes for allies, teaches and practices solidarity organizing, promotes relationship building within towns and states.

And as with woman's suffrage and all major social and political progress, those in power will not relinquish their control or authority willingly. They will try to divide, discredit, and hide the People's movement. Another court challenge or lobbying the political parties, no matter how sound or logical the argument, will not result in the democratic change we seek. Direct action, grassroots networking, backed by a national outcry, and all the force and power of a united "We the People" is what will force the government to amend the constitution a 28th time to say corporations are not people and money is not speech.

Renee Babcock is a graduate from the University of California in Davis where she completed a BA in Anthropology with a Minor in Philosophy. She serves as a Media and Communications Intern with Move to Amend.org

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