Skip to main content

Lessons for Free Expression From the 70-Year Struggle Over the 19th Amendment

As we near the centennial of the 19th Amendment becoming law on August 26, 1920, campus communities across the country are planning a slate of events in honor of the historic struggle for women’s voting rights. The celebrations move forward even in the face of COVID-19, with archivists and faculty creating virtual exhibits, programs, and websites.

For college students returning to remote or partially remote campuses during this pandemic, the centennial celebrations offer insights about the free expression culture they are likely to grapple with this year. A majority of students say that their campus environment deters some from voicing their opinions openly, and even liberal public intellectuals think that “the free exchange of ideas…is daily becoming more constricted.” A growing number of students, as well as most Americans, believe that they cannot speak their minds because their views don’t fit the zeitgeist.

The history of the suffrage movement should provide these college students with a clear lesson: contemporary norms can be a poor standard by which to judge whether an argument is too controversial to be permitted in the public square. The dissension that dogged the fight for women’s basic rights exemplifies that free expression is for liberal causes, not just conservative ones. Our society benefits by maintaining a wide berth for speech and broadening the participation of marginalized communities.

Read Next

“Those Detestable Suffragettes”

Advocating for suffrage was a radical and provocative act in the 19th century, when the female enfranchisement movement began to organize formally in the United States.

As historian Ellen Carol DuBois argues, by pursuing the vote “suffragists demanded for women a kind of power and a connection with the social order not based on the institution of the family.” The vote was a tool with potential to upend the social order, meaning that pursuit of the vote was a “radical element in women’s protest against their oppression.”

During the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848—regarded as the beginning of the movement in the United States—68 women and 32 men out of about 300 attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments. The Declaration claimed voting as an a priori right for women, declared that gender inequality was an aberration of God’s creation, and excoriated “the history of mankind” for hoisting “absolute tyranny” over the female sex.

Demands for the vote were controversial even among convention-goers. Resolution number nine, the section of the Declaration demanding enfranchisement, would have been voted down but for an eleventh-hour speech by committed suffragist Frederick Douglass. Veteran activist Lucretia Mott urged Stanton to ditch the resolution for fear it would make the convention appear “ridiculous.”

The convention was widely derided in the press. Columnists took the delegates to task as the “Insurrection of the Woman,” the “Reign of the Petticoats,” “excessively silly,” “amusing,” “the most shocking and unnatural incident in the history of womanity.” Contemporary mores bolstered detractors’ confidence: “It requires no argument to show that this is all wrong.”

Many suffragists could not withstand the national onslaught and retracted their signatures. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, convention organizer and Declaration drafter, noted that “So pronounced was the popular voice against us, in the parlor, the press, and the pulpit, …that most of the ladies who had attended the convention and signed the declaration, one by one, withdrew their names and influence and joined our persecutors. Our friends gave us the cold shoulder and felt themselves disgraced by the whole proceeding.”

Other arguments advanced by suffragists, less revolutionary than those proposed at Senecca Falls, faced derision. For example, when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to testify before Congress, she made the comparatively modest argument that women already had the vote as citizens under the 14th and 15th Amendments. Congressman John Bingham dismissed her point as preposterous: “Madam, you are not a citizen… you are a woman.”

Even as the movement progressed beyond the Seneca Falls generation to include the formation of national and state-wide pro-suffrage groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pursing the vote remained an arduous task.

Suffrage attracted opposition from vested interests like the liquor lobby, which feared that voting women would support temperance; textile manufacturers, who worried that women would support labor reform; segregationists, who fulminated against giving Black women the vote; and the Catholic Church, which sanctified traditional gender roles.

Suffragists also had to work against the grain of social attitudes about gender, attitudes held by many women as well as men. The “Remonstrants,” or “Antis,” who opposed women’s suffrage argued that participation in politics was a dirty preoccupation that would spoil the role of women as the moral foundation of civilization. Voting women would “sacrifice… the highest interest of our families and our society” by detracting from the kinds of public service women were expected to perform at the time, such as education, charity, and social work.

This notion that women were to occupy a distinct social sphere from men prevailed throughout the 19th century. The argument resonated in particular with upper-class women, who felt more kinship with the traditions of their social cohort than with womanhood writ large. Prominent women of the time, including first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Wilson (who reviled “those detestable suffragettes”), were no supporters of the cause when it began.

Comprised of both genders and often led by women, Anti-suffrage organizations enjoyed thousands of members. As historian Susan Goodier chronicles in No Votes for Women about the oppositionists in New York: “in 1896, the state [Remonstrant] organization claimed 12,324 members; by 1914, it claimed thirty thousand.” In contrast, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association began in 1890 with a membership of about seven thousand. The Anti’s popularity led to a sense by many that “the majority of women oppose woman’s suffrage.” (Although nonvoting among women was a nuanced phenomenon.)

Changing Public Opinion: “Don’t Forget to be a Good Boy”

Beginning in earnest at the turn of the century, suffragists began an era of protests and demonstration to change or overpower the deep-seated prejudices against them. Borrowing strategies from their British counterparts and from American labor activists, they would come to define what free expression looked like in the 20th century and thereafter.

Public demonstrations and parades played a large role in suffragist messaging. The first parade in 1908 featured 23 women marching up Broadway in New York City. In the months following, other marches took place in California and Iowa. By 1912, suffragists would host parades of as many as 20,000 people.

The most famous parade of the movement, known as the Woman’s Suffrage Parade, occurred on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913. Elaine Weiss describes the scene in The Women’s Hour: “The marchers were attacked by mobs of irate men and boys, outraged by the sight of women demanding their rights in so public a fashion. Women were grabbed off floats, thrown to the ground, their banners pulled from their hands and smashed, their clothes ripped. The police stood by and didn’t intervene. Federal troops from a nearby base had to be called in to restore order.”

Members of the militant National Woman’s Party (founded in 1916) were the first Americans to picket the White House. The picketers earned special vitriol once the United States enter WWI, when they began including signs deriding “Kaiser Wilson.” They also set fire to copies of the president’s speeches about democracy in Grecian-style urns they called “Watchfires of Liberty,” and, after about 10 months of picketing, burned Wilson in effigy.

The effigy incident prompted the arrests of scores of women for “incitement” and other charges, such as lighting combustibles. Those arrested endured jail time in the Occoquan Workhouse, where they were beaten and force fed after starting a hunger strike. Their treatment sparked national outrage and helped to shift public opinion in favor of suffrage.

Public political activity by women was itself controversial, as women commandeered traditionally male modes of expression for feminist purposes. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (founded in 1890) and pivotal for passing the 19th Amendment, once asserted that her women “do not have to win sympathy by parading ourselves like the street cleaning department.” Instead, NAWSA primarily organized conventions, wrote publications, and lobbied officeholders.

Thanks to the efforts of the NWP, NAWSA, and other organizations, millions of Americans supported a woman’s right to vote by the time of the 19th Amendment’s passage in 1920. But the issue was far from uncontroversial or decided even by that late year in suffrage history. Indeed, the 19th Amendment would not have passed when it did had one state legislator in Tennessee not switched his vote on the floor thanks to a letter from a key constituent: “Don’t forget to be a good boy… With lots of love, Mama.”

“Ain’t I a Woman?”

Despite their differing approaches to suffrage, the NWP and NAWSA had at least one thing in common—they were run by and mostly for white women.

Despite the abolitionist roots of the movement, suffrage leadership regularly excluded Black women from the cause. When Sojourner Truth famously remarked: “That man there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?” she was speaking not just to white society, but to her suffrage compatriots.

Suffrage rhetoric frequently trafficked in Black stereotypes and segregated parades and other events, despite Black women working hard to instist on space for themselves in the movement.

At the 1913 Woman’s Suffrage March, for example, Black activists were told that to participate they would have to march in an all-Black section rather than with their state delegations. But activist Ida B. Wells, already known for her anti-lynching efforts, refused, and snuck through the crowd to join the parade’s white section. Other Black women who participated that day included members of Howard University’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Women like Truth, Wells, and the Deltas fought a two-front war, not just against voting laws that affected women, but against Jim Crow society and racism within the suffrage movement itself. Not until the civil rights protests of the 1950s and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would they see meaningful enforcement of their right to vote.

The Story of Women’s Suffrage

It took generations of women over 70 years to change public opinion in favor of their basic democratic rights and to carve out a public space for their once unpopular message.

Their monumental struggle stands as a testament to the value of free expression, not as an end in and of itself—something that Americans do only because the Constitution says we must—but to the historical bonds between free expression and inclusive progress. The story of women’s suffrage is the story of a marginalized segment of society advancing their ideas through a wide range of advocacy, even in the face of intense and violent opposition.

This story shows the benefit of making space for controversial views, and the danger from shutting down debate. This is not to say that all opinions automatically get their soapbox, but that vibrant democratic society depends on the humility to allow even those radical views that are overwhelmingly unpopular.

We would likely not be celebrating women’s suffrage this month had not those “detestable,” “insurrectious,” “shocking” women, to whom we owe so much, exercised their rights to express their convictions.