Getting and keeping the vote
By Jean Baker
Organizing for the women’s suffrage parade planned for 23 October 1915 in New York had taken months. By this time leaders of the New York movement were practiced at arranging such popular spectacles in a state that would be a significant prize, with parades its most effective, opinion-changing tactic. Finally, nearly seventy years after the Seneca Falls Convention and its call for women’s suffrage, the momentum seemed to be shifting. After years of ridiculing the notion of women as voters, Tammany Hall, the city’s enduring political machine, had declared its neutrality on the forthcoming referendum. By 1915 thirteen states, all west of the Mississippi, had enfranchised women; surely progressive New York might lead the way in the east. Meanwhile in the two-pronged strategy of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the federal amendment named for Susan B. Anthony had been voted out of the Senate Judiciary committee.
On that warm sunny day nearly a century ago some 20,000 women, 2,500 men, 74 women on horseback, 143 automobiles with six suffragists in each, four floats with females representing Victory, Liberty, Freedom and Democracy, along with 57 bands numbering over a thousand musicians marched up Fifth Avenue. They passed the reviewing stand in front of the New York Public Library where a new convert Mayor John Mitchell waved. They moved on, up to 59th Street, greeted along the way by mostly appreciative crowds. The New York Times declared it “the latest, biggest and most successful of all suffrage parades.”
The intention was to impress upon men the justice of their cause and to rally their own supporters in the collective effort that the suffrage movement had become. As a cautionary note, paraders were instructed to keep their eyes to the front, refrain from talking and never respond to hecklers. “Remember you are marching for a principle.” In 1915 there was no better way to publicize the cause. Americans had always cherished their parades: the stirring drumbeat of the band, the eye-catching costumes of the marchers, the picturesque thematic floats, whether for independence on the Fourth of July or the celebration of a new president. As women sought civic equality, they adopted this familiar spectacle, their parades presenting a physical embodiment of their purpose.
Women arranged in orderly lines rebutted the argument that the fairer sex did not want the vote. Women in public spaces testified to the disruption of the ancient folklore that women should remain in the home. To march visually undermined the longstanding tenet that women were destined to home and domesticity, there to preside with piety and chastity, while men dealt with public affairs. Indeed it was the claim of some suffragists that women could clean up dirty politics — hence their white dresses. By carrying heavy banners embossed with their slogans, women negated the claim that they were too fragile to participate in manly politics.
For all its immediate success this parade on 23 October 1915 failed. Ten days later on 2 November 1915 the suffrage referendum lost; male voters in every borough in the city voted no to enfranchising women. But with tenacity their hallmark, the New York suffrage women began again; soon they were organizing another parade. In 1917 on the eve of another referendum 50,000 women marched carrying a petition signed by over a million supporters. This time the referendum passed, and New York became the fourteenth state to enfranchise women. By 1919 even the recalcitrant Woodrow Wilson supported a federal amendment, and in June 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment prohibiting the denial of the right to vote “on account of sex” was ratified by three-quarters of the states.
Today some of the predictions of women who never had the vote have been enacted by those who do. More women than men go to the polls in presidential elections and women reveal statistically different partisan voting patterns than men. Currently it is impossible to deny the vote on the basis of categories of race, gender, and ethnicity. Yet until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s giving the executive branch the power of enforcement, white southerners prevented black men and women from voting through violence and intimidation.
Today our challenges involve efforts by those who would restrict voting for partisan advantage. Before 1920 men opposed expanding the suffrage because enfranchising women overturned their control not just in public arenas where exclusion from the electoral process testified to female inferiority. The vote, an act of personal sovereignty, also undermined male authority at home. Today now that the Supreme Court has overturned Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Republicans chip away at access to the polls under the fiction that widespread fraudulent voting exists. Currently we disenfranchise by preventing same day registration, by limiting voting hours and days, by demanding identifications, and by judicial weakening of necessary protections.
There are no parades to rally those who would prevent this erosion. Instead we need to remember the essential lesson taught by those suffrage marchers of the early 20th century. Only through persistence and diligence intended to rally public opinion can we protect the vote. Only by understanding and persuading others, as the suffrage women of New York did, that the vote is the fundamental transaction within a democratic society are we able to empower all citizens and enact the natural right ensured to all Americans.
Jean H. Baker is Professor of History at Goucher College. In addition to editing Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited, she is the author of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography and The Stevensons: Biography of an American Family, among other books.