Last night I watched the second half of a PBS American Experience documentary on the women’s suffrage movement. I had missed the first half on Monday due to a late work shift, and I suspect that one would have been a lot more interesting since it would have focused on the decades-long history of the movement and how the women’s movement grew out of the abolitionist movement and the disgust women abolitionists felt about being treated like second-class members of of a movement proudly proclaiming that all men were created equal. This portion dealt almost exclusively with the last five years of the original suffrage movement, from 1915 to 1920, and the division within the suffrage movement of whether to continue to push for suffrage state-by-state or seek a national constitutional amendment. The most interesting part of the story was the beneficial conflict between Carrie Chapman Katt, president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (the awkward name having resulted from the fact that there’d been a National Association and an American Association until the two merged) and practitioner of electoral organizing and lobbying; and Alice Paul, who essentially was to Katt what Malcolm X was to Martin Luther King. The legend is that the one time King and Malcolm actually met, Makclm told him, “It’s because of people like me that they listen to people like you” (though Malcolm was so aware of the antagonism both he and King were arousing in white people that when he was writing his autobiography he correctly predicted both he and King would be assassinated!), and it was Paul who was behind the extended suffragist pickets outside the White House in 1916-1917 to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to come out for suffrage. Paul and her direct-action pickets went through a lot of the vicious treatment that’s been meted out by the U.S. government to nonviolent protesters ever since: they were arrested, given relatively long prison sentences (as the government became increasingly determined to “break” the suffragists the sentences went up from a few dais to 30 days, then 60 days, then 120 days, then six or seven months), rough treatment and hunger strikes the authorities responded to by force-feeding Paul and the other women. There were also anti-suffrage women (essentially the Phyllis Schlaflys of their day), though the main opposition to suffrage came from Southern Democrats who were concerned about anything that might extend the franchise for fear that if white women were allowed to vote, Black women would be allowed to as well; Northern machine politicians who wanted a nice, safe, predictable electorate and didn’t relish the idea of having to rejigger their machines to handle twice the previous numbers of voters, and — a huge source of opposition to suffrage and the principal financial supporters of the anti-suffrage campaign — the alcoholic-beverage industry.
One of the things people don’t understand about the suffragists is that many of them were ardent Prohibitionists — with an idealism that overcame common sense on this point, the suffragists looked at how many working-class men spent their paychecks at the local saloon, leaving their wives wondering how they were going to feed the family the next week with no money, and they thought Prohibition would end, or at least make a major dent in, urban poverty. They also thought Prohibition would end domestic violence, since they thought the only reason a man would beat the wife he presumably loved was because the booze was making him do it. One of the promos for this show contained a photo of an anti-suffrage demonstrator carrying a sign that bluntly read, “Suffrage = Prohibition.” I’ve pointed out at some of the annual suffrage picnics held to celebrate the ratification of the 19th Amendment (featuring local activists dressed in late 19th century costumes impersonating the great suffragist leaders) that it was historically inauthentic for them to serve wine at these events, and instead they should be serving lemonade, the beverage both suffragists and Prohibitionists thought should take the place of alcohol as America’s ceremonial “toast” drink. Ironically, the Prohibition amendment, the 18th, zipped through Congress and got far more than the requisite two-thirds votes in both houses, while the suffrage amendment barely squeaked through by two votes in the House and one in the Senate. Then the necessary ratification in three-fourths of the states took over a year and came down to, of all places, Tennessee, where it looked like it was going to go down to defeat in the Tennessee state senate until one suffrage opponent received a letter from his mother that said, essentially, “Be a good little boy and vote to give women the franchise.” That led one other senator who’d avoided casting a recorded vote to put in his “aye” at the last minute — literally. This reminded me of the preposterous vote at the Diet of Worms (the name sounds silly but “Diet” means a legislative assembly and “Worms” was the name of the city in Germany where it took place) in which the 63 cardinals then in office in the Roman Catholic Church met in solemn conclave and debated whether women were people. By a vote of 32 to 31, the church voted that they were — so the fight over suffrage in the U.S. followed the pattern from the Diet of Worms of women winning human rights by razor-thin margins.
The explanatory material mentions that not all women got the vote in 1920 — the states in the South that had long perfected constitutionally sneaky ways to deny Black men the vote did the same with Black women (remember the opening scene in the film Selma in which Oprah Winfrey, in a cameo role as a Black woman trying to register to vote in the early 1960’s, is shown a giant jar of jelly beans and told that she can only register if she can come up with the exact number of jelly beans in the jar) — and also that only about one-third of the newly enfranchised women who were allowed to vote in the 1920 Presidential election actually did so. What it doesn’t mention is that women’s participation in the electorate lagged behind men’s for another 40 years or so — and in the 1940’s a number of political scientists argued that women simply weren’t that interested in politics and their rightful “sphere” was in the home, keeping house and raising the children (much the same sexist nonsense that had been used all along by suffrage opponents) — until the 1960’s, when voter turnout among U.S. women finally caught up with turnout among men and the political scientists finally realized what had happened: the women who had grown up before the 19th Amendment was passed and who weren’t accustomed to being able to vote had died off and been replaced by younger age cohorts who had grown up in a country where women had always (at least in their lifetimes) been able to vote. I have long believed that one of the most stupid things we as a species have ever done to ourselves has been to slight, ignore or repress the insights, talents and skills of over one-half the human population simply because of some slight differences in reproductive plumbing.