Women’s History Month: The Struggle for Women’s Rights

This sculpture by A.E. Ted Aub depicts the chanced meeting on the streets of Seneca Falls New York in May 1851, when Amelia Jenks Bloomer (Center) introduced Susan B. Anthony (left) to Elizabeth Cady Stanton (right). “The Friendship that was forged between Stanton and Anthony gave direction and momentum to the seventy-two year struggle for women’s suffrage which culminated on August 26, 1920 in the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Neither woman lived to see this happen.” (Photograph by Chaitram Aklu)

By Chaitram Aklu

When Abigail asked John Adams in 1775 to “remember the ladies” and their rights in the Declaration of Independence no one thought that it would take more than 100 years of struggle to secure those rights. State constitutions had mandated that women could not own property, keep money earned from working, not have equal rights to custody of their children, or have the right to vote.

One hundred years ago the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted. The Amendment was adopted in the same words as it was written in 1879 by women rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. Ratified on Aug. 26, 1920 it commands that: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The immediate impact was powerful. On Election Day that year more than 8 million women in the U.S. exercised their franchise for the first time.

In 2018 a record 260 women ran for office in the United States Legislature. And in January 2019 a total of 127 were sworn in to the House of Representatives; an additional 4 non-voting members, representing Puerto Rico and the territories, joined them. 25 women senators were also sworn in.

The struggle for women’s rights went formal in 1948 when women’s rights activists and supporters held a convention on July 19 and 20, at Seneca Falls, New York and adopted The Declaration of Sentiments. It began with, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Resolution nine stated “That it is the duty of women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” This Resolution generated intense debate but the Declaration was adopted.

Slavery was abolished in 1865 and the 15th Amendment, ratified in February 1870 gave black freedmen, but not women (black or white), the right to vote. The suffrage leaders of the movement who had worked alongside the abolitionists felt betrayed when the franchise was not extended to women. They rededicated themselves to the cause.

After abolition Susan B. Anthony an education reformer, called for equal education opportunities for all and pressed schools, colleges, and universities to open their doors to women and former slaves. She published “The Revolution”, a women’s rights newspaper.
The first issue which appeared Jan. 8, 1868 gave a clear indication of goal of the movement. It stated, “Thus, too, shall we purge our constitutions and statute laws from all invidious distinctions among the citizens of the states, and secure the same civil and moral code for man and woman. We will show the hundred thousand female teachers, and the millions of laboring women, that their complaints, petitions, strikes, and protective unions are of no avail until they hold the ballot in their hands; for it is the first step toward social, religious and political equality.”

Gains were achieved in increments as individual states amended their Constitutions. In 1839 Mississippi gave women the right to own property. In 1848, the year of the Seneca Falls Convention, New York expanded property rights to women and made it legal for them to keep money earned by working as well as the right to sue in court for their money. They also won the rights to custody of their children. By 1896 women gained the right to vote in only four states. Wyoming was the first in 1869.

The fight continued. In 1875, Virginia Minor a female citizen of Missouri, was not allowed to register to vote in the 1872 presidential elections and filed suit (Minor v. Happersett, 1875), claiming that her 14th Amendment rights under the US constitution were violated. The Missouri Supreme Court dismissed her suit on the grounds that the State’s Constitution stated, “Every male citizen of the United States shall be entitled to vote.”

Minor appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court where Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote the unanimous opinion, upholding the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court. Waite wrote, “—all the citizens of the States were not invested with the right of suffrage” and “If the right of suffrage was intended to be included within its obligations, language better adapted to express that intent would most certainly have been employed.” He also wrote “For nearly ninety years the people have acted upon the idea that the Constitution, when conferred citizenship, did not necessarily confer the right to suffrage.” And “The right of suffrage, when granted will be protected. He who has it can only be deprived of it by due process of law, but in order to claim protection he must first show that he has the right.”

That same year Susan B. Anthony and fourteen other women were arrested in Rochester NY, for voting illegally in the Nov. 5, 1872 Presidential elections. She pleaded that as a citizen she had the right to vote under the 14th and 15th Amendments. She was found guilty at trial seven months later and fined. Also that same year the home of Frederick Douglass, a lifelong friend of Anthony, was burned. Arson was suspected. They lived close by. Douglass had supported the Women’s Suffrage Movement and voiced his support in his newspaper The North Star. He had attended the first women’s convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 and was one of the 100 people who signed the Declaration of Sentiments. He relocated to Anacostia, Washington D.C.

Meanwhile statistics show the number of women entering the labor force in the United States between 1880 and 1910 increased from 2.6 million to 7.8 million, but 60 percent were employed as domestics.

The first time the U.S. Supreme Court gave a decision to women as a group was in the case of Reed v. Reed, 1971. The Supreme Court declared that an Idaho law discriminated against women and violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The case involved the separated parents of a deceased 19 year old child who did not have a will and the father was made the administrator for the son’s estate, as mandated by Idaho Code Section 15-314 which stated “males must be preferred to females …”, rather that the capabilities of the individual. One of the lawyers for the female parent in the appeal before Supreme Court was Ruth Bader Ginsburg who would later become the second female justice on the court.

The Supreme Court ruled that that section of the code stating “males must be preferred to females” in the same class, violated the command of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits different treatment of the same class based on sex, and was unconstitutional.

Carrie Chapman Catt, the brilliant strategist who twice headed the National Women Suffrage Association, and in 1920 founded the League of Women Voters, summed up the long and difficult struggle that led to the enfranchisement of women up to that time. “To get that word, male, out of the Constitution, cost the women of this country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign; 56 state referendum campaigns; 480 legislative campaigns to get state suffrage amendments submitted; 47 state constitutional convention campaigns; 30 national party convention campaigns to get suffrage planks in the party platforms; 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses to get the federal amendment submitted, and the final ratification campaign,” she said.


The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the position or policy of the THE WEST INDIAN.