The Hundredth Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage: A Celebration of Partial Progress

2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the Congressional vote on the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that grants women the right to vote. The celebration  did not attract the public attention that the accomplishment deserves, perhaps partly because the public lacks full appreciation of the struggle it required.  That point first came home to me when I was an undergraduate at Yale—in the second year that the university admitted women. There were almost no courses by or about women. And the most popular American history course covering the period treated the suffrage movement in one run-on sentence. The professor said something to the effect that suffragists chained themselves to White House guard railings during protests and then, due to gratitude for women’s service during World War I, they received the vote. Ignorant though I was at the time, I suspected there was more to it than that. I was right. And this anniversary should be an occasion for marking our partial progress in the struggle for gender equality—and the broader lessons it holds.

A diverse group of women cast their votes in an American election.

At its outset, the American women’s rights movement drew heavily on the ideals of individual liberty and equality that inspired liberal theory and the early abolition and civil rights struggle. That influence was apparent during the mid-19th century, when gender discrimination within abolitionist societies fueled a campaign for sexual as well as racial equality. The exclusion of women from the floor of a London anti-slavery conference was a catalyst for Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s and Lucretia Coffin Mott’s organization of the first women’s rights conference in Seneca Falls, New York. The Declaration of Sentiments, adopted at that 1848 conference, echoed principles in the Declaration of Independence. Women were “created equal,” with “certain inalienable rights,” including the right to occupy any “station in society as [their] conscience shall dictate.”

From the outset, however, early feminists were ambivalent, divided, and sometimes simply silent on the practical difficulties of reconciling liberal egalitarian premises with gender roles. Although some activists, including Stanton, dismissed as “mysterious twaddle, the sentimental talk about the male and female element,” virtually no leading 19th­century feminist argued that women should cease to be the primary caretakers of home and family. Moreover, as the campaign for women’s suffrage gained momentum, its leaders increasingly relied on arguments that celebrated gender differences, which egalitarian feminists had  challenged. Women’s special attributes became a rationale for including, rather than excluding, them from public life. Jane Addams, one of the leading proponents of this position, cast women as municipal housekeepers, who must venture outside the home in order to preserve it. Other feminists similarly maintained that the traditional wife and mother, with her “high code of morals,” would “yet purify politics.”

Moreover, although most leading suffragists were highly sensitive to constraints of gender, they were relatively unconcerned with constraints of race or class. After the Civil War, one faction of the suffragist camp opposed any equal rights protections in the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment that did not explicitly include women. Moreover, as the campaign for the ballot escalated, white activists’ exploitation of racial and ethnic prejudices became more common. Black women were excluded by some suffrage organizations, unenthusiastically received in others, and segregated in many public demonstrations.

In seeking conservative support, leading suffragists too often lost sight of the egalitarian principles on which their own arguments rested. Even some of the most ardent supporters of natural rights, such as Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, advocated denial of these rights to the uneducated. In effect, their proposal was to enfranchise women — and establish literacy tests. To broaden their appeal, leaders assured conservatives that female suffrage would stand as a bulwark against rule by “brutish . . . ignorant Negro men,” and “unlettered and unwashed” immigrants. After the turn of the century such arguments occurred more frequently. Their tone was apparent on a 1913 banner:

For the safety of the nation to

Women give the vote.

For the hand that rocks the cradle

Will never rock the boat.

So, in broadening their political appeal, suffragists also narrowed their social vision and focused ever more single-mindedly on one reform: the vote. As the time for celebration approached, there was less to celebrate. Suffrage advocates had failed to confront the other social and economic forces that constrained women’s independence. In avoiding issues such as divorce, birth control, poverty, employment discrimination, working conditions, racism, and domestic violence, the major women’s rights organizations remained one step removed from the problems of  most women— those who also needed help most.

Of course, to have focused on such potentially divisive issues risked compromising support, diluting energies, and delaying suffrage. And in the long run, the ballot was crucial to securing women’s influence on all of the other issues that affected their lives. Thus, suffrage leaders faced a difficult strategic dilemma, and any resolution would carry a cost. Yet the price of their single-issue approach turned out to be greater than many anticipated. The suffrage campaign laid the foundations for its own demise. By placing such faith in a single formal guarantee, activists had little to offer the post-suffrage generation even when it turned out that women did not vote as a block on women’s issues or support a feminist agenda. As a result,  many early activists  found that gaining the ballot was poor compensation for the efforts and expectations it displaced. And the legacy of racism within the women’s rights movement hobbled its efforts for the next century.

So, yes, the anniversary of the 19th Amendment is cause for celebration. But it should also be an occasion for reflection on all the forms of inequality that women confront and the need for priorities that aid those most at risk.

Deborah L. Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law at Stanford, is one of the country’s leading scholars in the fields of legal ethics and gender, law, and public policy. An author of over 20 books including The Beauty Bias, Women and Leadership and Moral Leadership, she is the director of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and founding president of the International Association of Legal Ethics. This essay draws on her book Justice And Gender: Sex Discrimination and the Law 9- (1989).