Text and Photos by Dixie Lobmeyer
The year 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the year that Congress ratified the 19th Amendment and granted women the constitutional right to vote.
Before the women’s suffrage movement, women in the United States were looked down upon socially, economically and politically. Viewed as inferior, women were denied many rights, including the ability to own or inherit property, serve on juries, sign contracts or vote in elections.
The first women’s suffrage organizations, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), were created in 1869 to liberate women. But the two organizations were divided over the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed African-American men the right to vote. The NWSA opposed the amendment because it did not grant these freedoms to women, while the AWSA accepted it as a step in the right direction. In 1890, the competing organizations merged to create the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and began to operate as a political pressure group. The movement gained traction after actively cooperating in the war effort during World War I, winning over the support of President Woodrow Wilson.
“We have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Wilson challenged Congress during a speech in the Senate chamber, the second president to personally appear before the Senate.
At this time, the House had sent a suffrage bill to the Senate, but it failed to pass by one vote. It wasn’t for another year, after Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, until women earned the right to vote, ending the 72-year fight.
A century later, our nation takes this opportunity to commemorate this milestone by reflecting on the suffragists’ struggle and highlighting the importance of equality.
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the California League of Women Voters (LWV) continue to fight for women’s rights on the local, state and national levels. Members follow their respective organizations’ mission statements: “to encourage informed and active participation in government,” as well as “advance gender equity for women and girls through research, education and advocacy.”
Central Valley chapters of the AAUW and LWV hosted a joint meeting in January’s open to the public, to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage, complete with lunch and local author Angelica Shirley Carpenter as guest speaker.
It was through her service as president of the International Wizard of Oz Club that Carpenter, a retired librarian specializing in adult literature and founding curator of the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at California State University, Fresno, was introduced to the subject of her latest book, “Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist.”
AAUW members carried picket signs advocating women’s rights and chanted “votes for women” as they made their way to the front of the room and set the scene. Carpenter introduced Matilda Joslyn Gage, mother-in-law of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” author L. Frank Baum, to a crowd dressed in suffragist attire and sashes, gathered around tables decorated with yellow roses to represent those worn by suffragist Tennessee lawmakers when the state ratified the 19th Amendment.
Gage’s heroic efforts as a leader during the first five decades of the women’s movement inspired the young American heroine, Dorothy, at the center of Baum’s iconic children’s novel. An activist that fought alongside, and sometimes in opposition to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Carrie Chapman Catt, Gage believed in equal rights for all, regardless of race or class. Deliberately written out of history after her 1898 death by an increasingly conservative suffrage movement, she became the eponym for “the Matilda Effect,” referring to the tendency to deny women credit for scientific invention. Carpenter sets out to write Gage back into history as she uncovers her life story and the conflict between those fighting for the rights of women.
The year 2020 is not only a significant one for this anniversary of women’s rights, but a promisingly monumental year for women in regards to voter turnout and electorate. The November 2018 election is widely recognized for its historic voter participation that elected a record number of women into the House of Representatives.
The United States Census Bureau reports that turnout among young voters (age 18 to 28 years old) increased a shocking 16 percent, “the largest percentage point increase for any age group.”
As women have historically turned out at higher rates than men in every presidential election since 1980, this year’s election, following a year of suffrage celebration, is forecast to continue this trend.
As Barry Burden, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-founder of the university’s Election Administration Project, stated on Twitter, “The future (of voting) is apparently female.”