OTD in 1920: 95th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage

Nina Allender’s Victory, from September 1920: celebrating suffrage. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Ninety-five years ago today, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, and women’s suffrage became the law of the United States. Without the last-minute change of heart of a young man with a powerful, intelligent, and eloquent mother, it might have taken even longer. Phoebe Burn wrote what may be the ultimate do what’s right note to her son before the vote, pointing out the “bitter[ness]” of those against suffrage, urging him not to “keep them in doubt,” and finishing with a salvo that must have been as hard to resist then as it is now: “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the “rat” in ratification.”

Thank you also, through the years, to Harry Burn, who cast that essential vote and who, when confronted about why he had voted for suffrage despite wearing the red rose that stood against it, told the world:

I believe in full suffrage as a right. I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify. I know a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification. (from Tennessee State Library and Archives’ “Remember the Ladies!” online exhibit)

Alice Paul and membership of NWP with the ratification banner at the National Woman’s Party headquarters. National Photo Co., by way of LOC. Housed on Wikimedia Commons.

The anniversary of women’s suffrage has always been one marked in my family, a reminder of the women and men who came before us and fought so that we might vote. According to family lore, my mother’s mother’s family was deeply invested in women’s suffrage, and then in civil rights more generally (although I would guess they had, in fact, been invested in both). My maternal grandmother remembered ratification: her grandmother took her to the celebrations in their small Oregon town. (This was the same great-great-grandmother who once traveled from Oregon to, I believe, Michigan, in order to hear Sojourner Truth speak.) My great-great-grandfather must have been celebrating, too: from everything I have heard of him, he believed passionately in the cause. I like to believe that my great-grandfather did as well–but, since he was kicked in the head by a horse, struck down by a family curse to rival a Shakespearian tragedy, it is impossible to know how he would have reacted to the ratification.

Soomo Publishing’s Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage, historical-political parody of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance.

Because my family, too, fought for women’s suffrage, it seems wrong to let the day slide without doing those who came before me the honor of remembrance. And, because I work so often with the arts, and with historical newspapers, it seems right to offer a tribute through art, beginning with Soomo Publishing’s “Bad Romance: Women’s Suffrage,” a parody that is also a rousing tribute. Similarly, Katja von Garnier’s Iron Jawed Angels, a dramatization of the march towards ratification, is beautiful and terrible (and occasionally shaky on its history–I would rather that Random Love Interest had not been included, but it is an excellent movie).

Nina Allred’s Hat in the Ring, 1916. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It is worth noting that there was not equality even in the march to suffrage, much as I wish there had been. Iron Jawed Angels gives us a taste of this ugly side of the fight: when Adilah Barnes, as Ida B. Wells, refuses to march in segregated order and instead joins the white women from Illinois, her actions are pulled straight from history. (Ida B. Wells’ Chicago home is a national historic landmark–drop by, if you are in town.)

Lawyer and activist Inez Milholland at the Woman Suffrage Parade (depicted in Iron Jawed Angels) on March 3, 1913, in Washington, D.C. Image from Wikimedia Commons via LOC cph.3b24499.

The arts have, and likely always will, take a stand in any political or social endeavor. While there was a fairly steady stream of anti-suffrage material, including a good many political cartoons, early feminists also participated in a stream of pro-suffrage artwork. Radford University has compiled a page with information on art of the suffrage movement, including the names of artists and cartoonists, from the United States as well as England, who fought for the right to vote using their artistry. Men perhaps like my great-great-grandfather, who minded farm and children so his wife and daughters could go into the world and fight for the vote, are also represented among the artists there.

Nina Allender, “President Wilson says, ‘Godspeed to the Cause,'” 1917. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Nina Allender, among the women Radford mentions on their page, worked closely with feminists including Alice Paul and Lucy Burns (both of whom figure prominently in Iron Jawed Angels) to illustrate young, contemporary women involved in the suffrage movement. In fact, as Emily Scarborough notes, her “‘Allender Girl’ slowly replaced the mannish caricatures of older suffrage media,” as she “portrayed suffragists as light, bright, young, and feminine“–a definite change from many depictions. The women in her cartoons were functioning humans, women who presumably spoke rather than, in the words of a 1916 Chicago Tribune article, “sizzled.” (Apparently, when a woman spoke decidedly back in the day, she didn’t actually speak; instead, she crackled, fizzled, or sibilated.)

Kenyon Hayden Rector, Mary Dubrow, and Alice Paul at the 1920 Republican National Convention–just a few months before Harry Burn cast the deciding vote for Ratification. From the Archives of the the National Woman’s Party, by way of the Library of Congress. Image housed on Wikimedia Commons.

Writers have also contributed to the cause of suffrage. (I’m sure that there have been musicians and composers as well, but I would need a bit more time to research them–I do not, alas, know them quite as well as I know writers.) Politicans and reformers, of course, were present, including Eugene V. Debbs, Chicago-based feminist and social reformer Jane Addams, doctor and feminist Anna Howard Shaw, and early feminists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (There were, in fact, a great many more; the Gilded Age spawned a good deal of good writers, who produced some decidedly biting social commentary.)

The 1899 cover of Susan Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Image housed on Wikipedia.

But novelists and playwrights were present as well. In England, George Bernard Shaw, socialist (of the Fabian persuaion), feminist, and Renaissance man, wrote Pygmalion1 (in which Eliza most definitely does not marry Higgins, no matter what that musical makes one believe). Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she of postpartom depression (and horrific wallpaper), was a feminist and a writer; her advocacy still shines out from her works, including “The Yellow Wallpaper“–which, to this day, terrifies me. (I am pretty sure it is supposed to be terrifying.) She also wrote, or compiled, Suffrage Songs and Versesvery blunt in its dedication to the cause. Susan Glaspell, writer, dramatist, theater founder, and feminist, wrote multilayered, sometimes overtly feminist dramas–perhaps most of all the 1916 Trifles, available through Project Gutenberg. While it is difficult to say, without extensive study, how much such pieces helped turn the tide, it seems very likely that they did, indeed, help gain support for the cause. (After all, dissertations have been written on precisely this theme, as have articles, and pop culture both shapes and is shaped by its society.)

The final page of the Voting Rights Act, from Wikimedia Commons

While American women gained the right to vote in 1920, however, the Voting Rights Act was not passed until 1965–and has been steadily eroded in the years since its passage. It is a sobering reminder: so much has been done, and so much remains to be done, or even to be remade.

As foreign as I may find the concept of being a “yuppie,” I would not have had such options available to me without the women who came before, and I am eternally grateful to them. We have, by the way, an election coming up in the United States. Some of us have only had the vote for 95 years, only a year longer than my paternal grandmother, who was supposed to have been eternal, lived.


“Votes for Women!” Image of flowers from the 1913 Woman Suffrage Parade. Taken by Wikipedian Djembayz and from Wikimedia Commons.

1 For more information, see Peter Connolly-Smith’s “Shades of Local Color: Pygmalion and its Translation and Reception in Central Europe, 1913-1914,”Lili Porten’s “The Metamorphosis of Commodities in Shaw’s Pygmalion,” and this article from PRI.

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