Season 3: U.S. History

US History Ep. 11 The Women’s Era or, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make It On This Podcast”

All right. The ladies of American history have been dancing on the edges of our narrative for about 200 years. I think it’s about time we gave them an episode of their own. Shall we?

Today’s episode is all about The Women’s Era or, “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make It On This Podcast.” We’re going to focus on the century or so leading up to 1920, generally considered the apex of the women’s movement. What happened in the 19th century that made women all of a sudden collectively decide to crush the patriarchy? How did women get the right to vote and why did it take so long? And isn’t it awkward that arguably the women’s movement’s next greatest achievement (prohibition) was also an enormous failure? 

This is Anti-Social Studies; I’m Emily Glankler; settle in and let’s go back in time.

Act 1: The Movement Begins

Now I want to get this out of the way early: obviously, not all women were part of the women’s rights movement (and the women’s rights movement included men, too.) Poorer women often didn’t have the luxury of being activists because they were too busy, you know, trying to feed their family. And many women in the 19th century believed that the gendered division of labor was an important aspect of moral (i.e. Christian) society. But today I want to focus on the “Poorly Behaved Women” of Bumper Sticker Lore.

OK. If you listened to Season 1 of this podcast or you’ve been even slightly paying attention over the past 8,000 years… men have been somewhat dominating the historical narrative. And the same is true in US history. Like, there have been 57 women who have served in the US Senate. There have been 207 men named John who have served in the US Senate. That’s four times as many Johns. 

Enlightened Women

For most of history, women have been in the background. They raise the children, run the home, support their husband, and are the only ones who know how to load the dishwasher the right way. There have been women pushing back against this division of labor for millennia. Oh hey, everyone woman I talked about in Season 1. But there was never anything close to the tidal wave of hormone-fuelled lady power that swept across the western world in the middle of the 19th century. Why now?

The larger context is the Enlightenment and the era of revolutions. As men like John Locke, Voltaire, and Thomas Jefferson wrote about ideas like natural rights, liberty, and democracy, some women came across these ideas and thought, “Oh this is hilarious.”

First of all: men, you should have never taught us how to read. That was your first mistake. Because men were writing insanely hypocritical things in the 18th century. Like, a slaveowner writing “All men are created equal” or French revolutionaries writing about “resistance to oppression” while telling women to go back home and make them a baguette sandwich.

Educated women began internalizing the basic ideas of the Enlightenment and applying them to their own situation. We’ll come back to that idea in a second.

Abigail Adams: A Revolutionary Woman

Beyond the Enlightenment, the American Revolution itself was a shock wave for the soon-to-be women’s movement. It provided a clear opportunity for a frank discussion about rights and who would get to be part of the new nation. Abigail Adams famously wrote to her husband asking that the Founding Fathers “Remember the Ladies.” As she put it, 

“Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Basically she’s arguing that if the new United States doesn’t give women a voice, then they will be no better than King George. John Adams replied, “I cannot but laugh.” Oh my god. Abigail crafted a beautiful argument based on Enlightenment ideology and her husband is like, “Ha! That’s funny! Grab me a beer, will you?” 

So, in the early United States women were denied most legal rights. They could not vote, own property, keep their own wages or even have custody over their children. Great, thanks guys. 

Republican Motherhood

However, a tiny sliver of hope developed during the revolution and that was the belief that a successful republic would require an ethical and educated citizenry. The Founders recognized that their new democratic experiment would only work if voting men were not complete idiots. And who was responsible for raising future voters? Women! 

Women were glorified in the new United States under the banner of “Republican Motherhood.” Just like the Aztecs believed strong women would produce strong warriors, Americans believed that educated women would produce educated voters. Wow, men really do not understand pregnancy. But still, the first American female academies were founded in the 1790s. So for the first half of the 19th century, some women were becoming educated, although mostly for the purpose of being appealing wives and successful mothers. Baby steps.

This is the key: women had to move slowly and methodically. Historically, if women were too loud or moved too quickly they were at best called hysterical and ignored and at worst, you know, burned at the stake. But over time, American women slowly expanded their sphere of influence to gain more power. They convince men to let them get an education but just so they can raise their children better. Then some women get involved in charity work but only when it relates to “lady stuff” – children, orphans, the “less fortunate.” 

Like I mentioned earlier in the season, middle- and upper-class women made up a large part of the abolition movement. Often they framed their arguments against slavery through the lens of domestic issues – concern for enslaved children or a somewhat patronizing discussion about enslaved peopple like they were all slightly childlike and, thus, needing our protection. Through this activism, women were not just finding meaning for themselves, they were also developing important connections and political experience.

Seneca Falls

But the real *** hit the fan in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention. Over two days in upstate New York, 300 men and women got together to fire the opening salvo in a Women’s Revolution that will last over a century…. Let me know when it ends. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the event after being excluded from a World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. They both met up at the bar (I imagine), talked about how messed it was that a convention to end the horrible oppression that is slavery woouldn’t allow women to participate. They vowed to hold a women’s rights convention to protest the historic oppression of women.

The document that this convention produced – the Declaration of Sentiments – is a masterclass in political parody. Let me read you the first paragraph and see if it sounds familiar…

“When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal…”

Declaration of Sentiments, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1848

Oh my god it’s so badass I love it so much.

The convention passed 11 resolutions relating to women’s equality but the most controversial was the 9th resolution “to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” This is the birth of the women’s suffrage movement and it was not without controversy. That resolution led to many to withdraw their support from the movement, thinking it was too extreme. The resolution passed thanks to speeches by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and African American Frederick Douglass. Even those who supported it were often pretty shady about it. Horace Greely, known for his utopian views, explained that “sincere republicans” couldn’t refuse “the demand of women to an equal participation with men in political rights” even though it was, in his words, “an unwise and mistaken demand.” Cool thanks bro.

Post-Civil War Disappointment

The goals of 1848 were quickly overshadowed by the leadup to the Civil War and the fight over slavery. Most women’s rights activists believed that it was appropriate that enslaved people should be freed from bondage before the nation could focus on expanding voting rights. Despite this, the progress made for African American men after the Civil War did not include their female allies and counterparts. 

The 14th Amendment – in my opinion the most important sentence of our entire Constitution – established “equal protection of the laws” for “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” That sounds great, right?! Sure. Except that the 14th Amendment also introduced the word “male” into the Constitution for the first time. Section Two of the amendment specifically clarifies that the voting population is “male citizens.” Womens’ rights leaders were disappointed. Elizabeth Cady Stanton said “If that word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century at least to get it out.” And considering that 150 years later we still don’t have a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal rights for men and women… she wasn’t wrong. 

Susan B. Anthony wanted to test out the new 14th Amendment. In 1872, she cast a ballot in the presidential election in New York, citing her citizenship under the 14th Amendment. She was arrested, tried and convicted, and fined $100, which she refused to pay. A related ruling in the Supreme Court declared that while women may be citizens, all citizens were not necessarily voters. Basically, women were treated like children. A 10-year-old is a citizen, but that doesn’t mean they get to vote for president. “Cool,” said the 10-year-old. “I’ll just wait 8 years until I’m not a woman anymore.” Ugh. 

But there was still hope! The 15th Amendment was set to make it even more clear who could vote. But when all was said and done, the amendment declared that the right to vote could not be denied on the basis of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. How hard would it have been for them to add one more comma and through in, “or sex.” Was ink really that expensive? This amendment specifically led to a split in the growing suffrage movement. Some, like Lucy Stone, supported the amendment and believed it was still a step in the right direction for women. But others, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony split with the mainstream movement – they wanted to move faster. 

Act 2: Progressive Women

You’re like, “Didn’t we just have a whole episode about the Progressive Era? Why do you need to talk about it again?” Well for one, be quiet. And two, THE PROGRESSIVE ERA CANNOT AND WILL NOT BE CONTAINED! While many Progressive Era activists and muckrakers across all aspects of the movement were women (I see you Ida Tarbell), there was a whole branch of the Progressive Movement that was all about suffrage. 

Before we get into the 20th century, last push of the suffrage movement, we need to talk about its Founding Mother, the person you kind of know but, like, not really; the lady on the coin herself: Susan B. Anthony. 

Susan B. Anthony + Elizabeth Cady Stanton = BFF

Born in 1820 into a Massachusetts family that fought in the American Revolution, she was raised in the Quaker faith that believed everyone was equal under God. Side note: so many prominent 19th century activists, especially abolitionists, were Quakers because of their radical ideas about equality, morality, and community. Anthony had seven siblings, most of whom also became social activists. 

Susan taught before becoming involved in the abolition movement alongside family friends William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. She became a public speaker in a time when many thought it was improper for women to give speeches in public. She didn’t attend the Seneca Falls Convention, although her mother and sister did; so it wouldn’t be until 1851 that she met her ride-or-die suffrage BFF: Elizabeth Cady Stanton. It’s really impossible to talk about Susan B. Anthony without also talking about Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They really should be two sides of the dollar coin, but whatever.

Stanton, the primary author of the Declaration of Sentiments, was the philosopher of the suffrage movement and Susan B. Anthony was the voice. This was especially helpful because Anthony never married, dedicating her life to the cause, while Stanton was also raising seven children. Susan B. Anthony traveled the country sharing Stanton’s and her own views on women’s equality, often risking arrest to do so. They co-founded the American Equal Rights Association and used their newspaper The Revolution to spread their message, with money from Anthony’s lectures funding the movement. One of the most famous examples of Anthony voicing Stanton’s philosophies was at a protest of the 1876 Centennial celebration. She gave a speech written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton called the “Declaration of Rights,” in which she called for “Men, their rights, and nothing more; women, their rights, and nothing less.”

Anthony helped to reunify the suffrage movement after its division over the 15th Amendment. She merged the major organizations into the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, leading the group until 1900. Over time, the two women drifted apart. Anthony joined forces with more conservative groups like the temperance movement to prohibit alcohol while Stanton remained fairly radical. For example, Stanton published the Woman’s Bible to much controversy – she argued for a secular state and urged women to recognize how traditional theology has oppressed women. But they were still BFFs in the end; they co-wrote a three-volume History of Woman Suffrage in 1885 to document all of the individual and local activism that had been done so far in the movement. But there was obviously a lot more to be done. Maybe a history of the movement was slightly premature?  I mean, they still couldn’t vote. 

The “New Woman”: Jane Addams

OK so, Seneca Falls and the debate over the post-Civil War amendments kicked women’s activists into high gear. A new generation of college-educated, independent women began popping up in urban areas (remember that cities, themselves, were growing at the same time the movement was.) Historians have called this the “New Woman” – someone wanting to use her education for more than just finding a husband and teaching her sons. And she found a ton of opportunities to flex her activist muscle in the era of industrialization. By the second half of the 19th century, cities, factories, and immigrations were all on the rise. And so was poverty, inequality, and mistreatment of workers. Highly intelligent women developed independence thanks to higher education and/or moving away from their families to the big city for the first time. And they went to work caring for the mistreated people of the Gilded Age. You know what comes next: The Progressive Era! Notice: most of the aspects of the Progressive Era were still technically within the “Woman’s Sphere” – often focused on orphans, child laborers, the poor, and others who needed a woman’s perceived nurturing instinct. 

A great example of this would be Jane Addams. Her Hull House in Chicago was a place for poor people, many of them immigrants, to go and learn basic skills all the way up to experience the arts and literature. Addams brought educated women to share their knowledge in this community center, from reading and writing, English language classes, cooking, and acculturation classes for new immigrants. Over time her vision expanded and they added a kindergarten, a daycare for working mothers and a job placement bureau.

Addams would go on to be a leader in the Progressive Era movement against child labor and she helped establish a School of Social Work at the University of Chicago. Social work became an important industry for women to gain higher education, expertise, and legitimacy through the so-called “Women’s Sphere.” Showing the continuing connection between women’s rights and other minority groups, Jane Addams was also a founding member of the NAACP. (Side note: Addams became a global peace advocate during and after World War I, eventually becoming the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. Good work, Jane!)

Racism in the Suffrage Movement

Before we get back to industrialization and the Progressive Era, I want to mention that even though there was a lot of overlap between the women’s rights and the early civil rights movements, from abolition on, it wasn’t so simple. Like I mentioned earlier, the movement split over the 15th Amendment and frustration amongst some white women that black men would be allowed to vote before they could. But as the possibility of women’s suffrage became a political reality, some suffragettes found themselves courting the support of those in power who were at the same time actively oppressing black citizens. Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself was a racist who believed it was degrading to allow black men the right to vote before white women. Although black and white women had both often been on the same side of history, especially during the abolition movement, many white suffragettes turned on their black counterparts to gain political favor with white male elites.

Anti-lynching advocate Ida B. Wells, expressed her frustration that many activists were sacrificing the lives of African Americans to further their own political cause. In addition, outspoken activists like Wells who gave speeches and pushed for protest against the mistreatment of black people, were often shunned from the larger women’s rights movement so they wouldn’t lose the support of racist politicians. 

Nuance is important. Just like it’s critical to note that suffragettes weren’t all friends to other oppressed Americans, it’s important to point out that industrialization wasn’t necessarily all good for the women’s movement. Before industrialization, women were often valued as artisans and laborers in the “domestic sphere.” They wove textiles, sewed clothes for the family, and did a lot of the physical labor of keeping up a home. Now, I’m not here to argue against my dishwasher or the fact that I can go get basically anything I don’t need at Target. But, the prevalence of manufactured goods and home appliances over time made a lot of a “woman’s work” obsolete. A “cult of domesticity” arose as advertising companies glorified the beautiful housewife who benefited from newfangled inventions and modernity. Women, especially middle-class women, lost a lot of their informal power as industrialization outsourced a lot of their daily work.  

But overall, the rise of dense population centers, increasing access to information, and jobs outside the home led to “New Women” who found a modern world with more opportunity.

By the turn of the century, women had gained the right to own property, control their own wages, and enter into contracts on their own. By 1900 at least 5 million women were working for wages, mostly in “domestic” industries like textile factories, education, and other social work. But this new generation of women with money in their pockets and some political experience would give the movement the final push it needed to win the vote.

Woman of the Year: Teddy Roosevelt

And now I would like to pull a Parks and Rec and give the “Woman of the Year Award” to Ron Swanson. And by Ron Swanson, I mean of course… Teddy Roosevelt!

Yes! That’s four episodes in a row! I wonder if I can work TR into every episode for the rest of the season… Who am I kidding? Of course I can. Let’s go. 

So obviously the heroes of the Women’s Rights Movement are… the women of the Women’s Rights Movement. But I do want to bring up Teddy to highlight a few things: 1. The “manliest” of all manly men presidents was also into gender equality. He would have been at the Women’s March with a shirt that said “This is what a feminist looks like.” 2. Women had become a strong enough political force before they even got the right to vote that high-level politicians had to take them seriously. That’s impressive. And 3. Progress doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Social change requires people in positions of privilege (i.e. the very white very male President of the United States) to be an ally and make room for others. Just saying.

So let me just walk you through my “Teddy Roosevelt Was A Feminist” pitch and then we’ll get back to talking about actual women:

  • As a senior at Harvard, the wrote his thesis advocating for equal rights for women, including an argument that women shouldn’t change their names when they get married.
  • As a New York State representative he introduces a bill to allow corporal punishment for men who beat their wives. “Eye for an eye”-type justice.
  • As police commissioner, he hires women in executive positions around the New York City Police Department. 
  • When he’s running for president again in 1912, he openly advocates for women’s suffrage. His platform includes a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage a year before the National American Women’s Suffrage Association starts seriously pushing for a constitutional amendment. Up to that point they had been focusing mostly on change state laws. 
  • Teddy’s nomination for the Bull Moose Party was officially seconded by Jane Addams, making her the first woman to ever nominate a president. (Side note: she received a ton of backlash for this. The former Harvard president called it “in exceedingly bad taste, because a woman has no place in a political convention.”)
  • Even after he loses the election, he testifies in front of Congress on behalf of the women’s labor movement. He even joins the striking Ladies Garment Workers Union in Manhattan, bringing attention (and reporters) to document their movement after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire two years earlier.
  • The other two Progressive Presidents – Taft and Wilson – were both openly opposed to a federal women’s suffrage, preferring to leave the decision up to the states. On that note, Teddy campaigned in New York until his home state passed women’s suffrage in 1917. Three years later… well, spoiler alert…

ACT 3: The Vote!

In 1920, the 19th Amendment was passed stating, “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.” Yeeeaah! It’s about time! Only 130 years late!

But before we get to that, there were women who could vote before 1920. Any guesses what the first state/territory to allow women to vote was? Shout it out! Nope! Not California! Not Massachusetts – damn Puritans! Mississippi? That’s not funny. They just ratified the 13th Amendment – the one to abolish slavery – in 2013. Seriously.

Nope. The first place in the United States where women could vote was… Wyoming! They guaranteed women’s suffrage in 1869, barely beating out Utah for the honor. Although Utah was technically the first place where a woman cast her vote, and it was Sarah Young, the niece of Brigham Young. Good on you, Mormons!

Similar to the way marriage equality was passed in many states before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, 20 states or territories had already allowed women’s suffrage. (For the record: Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Montana, Arizona, Kansas, Alaska, Illinois, North Dakota, Indiana, Nebraska, Michigan, Arkansas, New York, South Dakota, and Oklahoma.) Notice anything? They’re all West of the of Appalachian Mountains, except for New York but they had Teddy. 

Suffrage in the West

OK. So why were women allowed to vote in the Wild West? We could go into a whole narrative about the freedom of the frontier (Remember the gay cowboys from two episodes ago?) but it’s really politics and money. It’s always politics and money. A lot of these territories were competing for settlers in the late 1800s and they thought women’s equality would make for some good PR.

Also, they were desperate for women. In Wyoming, there were six adult men for every adult woman so unless they wanted to become bizarro Utah, they needed to reverse that trend. 

Finally, and most hilariously, they didn’t think the law would pass. The Wyoming legislature was dominated by Democrats under a Republican governor. They figured that he was sure to veto the bill, making him look bad and maybe bringing more women to the Democratic party. (Remember that Republicans were the party of Lincoln – of abolition and slaves voting rights – so most women’s rights activists also tended to vote Republican.) But… he didn’t veto it. Thousands of women came to the territory and they all voted… Republican. Damn it, ladies, and your ability to see through an obvious political plot! 

So a little while later, Democrats tried to repeal the law but the Republican Governor did veto this one. They even had the ⅔ votes in the House to override the veto but the move fell one vote short in the Senate. So women earned the right to vote in Wyoming by the skin of their teeth. Even though this isn’t quite the heroic story of men standing up for equal rights as we would like, it does seem that they grew to like women voters over time. About 20 years later, in 1890, Wyoming as up for statehood. The U.S. Congress said they would accept the new state as long as they rescind the right of women to vote. But the Democratic Wyoming legislature stood up for its women, sending back a telegram that read, “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” Congress backed down and Wyoming, and its ladies, became the 44th state.

So those frontiersmen and cowboys, everyone who had not died of dysentery on the Oregon Trail, were the best hope for the women’s suffrage movement. Jeannette Rankin from Montana became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916, four years before women could vote nationwide. Side note: Rankin’s first vote in Congress was over whether or not to enter World War I – no pressure. As a lifelong pacifist, she held to her views and was the only member of Congress to vote against the war, even though she was aware that this might do damage to the suffrage movement. Because, you know, who wants people to vote who don’t like war? That’s insane. 

Carrie Chapman-Catt and the Moderate Suffragettes

So by the high point of the Progressive Era, women in about half of the states could vote. For most of the movement, suffragettes had been split between the American Woman Suffrage Association, focusing on state legislatures, and the National Woman Suffrage Association, focusing on the federal government. But since 1890, thanks to Susan B. Anthony, the two organizations reunited as NAWSA – the National American Woman Suffrage Association. With the old guard of the movement gone, the main push for a constitutional amendment was led by Carrie Chapman Catt. 

She closely coordinated state suffragette efforts with her appeals to the federal government. And she saw an opportunity to capitalize on World War I. We’ll talk more about the war next episode, but basically most of the white men were away and President Wilson was at home preaching ideas like freedom, democracy, and self-determination for the nations of Europe. “Self-determination, you said?” Carrie sidles up next to the president, who’s now left alone with a bunch of angry women while the men were off at war. She uses throws her support to Wilson’s reelection campaign, harnessing the political power of NAWSA’s membership in 1916. Although Wilson didn’t openly call for a suffrage amendment, he spoke at the NAWSA convention during the presidential campaign. Carrie Chapman-Catt felt that it was safest to stick with Wilson and slowly wear him down. But others were a little restless.

Alice Paul and the Radical Suffragettes

Virginia Arnold [holding Kaiser Wilson banner]
Harris & Ewing, Washington, D.C. (Photographer)
Library of Congress [Public domain]

Alice Paul returned from England in 1910 after helping to organize a militant wing of the suffrage movement. While in England she had been thrown in jail and submitted to forced feedings after going on a hunger strike in support of women’s equality. She worked with NAWSA for a while, organizing a women’s march the day before Wilson’s first inauguration that was almost turned into a riot by opponents. The dramatic publicity of the march revived the women’s movement for many around the country who had grown used to the slow, state-by-state political slog. 

Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman-Catt clashed over methods, similar in many ways to future Civil Rights leaders. Alice Paul’s small, radical National Woman’s Party went beyond politics. They marched, boycotted, picketed the White House and practiced civil disobedience. Mind you: this is 15 years before Gandhi’s Salt March, widely (and erroneously) considered the beginning of the global civil disobedience philosophy. Alice Paul can’t take credit for that either – Vietnamese nationalists were practice peaceful protest against the French military during the Age of Imperialism. Anyway, just go check out Episode 15 from Season 1 if you want to know more about it. 

Alice Paul and her followers are most known for a two-year-long peaceful protest in front of the White House. Women, known as the Silent Sentinels, took turns standing vigil holding signs that read things like, “Mr. Wilson, how long must women wait for liberty?” Sometimes they held banners quoting Wilson himself, “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.” Oh hello, irony.

At first they were tolerated but eventually they were attacked, arrested, and imprisoned. Alice Paul spent two weeks in solitary confinement where she began a hunger strike. One physician said of Paul, “[She] has a spirit like Joan of Arc, and it is useless to try to change it. She will die but she will never give up.” Many of the women were force fed through a feeding tube. On November 14, 1917, the head of the prison ordered the guards to “brutalize” the suffragettes. Known as the “Night of Terror,” Lucy Burns, Alice Paul’s friend and right-hand-woman was chained by her hands to the ceiling and left there all night. Other women were thrown against iron beds, dragged, choked, and beaten. Reports of the mistreatment of these women stirred the conscience of many Americans while NAWSA was more quietly chipping away at the entrenched political patriarchy. The dramatic backdrop of a world war that was supposedly being fought for freedom abroad definitely helped.

In 1917, the year we entered World War I, Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin organized the Committee on Woman Suffrage. What they came up with would eventually become the 19th Amendment and Rankin had the honor of opening the first House debate on the subject. She asked her fellow Congressmen (all male), “How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen…How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

It would take a few tries for the Amendment to pass Congress but it did in 1919 at which point it was handed to the states. Oh my god democracy is so slow. ¾ of the states had to ratify. It was close – the battle came down to a six-week debate in Tennessee. The 19th Amendment was ratified thanks to a 24-year-old state legislator named Harry Burn, who switched from a “no” to a “yes” vote after he received a letter from his mother saying, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!”

Lesson? Always listen to your mom.

The Temperance Movement

It’s important to mention that not everyone who opposed the 19th Amendment was necessarily sexist. Many were, but others were just acting out of self interest. Many states-rights advocates saw this as a dangerous precedent for the federal government to pass down what they saw as social legislation. Buckle up, states rights people, it’s going to be a rough 40 years or so. Business interests were worried that they might have to pay women more and there were women who worried that voting equality would endanger their family values and possibly require more of them than they believed they were capable, like going to war. 

But one of the loudest groups opposing women’s right to vote was the liquor lobby. Because in the background of this suffrage movement was another movement led by women that would reach its apex in the 1920s: the temperance movement. 

Let’s rewind back to the Gilded Age for a minute. The growth, urbanization, and social changes of the industrial era were shocking to many. The Progressive Movement grew out of the desire to lessen the suffering of the working class, children, and immigrants. But there was a more conservative wing of the Progressive Movement who believed they had pinpointed the root of the problem: alcohol. 

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1874 and it quickly grew to be the largest female organization in the country. They argued that the social ills of the growing cities – homelessness, high crime rates, joblessness, etc. – all were caused or made worse by alcohol. For many, the greatest threat to an American woman was not their political or economic inequality, it was husbands who spent their wages at bars, or worse, abused their wife and children. 

For the most part the temperance movement ran the same course as suffrage – work the state legislatures until there is enough support for a constitutional amendment. But there were some who took a more… direct approach. Like, Carrie Nation just walked into bars around Kansas with a hatchet, destroying everything she saw.  Seriously, 55 years old, she would walk into a bar singing hymns, armed with a hatchet, and smash bottles and bar tables until she was arrested. She started going on lecture tours and selling souvenir hatchets to pay for her legal costs. 

Again, World War I helped their cause because the president was already enacting a wartime restriction on grains and other materials that effectively prohibited alcohol. Showing the political power of the women’s movement even without the right to vote, Prohibition was passed before women’s suffrage. Partly this was because many southerners saw alcohol use along racial lines. Temperance activists in the south often used fear of drunken black mobs and stereotypes about black men assaulting white women as a way to bring white southerners to their cause. Rich white people would still be able to find alcohol, but poorer people, especially minorities, would be punished the most. In 1919, one year before the suffrage amendment, the 18th Amendment was ratified, “banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors.”

So by 1920 we have people living in cities, progressive activists out there working for social change, and women can vote, and men can’t drink. But we have one more layer to the decade leading up to the 1920s that will push it fully into the status of “Roaring.” 

Kids, we need to talk about World War I…