History of the Women’s Rights Movement: Then and Now

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By Paige McCall.

Recently there have been a lot of discussions raised by female celebrities as to the treatment of women in the film industry.  People like Patricia Arquette and Viola Davis have used their platform, upon winning awards, to give powerful speeches targeting unequal pay and the lack of roles for women of color in film and television.  Emma Watson became an ambassador to the United Nations and launched her campaign, HeForShe, in order to try to encourage men to join her in promoting feminism, something she felt the need to do after experiencing sexualization in the media from an early age as a child actress.  Most recently, even the highest paid woman in Hollywood, Jennifer Lawrence, joined the fight, writing an article about the gender pay gap.  She points out that even though she is now the highest paid actress in the country, she still makes only a fraction of what her male co-stars make for the same amount of work on the same films.  With more and more women in the film industry discussing issues of the gender pay gap, lack of diversity in film and television, and the overall minimal presence of women as compared to men in this industry, it is an important time to look back at what has lead us to this point.

  • 1840: The demand for women’s suffrage in the United States first began in the 1840s, a time when women were beginning to advocate for expanded rights in general.

  • 1848: The  movement gained major political traction through the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention in the United States, attended by over 300 men and women. Here, a resolution in favor of women’s suffrage was passed, despite opposition from some of the movement’s organizers, including Lucretia Mott, who thought the idea was too extreme. Elizabeth Cady Stanton  ultimately introduced the 19th  amendment, despite knowing how controversial it would be. Her husband, who initially supported the movement, refused to attend the convention when he learned his wife was going to propose the amendment which he believed was ridiculous. Stanton and many others persevered, with support from abolitionist leader and former slave, Frederick Douglass. The once controversial idea of giving women the right to vote became the core of the women’s rights movement.

  • 1890: The first national suffrage organization was formed– the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).  Two organizations that had been competing for over two decades formed to create this group, one lead by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, the other lead by Lucy Stone.

    • The competition between these two groups emerged largely over how to spend the funds of the group and also whether or not to support the reconstruction amendments following the abolition of slavery.  These would have granted suffrage to former slaves, but it did not include men.  The issue was whether or not to try to focus on both the rights of women and African Americans at the same time.

    • The same lack of intersectionality that could be seen in the division and competition of these two women’s rights groups is not too different from what exists in modern day feminism.  There is currently a similar divide on social issues especially, as there are many feminists who choose only to focus on issues specific to white women, while others, women of color especially, demand intersectional feminism.  This divide is commonly referred to as “white feminism” versus “black feminism.”

  • 1875: The Supreme Court ruled against women’s suffrage.  This didn’t stop the women’s movement, but rather lead to decades of advocating for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to give the right to vote to women.  Suffragists also began fighting for female voting rights on a state-by-state basis.

  • 1900: Carrie Chapman Catt became the leader of the NAWSA, which now had two million members, and re-dedicated the organization to a national suffrage amendment as its top priority.

  • 1916: Alice Paul formed the National Woman’s Party (NWP),  a militant group determined to pass an amendment to grant women in the U.S. the right to vote on a national level.

  • 1917: A group of over 200 NWP members, dubbed the Silent Sentinels, were arrested after picketing outside the White House.  Some of them even went on a hunger strike for their cause and had to be force fed food after being arrested.

  • August 26, 1920: The 19th Amendment officially became part of the U.S. Constitution, following many narrow votes in the United States Congress.  The amendment read: “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.”

  • 1923: Connecticut, Vermont, and Delaware were the first states to formally ratify the 19th amendment after the federal ratification.  Despite the fact that it was now a federal law that women could vote in national elections, there were still many states that took years to officially ratify it.

  • 1980: The number of women voting in U.S. elections finally matched the number of men voting.  In some cases, this was because some women didn’t feel as though they should vote because they had been treated as subordinates for so long.  In others, it was because there were some women still being denied a vote– specifically, women of color.

  • 1984: Mississippi became the last state to ratify the 19th Amendment, 64 years after it had become federal law.

    • To put in context just how long this took, Steve Jobs unveiled the first Macintosh computer in January of 1984.  Mississippi ratified the 19th Amendment in March of that same year.

This lag in progress shows us just how hard and how long women have had to fight to be treated as equals- a fight that continues today  Legally, women have the right to vote, but that does not mean that change comes easily in practice.  The effects of the long history of the subjugation of women did not dissipate because of one amendment, and that amendment didn’t fix the problem entirely.  For many women, especially women of color, they were still denied what had become their legal right.

The women’s suffrage movement and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 is an extremely important part of American history, but what isn’t talked about as much is that it didn’t focus on all women.

In the 1920s, radical racism was still prominent throughout America, especially in the South.  African Americans, both men and women, were still regularly denied the right to vote in Southern States.  Within a decade of the 19th amendment being passed, black women in the South were disenfranchised, not just by fringe practices or threats from racist groups, but by the implementation of state laws. Racism did not belong just to fringe groups but to Southern government officials as well.

We cannot talk about the U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movement without also discussing the U.S. Civil Right’s Movement of the 1960s, because it wasn’t until after this movement that women in southern states could actually vote.  To say that the passage of the 19th Amendment gave all women the right to vote is a whitewashing of American history.

The suffrage movement was important, but not all-inclusive, not only after its success in gaining women the right to vote, but during the years of attempting to do so.  NAWSA leaders asked black women’s clubs, who wanted to support NAWSA, not to affiliate with them.  There were Southern suffragists who wanted only white women to gain the right to vote.  In a 1913 march lead by Alice Paul’s Congressional Unit, black women were asked to march in a segregated unit.  Ida B. Wells, a prominent African-American suffragist who wrote often of racism and sexism, refused to abide by this request and snuck into her state’s delegation, marching with them in the parade.

While we appreciate the work of the suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote leading up to 1920, we must also acknowledge the imperfection.  After the 19th Amendment passed, the women’s movement went pretty silent for a long time, as if the fight was won.  But it was more than 40 years later that women’s right to suffrage became universal. This same neglect of addressing problems unique to African American women can be seen in the divide emerging in modern-day feminism.

Intersectional feminism is often times overlooked in favor of “white feminism.”  When we remind the world of statistics that women make 78 cents on the dollar we must mention that it is only white women who make even this much.  Statistics show that African-American women still make only 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes; Hispanic women, only 54 cents.  We cannot talk about sexism without also talking about racism.  We cannot talk about the U.S. Women’s Suffrage Movement without talking about the U.S. Civil Right’s movement.

When we look back at the history of this great movement, it is important that we learn from not only its successes but its failures. As feminists continue to fight for more equality today, hopefully intersectionality will win out.  If it is true that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, I hope that we are able to recognize the lack of intersectionality that has existed for too long in feminism, and open up the doors of this vital movement to all people, regardless of race, so that we may all enjoy the equality we are due but have been excluded from for far too long.

The film industry can do a lot to relay information to the general public.  As women fight to secure a place and equal treatment in this male-dominated industry, they are also creating works that can help them in this fight by informing audiences and encouraging an inclusion of women, as is seen with the film, Suffragette. Now that we have Suffragette giving credit to the history of the first part of the movement that gave women the right to vote, hopefully we will see a new film that focuses on the second important part of women’s history– The Civil Right’s Movement.