In this era of political activism, open voting and endless polls, it’s hard to imagine a time when half of all United States citizens did not have the right to cast a ballot. Until 100 years ago, women in the United States were shut out of a process that is held so dear to members of a democratic republic society—the process of voting in an election.
This year, we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Women’s Suffrage movement that resulted in the passage of the 19th Amendment. The language of the amendment is simple: “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.” But that simple amendment is the result of a long and difficult struggle, one shared by other minorities in the history of this country.
The Washington County Historical Society is commemorating the important anniversary and the contribution of Ohio women with a special exhibit through the month of July. The Ohio History Connection exhibit, Ohio Women Vote: 100 Years of Change, consists of twelve standing panels that not only share the story of suffrage but also the century of activism and change brought about by that landmark achievement.
The staff of the Ohio History Connection curated and designed the exhibit and the Ohio Humanities funded the production of the panels. The panels highlight quotes from articles, speeches, books, letters, and oral history interviews, bringing the courageous women to life with their own words. Washington County has its own connection to the movement; early resident and activist Frances Dana Barker Gage is featured in the exhibit. And alongside those early pioneers of women’s rights are the strong Ohio women who have since used their voice and strength to impact our government and society. The exhibit poses ten questions to Ohio women in activism, both historic and contemporary. The visitor reading their words will learn that the 19th Amendment was just the beginning of activism, and the right to vote gave women the power to pursue education and careers, change laws and implement social reform.
Long before the Civil War, women were chafing against the roles they were expected to play in their households and in society. The prevalent idea at the time was that women were supposed to be pious, submissive wives and mothers, content to dedicate their lives to family and home. That idea has been dubbed the “Cult of True Womanhood” by some historians. But during the 1820s and 30s, many instead chose to be activists—fighting for temperance and moral reform and fighting against slavery. Such movements were growing across the country and women were playing an important part in that growth.
By the 1840s, while most states had granted white males the right to vote regardless of their wealth or property ownership, women were still denied the right. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott invited a group of abolitionist activists to Seneca Falls New York to discuss the problem of women’s rights, or lack of. Most of the delegates at that Seneca Falls Convention concurred that American women deserved their own political identities.
When America became embroiled in the Civil War, the subject of women’s rights took a back seat while the country fought its bloody battles. Shortly after the war ended the movement regained its momentum and the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments fueled the effort. The 14th Amendment extended citizenship to all US-born or naturalized people and was meant to give citizenship to freed slaves. However, it was meant to grant citizenship to males and did not address citizenship for women. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed black men the right to vote (although state laws and discriminatory practices would continue restricting that right for decades).
Finally, the powers to be agreed and on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.
Some women’s suffrage advocates refused to support the 15th Amendment and even aligned themselves with racist Southerners. Those Southerners were willing to support the women’s movement because they thought by securing white women the right to vote they might neutralize the votes cast by African Americans.
In 1869, the National Woman Suffrage Association was founded by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, whose name is one of the most familiar connected to the movement. For some years, the Women’s Suffrage movement and the movement to guarantee African American women the right to vote struggled to co-exist without each inhibiting the efforts of the other. The groups reconciled and in 1890 they joined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Stanton named the first president.
The next three decades would see the Suffrage movement evolve, with some splinter groups forming and using very different tactics toward the same goal. When World War I gripped the nation, women proved through their contributions that they were just as patriotic and deserving of citizenship as any of their male counterparts. Finally, the powers to be agreed and on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. Just a few months later, over 8 million women across the United States voted in elections for the very first time.
Women today have the right to vote – and ability to affect every level of government – because of the courage, perseverance, and strength of generations of women who fought for that right. One such woman, from Warren Ohio, was Harriet Taylor Upton. Born in 1853, she was an officer in the National American Woman Suffrage Association and took part in a parade of celebration in 1920. In her words, “The suffrage victory came after the struggle of four generations and it did not come of itself. It was impelled by a mighty moral force exerted by the far-seeing, the justice-loving.”
Some of the questions addressed by the panels are “Why is the vote so important?” “How do you speak out?” and “What does it mean to be a feminist?” The last question is answered in the words of Jane Elizabeth Jones in 1850 “. . . [W]e should demand our recognition as equal members of the human family; . . . as human beings; and when this point is once established, the term “Woman’s Rights” will become obsolete . . . . It is then human rights for which we contend.” It is also answered in the words of Gloria Steinem in 2008, “Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere. It’s not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It’s about baking a new pie.”
From the early days of the Suffrage movement to modern-day activists, visitors will enjoy a glimpse into the lives of the dedicated women who helped establish and protect women’s rights. The exhibit was designed to travel to colleges, historical organizations, libraries, and other venues through 2020 but COVID-19 restrictions limited its access in many locations. The Marietta Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau offered to help install the exhibit on the ground floor of the Armory beginning July 2nd. Deana Clark, director of the CVB, felt the anniversary was an important event.
“The Marietta-Washington County CVB values the efforts of the Suffragists and recognizes the key role they played in the American story,” said Clark. “We can better know what to do today when we know more about what sacrifices were made in the past. These women were a source of strength and inspiration, and we are excited to help share their story.”
The exhibit, free and open to the public, will be open daily during CVB hours, including later hours on July’s First Friday. Visitors are asked to observe social distancing. The panels can also be seen virtually by visiting their website. For more information contact WCHS President Jann Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.