On August 26th, 1920, the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage went into effect. It was the result of years of ceaseless toil:
“To get the word “male” out of the constitution cost the women of this country 52 years of pauseless campaign. During that time they were forced to conduct 56 campaigns of referenda to male voters, 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write women into state constitutions, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include women suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.” (Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler, Women Suffrage and Politics, quoted in Shulamith Firestone, “The Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S.A.: New View, Notes from the First Year)
And that was just a description of the second large wave of organizing, dated roughly to the founding of the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. (The organizations had divided over whether to support the 15th amendment and votes for African-Americans without the inclusion of of women.) Dated to the origin of the formalized demand for legal equality made at Seneca Falls, it was a seventy-two year effort. The principle author of the Seneca Falls document, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was born when James Madison was president; Alice Paul, leading strategist of the 20th century campaign, lived to see Watergate. Nor was it a movement lacking in high drama: Paul herself was force fed raw eggs through a tube while on a hunger strike; during the “Night of Terror” in 1917, members of the National Women’s Party, of which Paul was the leader, were tortured by prison guards after being arrested for their White House picket, a particularly provocative action to undertake during wartime.
Fifty years later, on August 26th, 1970, the ascendant feminist movement came together to mark the anniversary for the largest single feminist demonstration in U.S. history, the Women’s Strike for Equality. The liberal and radical wings of the movement came together around three central demands: the right to abortion**, the right to child care, and equal opportunity in employment and education.
In researching the history of the movement, I’ve been fascinated by the relative lack of iconic images of the movement as a movement. Ruth Rosen starts her definitive history The World Split Open with a reflection on how the movement was a revolution that lacks the iconography of revolution: no street fighting, no barricades. But I’ve also been struck by how events that were visually and dramatically striking – like the Strike and the Night of Terror, haven’t really entered the public imagination.
The history of the suffrage movement was a live question for the movement at the time. To me, one of the most fascinating parts of Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, is her lament for the loss of feminist history. She attributes a lot of this, as other have, to the demobilization that followed the winning of the vote. Despite representing a very different strain of feminist thought Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique shared this concern with Firestone – her laments about the conservatism of current college students recall the arguments of Backlash some thirty-five years later. That’s why while I understand the impulse to lament how the movement went into out of the streets and into the academy, I find the founding of women’s studies a compelling and moving story. So much of the writing of the period is remarkable for its scope and ambition – the sense one was starting from scratch, looking for the fragments of the past, that there was this constant threat of erasure. And it’s why I’m more and more reluctant to discuss “gender issues” in a comp. class or wherever without a historical approach. Feminism is one of those things everyone has an opinion about – which is good and natural, as people instinctively understand its relevance – but the complexities and subjectivities shouldn’t mean that there isn’t a history we have to know something about in order to meaningful enter the conversation.
***** For what it’s worth, there’s a significant error in the Wikipedia page devoted to the event, which implies the inclusion of abortion in the platform was a point of contention. In fact, the importance of abortion rights was actually a point of agreement between the liberal and radical parts of the movement The “feminist pro-life” organizations referenced in the article were a later creation. It’s a telling and depressing commentary on the CW which has a hard time believing abortion could have been an uncontroversial issue even among feminists.