Poll Power: Women’s Suffrage Celebrates 100 Years, with Caveats

It was a note from mom that changed the landscape for women to get the right to vote 100 years ago on Aug. 18, and 100 years later it has led to a lot of victories and a lot of sobering realities too.

At the Boston Women’s Memorial on the Comm Ave Mall, there is a constant
reminder of those women who fought for equality in all things – including voting.
Pictured here is Lucy Stone, a long-time advocate of suffrage for women. While a
leading voice in Women’s Rights issues in the late 1800s, she died nearly 30 years
before some women won the right to vote. The 100th anniversary of the ratification of
the 19th Amendment occurred this week on Aug. 18.

The caveat, of course – and one that must be stated, is that African American women did not win the right to vote 100 years ago, but rather not until the 1960s Voting Rights Act.

That said, the milestone was celebrated in a muted way this week due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Aug. 18, 1920 was the day that cleared the way for the largest single increase in voting in American history – known as Ratification Day. And it did come down to one vote by Tennessee state legislator whose mother shamed him into doing the right thing.

Harry Burn was a very young state representative at the time in Tennessee from a very small town, and it was his mother’s note that changed his mind.

“It didn’t look like Tennessee was going to approve the amendment,” said Karen Price of the League of Women Voters in Massachusetts. “He came in wearing a red rose, which meant he was against it. When on the floor, he did find a note from his mother. It basically told him to do the right thing and he did and ended up voting for it. It ended up being the deciding vote when he changed his mind because it prevailed by one vote.”

Price said the Ratification Day would have been a major celebration for the League, which was also founded in 1920 to educate women on issues of the day. The official approval came on Aug. 26, 1920 by the federal government.

“It was an extremely large and long movement,” Price said. “I think it was probably one of the largest movements ever in U.S. history. It lasted about 80 years and was dramatic at every turn. At every turn, it seemed they were just squeaking through. It’s a very impressive story.”

As it turned out, women were able to vote in the 1920 presidential election, and it is said – though not proven – that they were the driving force in electing Republican Warren Harding and his Vice President Calvin Coolidge, who was from Massachusetts.

Looking back from 100 years, in Boston, the milestone is met with a City Council that is majority female, with women holding eight of the 13 seats and including the Council President post.

City Councilor Kenzie Bok – who represents Back Bay, Bay Village and Beacon Hill – said the milestone is joyous and sobering at the same time.

“I think it’s both energizing and sobering at the same time,” she said. “It’s energizing because you see how hard people worked to get this right and they were effective in doing it and all they went through, yet it’s sobering because you have a majority female Council 100 years later, but it took 90 years to get one or two women.”

She also said it is sobering in that African American women were not included in the milestone.

“Black women weren’t included in that, and you also saw a long history of poll taxes and voter suppression to keep people from voting, and that’s sobering too,” she said.

Councilor Lydia Edwards, who still wouldn’t have been able to vote at the 1920 milestone being an African American woman, said it was a time to celebrate, and also a time to acknowledge more can be done.

“As we enter one of the most consequential elections of our time, it’s important to remember so many of us are able to have a voice today and vote because of those who fought for a greater democracy,” she said. “This year marks the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. Let’s utilize this moment to reflect and acknowledge that many people were not included in the movement for women’s’ voting rights. We have learned and are still learning that gender and racial justice are inextricably linked and both are necessary.”

Both Price and Bok point out that historically, the Aug. 18 milestone and the 1920 election – which saw the first women voters in the United States – gave birth to larger women’s issues.

Bok – a doctorate in history – said the passage of the 19th Amendment gave rise to one of the largest infusions of federal money into what were perceived as women’s issues, notably education and maternal health.

“Right after Women’s Suffrage passed, Congress took up the biggest set of pro-family, pro-women bills it ever had,” she said. “That was because all the men were terrified of losing their seat due to women getting the vote…So that moment of Women’s Suffrage also pushed Congress to address education and women’s maternal health.”

Likewise, Price said that in the moments after suffrage, many of those active in the movement began to rally around the Equal Rights Amendment – which is still being fought for.

Suffragist Alice Paul authored the ERA shortly after the 19th Amendment passed, Price said.

“Now that they had the vote, they wanted to get equality in other areas,” said Price. “That’s when the ERA was born – right after the right to vote was won.”

Price said that for many young women and girls, it can be confusing for them to hear that women actually couldn’t vote at one time – and not so long ago in the history of the country. She said they strive to educate them about the fight, the ups and downs, and the good and bad of it.

This week, however, marks a milestone and a call for more to be done to advance what was achieved 100 years ago this week.

“It’s a slow road,” she said. “But there is reason to believe we’re making progress. We had the first female presidential candidate in 2016, and now we have the first Asian/African American woman as a candidate for vice president and that’s a milestone. However, African American women in particular did not get to vote in 1920. They had to keep waiting until the Voting Rights Act…I like to say we’ve seen a lot of victories but still have a lot of work to do in regards to inclusion.”

After holding a small celebration on Tuesday afternoon next to the Boston Common, Kerry Costello of the Boston League of Women Voters, said it was important to know just how important one vote – and one’s mother – is.

“It was an important milestone certainly, but it wasn’t complete because it wasn’t for all women,” she said. “It is remarkable how important one vote can be. We saw that in the Boston City Council race last year. One vote does make a difference.”

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