Activists need to resurrect the tactics of the suffrage movement
As we look ahead to the midterm elections, one of the biggest questions is how loudly women will make themselves heard at the ballot box. Women have raised their voices in protests on the streets, on social media and in the workplace. Will their rage translate into victory for female candidates and defeat of Trump loyalists?
Angry women and their male allies should take inspiration from a largely forgotten chapter of Massachusetts electoral history. One hundred years ago, women in the state, despite lacking the vote, were agents of change on Election Day. They orchestrated the defeat of Sen. John Wingate Weeks, a Republican who opposed women’s suffrage. In the process, they showed women across the nation how to hold men accountable for their actions toward women. As one suffragist put it, men could no longer expect to “knife women without reprisal.”
By the start of 1918, suffragists had been at work for nearly 80 years. They had waged dozens of campaigns in an effort to amend state constitutions to enfranchise women. They knew that a federal amendment would only be possible when a critical number of United States senators and congressmen were beholden to women voters. In 1915, after women had gained the franchise in 11 Western states, the National American Woman Suffrage Association decided the time was ripe to strive for a federal amendment.
Massachusetts suffrage leader Maud Wood Park became NAWSA’s chief lobbyist in D.C. Her hand was strengthened in 1917, when New York amended its constitution to enfranchise women. Members of the nation’s largest congressional delegation would now be answerable to women voters.
In 1918, the House of Representatives voted to support a federal amendment guaranteeing women the vote. But Senate approval was blocked by a coalition of Southern Democrats and a small group of right-wing Republicans, including both Massachusetts senators, Weeks and Henry Cabot Lodge. These conservative Republicans and Southern Democrats favored the status quo, which enshrined male privilege. Southern Democrats, still smarting over the 15th Amendment’s enfranchisement of black men, additionally argued that “states’ rights” precluded any further federal oversight of voting.
By this point, suffragists finally had an ally in President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat and recent convert to the cause. The sacrifices and contributions women made during World War I had finally given Wilson an understanding of women as full citizens. In a rare, personal appearance before the United States Senate on Sept. 30, 1918, he argued that expanding democracy on the home front was essential to the nation’s ability to lead the post-war order. Despite Wilson’s efforts, the Senate defeated the proposed 19th Amendment by two votes.
Women were angry. And they took action. NAWSA recognized that capturing only a few Senate seats could turn the tide, and promptly targeted several senators facing reelection for defeat, including Weeks. A former mayor of the city of Newton, Mass., Weeks had served in the House from 1905 to 1913 and was completing his first term in the Senate. His opponent was Democrat David Walsh, an Irish Catholic who favored women’s suffrage.
Defeating Weeks was a tall order for Massachusetts suffragists. Election Day was only five weeks away and the state had not elected a Democratic senator since before the Civil War. Moreover, just three years earlier, the state’s male voters had overwhelmingly rejected a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would have enfranchised women.
Suffragists in Massachusetts formed the Non-Partisan Suffrage Committee to organize opposition to Weeks’s reelection. The chair, Blanche Ames, was an artist, treasurer of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and the first president of the state’s Birth Control League. She was also the sister of a former Republican congressman from Massachusetts.
These savvy women and their male allies knew that exclusive emphasis on the 19th Amendment might “prove a boomerang and make a martyr of Mr. Weeks.”
Therefore they adopted a strategy of highlighting that Weeks was out of step with the large number of progressive voters in the state. Committee members scoured Weeks’s voting record and identified the many instances when he had voted in favor of privilege and against social and political reforms. Then they took this research public with newspaper ads and fliers that listed Weeks’s votes against measures such as the eight-hour workday, the income tax, the direct election of United States senators, the extension of government credit to farmers, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission — as well as his opposition to the woman suffrage amendment.
The campaign unfolded in dark times. War continued overseas. The influenza epidemic that erupted that fall led to over 600,000 U.S. deaths. Authorities closed some schools and other public places. Many people avoided public gatherings.
Nevertheless, the suffragists persisted in getting their message out. Female labor union activists held rallies in cities throughout the state. Catholic and Jewish suffragists campaigned in immigrant neighborhoods. The anti-Weeks committee wrote to 35,000 known suffragists imploring those denied political self-expression to rely on the “intolerable method of ‘indirect influence’” to get “at least one vote, through a voter in your family or among your friends, against Weeks.”
These efforts paid off. On Nov. 5, 1918, Weeks was defeated. NAWSA’s effort in Delaware also paid off, as suffragists ousted an anti-suffrage Democrat and replaced him with a pro-suffrage Republican. Suffragists now had the two Senate votes they needed.
The day after the election, Massachusetts suffragist Teresa Crowley asked NAWSA’s lead lobbyist in Washington to publicize the work of Massachusetts women in vanquishing Weeks. “A conviction on the part of the Washington politicians that we did it would do more to swing all the wobblers both in House and Senate . . . over to our side than any other one thing.” NAWSA’s help to spread the word was essential, Crowley explained, because Weeks would not admit the role of women in his defeat “if he can help it.”
The new House of Representatives approved the woman suffrage amendment on May 19, 1919; the new Senate approved it in June 4, 1919 by a vote of 56 to 25 (two votes more than the necessary two-thirds of those present). Convinced that the political winds now favored woman suffrage, state legislatures in 36 states ratified the amendment. The 19th Amendment became part of the Constitution on August 26, 1920.
Thanks to the suffragists, women have had a political voice for nearly a century. Defeating the allies and policies of a misogynist president would be a fitting way to commemorate the centennial of Weeks’s defeat — and to once again shift the political winds in favor of women’s rights.
Published in the Washington Post, October 16, 2018
On June 25, 1919, Massachusetts became the eighth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. After a nearly century-long campaign, women were at last guaranteed the right to vote. Today, women and their male allies can best commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage by renewing our commitment to use the ballot to secure women’s bodily autonomy, including the right to safe, legal abortion. In so doing, we can learn from the experiences and actions of activists a century ago.
The earliest women’s rights activists recognized that women’s control over their own bodies would be a major battleground. Suffrage leader Lucy Stone of Massachusetts wrote in 1855, “It is very little to me to have the right to vote and to own property if I may not keep my body, and its uses, in my absolute right.” Admitting that the question was untimely in an era when women had no political rights and few alternatives to marriage, which made a wife the legal possession of her husband, she noted the issue “will force itself upon us some day.”
It has. Repeatedly. Each time women have sought to control their own sexual and reproductive lives, whether by seeking access to contraceptives or by lobbying to criminalize marital rape, a stubborn and sizeable segment of the population has resisted. Today’s battleground is abortion. But cloaked in the rhetoric of “fetal personhood” is the same determination to control women and their bodies that has always underlain opposition to women’s rights. The suffragists pursued women’s rights at both the state and national level. Current activists must do the same. We must strive to protect Roe v. Wade at the national level, while supporting proposed state legislation that would enshrine that landmark law’s protection in Massachusetts law.
Like abortion opponents today, those opposed to women’s suffrage weaponized religion and made false scientific claims in an effort to “keep women in their place.” Massachusetts’ religious leaders preached that the New Testament orders women to be submissive, and that a woman who assumed the “place and tone” of a public reformer paved the way for “degeneracy and ruin.” Suffrage opponents likewise argued that women were biologically unsuited for political life: that their smaller head circumferences meant inferior brains, and that their ovaries shriveled in response to intellectual exertion.
It took decades for suffragists to debunk these myths. Today, we must challenge those who abuse religion and science in an effort to control women’s bodies and choices. We must push back hard against those who impose their religious beliefs on others and those who equate abortion with infanticide. We must expose the mendacity of those who claim abortion is unsafe (it is safer than a colonoscopy), and the hypocrisy of those who claim concern for an embryo but lack it once a child is born.
While we can learn a lot from the suffragists’ successes, we must also learn from their shortcomings. Many suffrage leaders made a pact with the devil of white supremacy. Some were overtly racist, while others were simply desperate to win the support of former Confederate states. (This strategy mostly failed, as southern politicians found the cause of white supremacy better served by denying women the ballot.) The unholy alliance between misogyny and white supremacy is at the center of today’s anti-abortion crusade. Women in the South, and particularly women of color, are the first to be denied access to safe, legal abortions. Today’s advocates of equal rights for women must work on behalf of both gender and racial equality.
Achieving women’s suffrage required the persistent efforts of three generations of brave activists. Each step forward provoked resentful backlash. The suffragists persevered, always confident that, eventually, the forces favoring progress would prevail. A fitting way to honor their legacy is to dedicate ourselves to winning the battles we face today, regardless of how long they may last. The suffragists never conceded defeat, and neither must we. As Susan B. Anthony memorably warned during the long suffrage struggle, “Failure is impossible.”
Published in the Newton Tab, GateHouse Media, June 26, 2019, page A6