When examining women’s suffrage it is important to understand exactly what the term means. Women’s suffrage refers to the economic and political reform movement that was aimed at extending the right to vote (suffrage) to women. Historical experts tend to trace the movement’s origins to the United States in the 1820’s although it was actually the country of New Zealand that was the first to give women the right to vote. Subsequently several countries extended suffrage in later years. Today women’s suffrage is considered a right (under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women), although there are still a few countries, mainly in the Middle East, that continue to deny the right of many women to vote.
The ultimate significance of women’s suffrage is that women vote today because of the woman suffrage movement. This was a courageous and persistent political campaign which lasted over 72 years, involved tens of thousands of women and men, and resulted in enfranchising one-half of the citizens of the United States. It is ironic that this movement was inspired by idealism and grounded in sacrifice and is of enormous political and social significance yet it is virtually unacknowledged in the chronicles of American history.
Had the women’s suffrage movement not been so ignored by historians, women like Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul would be as familiar to most Americans as Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt or Martin Luther King, Jr. We would know and understand the story of how women were denied the right to vote despite the lofty words of the Constitution, how women were betrayed after the Civil War, defeated and often cheated in election after election, and how they were forced to fight for their rights against entrenched opposition with almost no financial, legal or political power.
If Americans knew the history of the suffrage movement we would understand that democracy for the first 150 years in America included only half of the population. And even more importantly we would realize that this situation changed only after the enormous efforts of a large number of American citizens in what remains one of the most remarkable and successful non-violent efforts to change ingrained social attitudes and institutions in this modern era.
It is important to understand that women truly won the right to vote. They were not given it or granted it. They won it as any political campaign is won or lost. And they won it, again and again by the slimmest of margins, which only underscores the difficulty of their victories. In the successful California referendum of 1911, the margin was only one vote per precinct! On the national level in the House of Representatives, suffrage passed the first time by exactly the number needed with supporters coming in from the hospital and funeral home to cast their ballots. In the Senate suffrage passed by only two votes. The last state to ratify for women’s votes was Tennessee and that passed the legislature in 1920 by only a single vote, at the very last minute, during a recount.
Women were a poor, unarmed and disenfranchised class when they first organized to gain political power back in the middle of the 19th century. This struggle for the ballot was to continue for over 70 years of constant, determined campaigning, yet it did not take a single life, and its achievement has lasted. Without firing a shot, throwing a rock, or issuing a personal threat, women won for themselves the rights that men have launched violent rebellions to achieve. Yet we should not let the non-violent nature of this struggle deceive us; this battle was waged every bit as seriously as any struggle for equality, and we would do well to consider how women were able to do what men have rarely even tried, changing society in a positive and lasting way without violence and death. This may just be the ultimate significance of the women’s suffrage movement.