Shall Not Be Denied

Photos from Library of Congress

After years of asserting, in the words of Susan B. Anthony, "It was we the people, not we the white male citizens," suffragists won their long and un-genteel fight 100 years ago when Congress passed the 19th Amendment giving (white) women the vote. The Senate vote on June 4, 1919, which sent the proposal to the states for ratification, marked the end of a decades-long campaign by women routinely dismissed and maligned as "monstrosities of nature"; in 1913, the New York Times huffed that “all the rumpus about female suffrage is made by a very few of our disoriented sisters.” In a historical piece, part of a centennial series on women and political power, The Atlantic notes that Woodrow Wilson spent years trying to ignore the protesters out in all weather at the White House. Fiery suffragists also marched, waged legal battles, staged costumed tableaux, organized church committees, published their own newspapers and often got arrested; in prison, newspapers reported some were tortured, beaten, dragged down stairs, handcuffed to cell doors and threatened with straitjackets as disturbers of the social peace.

Nevertheless, they persisted, steadfast that "We shall not be denied." "Of course, we enjoyed irritating them," wrote Doris Stevens in her 1920 book, Jailed for Freedom. “Militancy is as much a state of mind, an approach to a task, as it is the commission of deeds of protest."  After the Senate vote, at least 36 states had to ratify; that took 14 months, allowing women to vote in the 1920 election. White women, that is. Despite the activism of extraordinary black women like journalist Ida B. Wells, who co-founded the NAACP, famously marched with white women anyway and loudly insisted, "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them," it took decades for women of color to get the same right under the 1965 Voting Rights Act - a failure of leadership progressives still struggle to address. Today, women lawmakers marked the centennial by wearing yellow roses, reciting the Amendment, and reiterating, as did Elizabeth Warren, "Change can happen, if we fight for it." Amidst a renewed war on women - "Same shit, different century" - it's vital to remember.

"You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can't stop us neither." - Sojourner Truth:


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Inspired by Alice Paul

Suffragette Helena Hill Weed of Norwalk, Conn., in a D.C. prison for picketing July 4, 1917

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