One hundred years ago this month, the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was ratified. And 150 years ago, the 15th Amendment, granting suffrage to African American men, was adopted. How well have we lived up to our ideals of equality?
Our Founding Fathers (yes, they were all “fathers”) put the fundamental principle of the United States on paper in 1776 in the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” These words reverberate still.
Nearly 100 years would pass after Jefferson and his co-authors put pen to paper before African American men could exercise the franchise in 1870, and nearly 200 years would pass before women could, in 1920.
It is all too clear today that suffrage for African American men and for women did not render equality. The struggle continues. Legal impediments to voting for African American men — in the form of Jim Crow laws, including poll taxes, literacy tests, as well as intimidation and violence — meant that many could not exercise their right to vote in Southern states.
It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that these racist policies were prohibited, and yet efforts to limit access to polling stations and ballots, particularly for African American communities and Native American communities, continue in states like Georgia, North Carolina and North Dakota.
The Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing equal legal rights regardless of sex — “that all men and women are created equal,” as Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in her 1848 revision to our founding document — has to this day never passed. As The Washington Post reported last week, however, the fight for its ratification continues: In January, the Virginia state Legislature approved the amendment — “becoming the crucial 38th state to cross the three-quarters threshold for ratification. But the move hardly resolved the issue, which will likely be decided in the courts over thorny procedural questions.”
Why hasn’t feminism, which began in the U.S. more than 170 years ago, achieved full gender equality? Isn’t racial, ethnic and sex equality progressive and consistent?
Sadly, history has shown that steady achievement of equality has never occurred, for African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ people and many others. Inevitably, there was backlash by those with favored status who did not wish to give up their social privilege.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. remarked that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We accept this argument because it seems consistent with the Western Enlightenment ideal of progress — that people, societies and technologies improve over time. Instead, history shows us that advances in social equality and therefore freedom are not considered advances by everyone, and therefore they must be vigilantly guarded.
Then, as now, the struggle was hard-won.
Suffragists met violence in 1913 when they marched by the thousands down Pennsylvania Avenue the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. A contemporary account noted, “Women were spit upon, slapped in the face, tripped up, pelted with burning cigar stubs.” One hundred women were taken to the hospital.
In 1917, a group of protesters known as the Silent Sentinels, led by Alice Paul, used silent, daily organized protest in Lafayette Square and in front of the White House gates as a new principled, rhetorical strategy.
Using only signs to communicate their demands, they redirected Wilson’s own rhetoric back at him: “MR. PRESIDENT, YOU SAY LIBERTY IS THE FUNDAMENTAL DEMAND OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT.” “HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?”
Many were arrested, ostensibly for “obstructing traffic,” but really for the attention they garnered. In October 1917, Paul was arrested and placed in solitary confinement. She began a hunger strike, which others joined. In response, the women were force-fed with tubes thrust down their throats, and on the evening of Nov. 14, 1917, afterward known as the “Night of Terror,” nearly 40 guards brutalized the starved, imprisoned suffragists.
The moral outrage at their treatment in prison, and their persistent, peaceful, though confrontational, marches began to change the tide.
Alice Paul earned degrees in law and continued for the next 50 years to advocate for the ERA. She played a major role in adding protection for women in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was precisely on this provision that two months ago Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch based his surprising opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County, finding that employers could not discriminate against gay and transgender employees “on the basis of sex.”
But Paul’s and Stanton’s marginalization of women of color from the suffrage movement to court the Southern male vote served to reinforce racial inequality. Black suffragists, like Ida B. Wells, fought racial discrimination in the throes of their fight against gender discrimination, carrying a double burden that Black women activists still shoulder.
Despite its many setbacks, feminism continues to foster social justice. But rights must be demanded. None of the gains made over the past 170 years were freely given. Each required relentless, diligent action: writing letters, calling government representatives, marching and teaching.
I tell my students that at least half of them (the women) would not be sitting in their seats had it not been for the ceaseless efforts of so many. Feminist values of equality, inclusion and collaboration undergird all of my professional endeavors. I seek to honor the courage of all those feminist activists who came before me by replicating their example for my students, in the hope that they too will act on behalf of others, in solidarity.
Christine Filippone is associate professor of art history at Millersville University. Her book, “Science, Technology, and Utopias: Women Artists and Cold War America,” was the recipient of the 2017 SECAC (formerly the Southeastern College Art Conference) Award for Excellence in Scholarly Research and Publication.