August 26th is now celebrated as Women's Equality Day in the
United States. Few today realize that it took 75 years for women to gain the right to vote on August 26, 1920. Passing the 19th Amendment had become a battle of brave endurance against physical torture executed by its own keepers of American Justice. The physical infliction these women endured made President Wilson reverse his position and announced his support for a suffrage amendment, calling it a "war measure."
The key suffragette leader in the fight for the 19th Amendment was a fashionable, and wealthy young women from Mt Laurel, New Jersey named Alice Paul. In 1916 Paul became one of the founders of the National Woman's Party (NWP). They also called themselves the "Silent Sentinels". They stood in silence outside the White House holding banners inscribed with confrontational phrases directed toward President Wilson. The president took these silent protests in good humor, tipping his hat to them as he passed by. However, his tolerance soon ended when the United States entered World War I in 1917. This did not stop the suffragists “Silent Sentinels” who dared to picket a wartime president, use the war in their written remarks and phrases such as calling the President "Kaiser Wilson." Many saw the suffragists' wartime protests as unpatriotic, and the sentinels, including Alice Paul, were attacked by angry mobs. The picketers were arrested on a trumped up charge of "obstructing traffic’. They were jailed and refused to pay their imposed fine.
Alice Paul was taken to Occoquan Workhouse, a prison in Virginia. Paul demanded that she and her group of suffragists be treated as political prisoners. They staged hunger strikes. Their demands were met with brutality. They were beaten, thrown into cold, unsanitary, and rat-infested cells. Arrests continued and conditions at the prison worsened. Paul and several other suffragists were tortuously forced fed for staging these hunger strikes. When these tactics failed to break their leader the prison officials removed Paul to a sanitarium. They hoped they could win the battle by declaring her insane. But the tide of public opinion was now moving in Paul’s favor when news of the prison conditions and hunger strikes were made public. The press, some politicians, and the public began demanding the women's release. Overwhelming sympathy for the prisoners brought many to support the
cause of women's suffrage and they all were released from prison.
In 1919, both the House and Senate passed the 19th Amendment. However it was a battle for state ratification. Three-fourths of the states were needed to ratify the amendment. In the summer of 1920 the battle for ratification came down to the state of Tennessee. It needed a majority of the state legislature votes for the amendment to become law. The deciding vote was cast by 24 year-old Harry Burn. He was the youngest member of the Tennessee assembly. Burn was all set to vote "no," but he received a telegram from his mother asking him to support women's suffrage and so he cast the ultimate “Yes” that gave Women the right to vote.
We are fortunate that Alice Paul’s family home and farm “Paulsdale”
in Mt Laurel, NJ has been preserved and open to the public through the Alice Paul Institute. The Alice Paul Institute’s position is to develop future generations of leaders and human rights activists, demonstrating the extraordinary difference one person can make. Please visit their website for further info http://www.alicepaul.org/index.htm
Are you registered to vote? Be proud of Jersey Girls and watch Iron Jawed
Angels, the 2004 movie starring Hillary Swank.