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  • Writer's pictureKaren Terhune Duncan

Sister Suffragettes

Born in 1900, my grandmother vividly remembered the time women were first given the right to vote. She shared stories with me about how she and her 3 sisters took the street car from their home in Hackensack, NJ to a rally in East Orange. They heard Mary Colvin speak and were riveted. Passage came on August 18, 1920 just days before her 20th birthday. It would be another year, when she turned 21, before she could cast her first ballot. And she never stopped conveying the importance of that to me.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which guarantees and protects that all American women have a constitutional right to vote. Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest.

My Tuesday-Thursday golf group (dubbed T2) commemorated this historically momentous event with our own Suffragette Scramble golf day, complete with dressing like Suffragettes.

America’s woman suffrage movement was founded in the mid 19th century by women who had become politically active through their work in the abolitionist and temperance movements. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Alice Paul and many other supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans then considered a radical change of the Constitution. Few of these early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920. 

Between 1878, when the amendment was first introduced in Congress, and August 18, 1920, when it was ratified, champions of voting rights for women worked tirelessly, but strategies for achieving their goal varied. Some pursued a strategy of passing suffrage acts in individual states. Nine western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912. Others challenged male-only voting laws in the courts. Militant suffragists used tactics such as parades, silent vigils, and hunger strikes. Often supporters met fierce resistance. Opponents heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused them. 

By 1916, almost all of the major suffrage organizations were united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson then changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift. On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and 2 weeks later, the Senate followed. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, the amendment passed its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states.

The 19th Amendment was formally placed into the U.S. Constitution by proclamation of in the early hours of August 26, 1920. At 8 a.m. that morning, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified it without ceremony at his residence in Washington. None of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement were present when the proclamation was signed, and no photographers or film cameras recorded the event. That afternoon, Carrie Chapman Catt, head of the National American Suffrage Association, was received at the White House by President Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson, the first lady.

When news of the ratification reached Alice Paul on August 18, 1920, she and other suffragists sewed the 36th star (one for each state ratifying) on her banner and unfurled it from the balcony of the Woman’s Party headquarters in Washington.

Suffragettes wore white at their parades and rallies. A sign of solidarity. Often purple for loyalty, gold for enlightenment and green for hope were added as adornment in ribbons, flowers and banners.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (seated) and Susan B. Anthony started working together in 1851. The two women made a great team. Anthony managed the business affairs of the women's rights movement while Stanton did most of the writing. Together they edited and published a woman's newspaper, the Revolution, from 1868 to 1870. In 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. They traveled all over the country and abroad, promoting woman's rights, and the two women worked marvelously together. Mrs. Stanton was a master of words and could write to perfection. Anthony was the skilled orator of the team. Anthony made the speeches that Stanton wrote. They were the perfect partnership and yet sadly did not live to see their dream become law.

The amendment was the culmination of more than 70 years of struggle by woman suffragists. Its two sections read simply: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” and “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

On Saturday, August 22, what would have been my grandmothers 120th birthday, the The League of Women Voters of Savannah hosted a parade commemorating the historic event and again we gathered. We rode in open cars through the historic streets cheering and waving the Suffragette flags our grandmothers, great grandmother and great-great grandmothers before us raised. Now and forever, the vote is rightfully hers.

My grandmother, Kathryn Leete Terhune, around 1930; an active member of the League of Women Voters.

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