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19th Amendment at 100: IU historians delve into diversity of women’s suffrage movement

Aug 26, 2020

As the United States marks 100 years since the 19th Amendment went into effect, officially granting women the right to vote on Aug. 26, 1920, the centennial has inspired many historians to take another look at the decades-long effort of suffragists in Indiana and across the country.

“There’s something about a commemoration of an event that makes historians go back and start digging around in the documents some more, to see what’s there,” said Anita Morgan, a senior lecturer of history in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. “I think that for women’s suffrage in particular, it’s been really good that that has happened. With new technology and with so many sources digitized, a lot of this has been out here, but we just haven’t had as ready access to it.”

As Morgan did research for her recent book, “We Must Be Fearless: The Woman Suffrage Movement in Indiana,” she discovered new information about the involvement of African American suffrage clubs, working-class groups and immigrant women pushing for suffrage.

“There was so much that we didn’t know and couldn’t know because the sources had been so difficult to get access to,” Morgan said. “So, the whole thing has been surprising, revealing and quite frankly a lot of fun.”

Wendy Gamber, chair of the Department of History in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, concurs Morgan’s point that women of color were left out of consideration as prominent figures in the suffrage movement.

“We think of the suffrage movement as a two-woman show directed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in large part because they wrote the monumental multi-volume “History of Woman Suffrage” – starring themselves,” Gamber said. “Historians such as Lisa Tetrault, Martha S. Jones and Cathleen Cahill have challenged the Anthony-Stanton myth and the belief that suffrage was a white middle-class movement.

“I’m delighted that the centennial of the 19th Amendment is generating coverage in the popular media that features Black suffragists, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida Wells-Barnett, Mary Church Terrell and Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Native suffragists such as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin and Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin.”

The initial spark of the women’s suffrage movement in Indiana can be traced back to a women’s rights convention in October of 1851, Morgan said. Women and men attended the convention in Dublin, Indiana, to adopt resolutions for women’s rights and to form the Indiana Women’s Rights Association.

“The resolutions were not just about suffrage,” Morgan said. “They asked for equal education for women, equal pay – which is the earliest I’ve seen that particular resolution appear for equal labor.”

Several times throughout the movement, women came close to securing their right to vote. In 1881, Morgan said, the state legislature passed a law that said women should be allowed to vote in Indiana. But the amendment had to pass through two different sessions of the state legislature, which met every other year. This meant it had to pass in both 1881 and 1883, but it had disappeared from the record at the 1883 session.

“That two-year time period is another significant milestone for Indiana women,” Morgan said. “And it’s a sad one, but I think it really brought a lot more women into thinking, ‘Well why can’t women vote? Why did this happen?’ and redoubling their efforts to get the vote.”

After some time had passed and the movement expanded with more diversity of involvement in the 1910s, Morgan said, women once again thought they were going to be able to vote. The Indiana General Assembly passed three laws in 1917 that led Hoosier women to believe they might achieve partial suffrage rights. However, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled this to be unconstitutional.

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“In the summer of 1917, when literally tens of thousands of Hoosier women registered to vote because they thought they were going to be able to vote that fall, and then they couldn’t, that was both heartbreaking and good,” Morgan said. “Good for getting more women to say, ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Well, if we can’t get the vote in the state, then we need to support the federal amendment.’”

Three years later, after the end of World War I, the 19th Amendment was finally approved and ratified in 1920. All of the petitions, lobbying, suffrage club meetings, networking, participation in war work and other efforts had finally been recognized.

“It took three generations of women before women got the vote,” Morgan said.

Although the amendment went into effect in 1920, many women, particularly women of color, were blocked from actually exercising their right to vote.

“They faced a lot of obstacles, even though it was an amendment to the Constitution,” said Lisa-Marie Napoli, director of Political and Civic Engagement in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington. “They have the constitutional right to show up and vote, but many of them were kept from the polls, because of loopholes that were created, or new kinds of guidelines or restrictions that polling sites tried to impose. And I would say especially women of color, they were disproportionately disadvantaged. Even though they had the right, their access was denied in a variety of ways, which was just another revolting example of the history of discrimination in our country.”

The 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage comes at a pivotal time, as Americans will vote for president in November in the midst of a global pandemic.

“Progress has been made, and we want to acknowledge and commemorate it,” Napoli said. “It’s a time to celebrate, but we’re not really looking at it as a celebration as much as a time to talk about it and find ways to envision a future that’s more receptive to women as leaders in our country.”

Napoli hopes that as women celebrate 100 years of suffrage, they’ll show up to the polls in November in equal numbers to the proportion of the population they represent. It’s important, she said, for voting to be as accessible as possible for everyone, and for politicians to represent the communities they serve.

“We want our political leadership to look like the population it represents, and we have a lot of work to get there, not only in terms of the faces of women and the roles of women, but the faces and the roles of people of color from different minority groups as well,” Napoli said. “It’s hard to talk about women’s rights and women’s progress without thinking about the same for people of color, especially Black people in our country. And for women of color, honestly, it’s a double whammy that they are dealing with.”

The PACE program has been involved in the Big Ten Voting Challenge, with the goal of getting 100 percent voter registration on campus. She stresses the importance of college students and disadvantaged populations registering to vote to help remove obstacles for everyone.

“I mean, my goodness, we’ve made progress,” Napoli said. “And it’s a time to acknowledge that and stamp that, and also to acknowledge and stamp the fact that we still have a lot more work that needs to be done.”

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