(Image from “The Declaration of Sentiments,” Women’s Rights Historical Park, The National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/declaration-of-sentiments.htm. This was the statement promulgated in 1848 at meeting regarding women’s rights held in New York. It is commonly called the Seneca Falls Convention. Notice that Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were among the authors.)
In A Balm in Gilead (to be published in early 2021), Maggie continues to find herself – unwillingly – taking on a larger role in the town of Blaineton. Early in the novel, husband Eli provides a rather powerful argument for her involvement in the town’s political life, but Maggie still demurs:
Eli says, “… [the people] lack a leader. Someone to encourage them. Someone who listens to them and advises them. Politics is a give and take process, Maggie. The leader inspires the people, the people respond, and then the leader works with them and encourages them more as they work toward their goal.”
“Yes, well,” she muttered, “I’m hardly a leader, Elijah. Women are neither leaders nor politicians. It’s just not done.”
Maggie responds this way because, in the nineteenth century, women and politics were not supposed to mix. It was an era in which women began lifting their voices, organizing in greater numbers, and putting pressure on established attitudes and laws, efforts that were highly controversial. In the end, though, all the hard work, ridicule, and dedication led to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, an amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote. (“Teach a Girl to Lead”)
We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of that Amendment this year. The uglier, more frightening, and louder aspects of 2020 have tried to drown that anniversary out. Just the same, it is something to celebrate this year. The Amendment exists and won’t go away unless we allow it to be taken away.
Now here’s the kicker: the assumption is that women could not vote before 1920. Well, that wrong assumption is wrong. Do you know that before 1920 women already were voting in many parts of the United States? They were! Women were casting ballots in five territories: Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Montana, and Alaska. They also could vote in fifteen states: Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Please note that all but one of the territories continued female suffrage after they became states! Additionally, the following states allowed women to vote for President: Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. (“Teach a Girl to Lead”)
Here are the states that did not permit women to vote. Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and West Virginia. (“Teach a Girl to Lead”)
A quick glance at the last list reveals that states that did not permit women to vote were mainly the founding colonies (except for New York) of the United States, and states that had been part of the Confederate States of America. When I saw the list on paper, or rather on my computer screen, I wondered, “How come? Why would the colonies who fought for the right of self-representation withhold the vote from women? And why did the Southern states keep the franchise away from women?”
I haven’t been able to engage in researching the question yet, so I’m going to provide a couple of guesses based on what I know thus far. Let’s deal with the Southern states first because the answer seems rather obvious to me. From 1860-1865, they were engaged in a war. From 1865 into the 1870s, they were reeling from defeat and struggling to recover. It is not improbable that an issue like women’s rights would have been pushed to the back burner. I’m not saying that a movement for women’s rights did not exist in the South, rather I am suggesting the political powers that be chose to deal with the other issues.
Now, what about the states formed from the original colonies? Why did they refuse to offer women the right to vote? I suspect that the answer lies in the fact that they had long-established European and colonial political traditions and attitudes that would have shaped their view of women and women's rights.
However, things were different for Euro-Americans who moved westward. They were open to votes for women. I believe part of this may be because the westward bound immigrants were forced to adapt and innovate as they found themselves in new surroundings and situations. Thus their societal and political norms needed to be more than fluid than they were back East or down South. Out West, life and politics were an “all-hands-on-deck” experience that encouraged men to recognize women’s abilities and intelligence. Why not let the ladies vote? After all, Sally over there just wrestled a grizzly bear to the ground. (Okay, I’m being humorous, but you get my drift.)
Also, allow me to add that neither Hawaii nor Alaska are included in the pre-1920 state listings about voting rights for women. There are some reasons for that. Alaska did not become a state until 3 January 1959, while Hawaii became a territory in 1900 and attained statehood on 21 August 1959. So, they came into the USA long after 1920.
In the Saint Maggie series, Maggie’s home is the state of New Jersey, which did not guarantee suffrage to women until the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Like most of the original 13 colonies, New Jersey was a latecomer to female suffrage. But, wait a minute! Not so fast. The case of New Jersey’s relationship with female suffrage is a bit stranger than it seems at first glance. Good old NJ has an unusual history regarding women’s suffrage.
I don’t know why I should be surprised at this. My home state has been known to approach human rights in an odd, sometimes mind-boggling way. For instance, of all the Northeastern states, we were the last to end slavery, and this was because we chose the route of gradual manumission rather than immediate abolition. As a result, our 1860 census included several individuals who, although not classified outright as such, were still enslaved people.
And so, my next blog will look at New Jersey’s twisted history regarding women’s suffrage. Strap yourselves in. It's a roller coaster ride. Kind of.
Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving! I know things are radically different this year, but if we play this right, Thanksgiving 2021 will be more familiar.
Stay well, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Teach a Girl to Lead: Women’s Suffrage by State, compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder