Background: Women and the Right to Vote
On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, thereby extending every American woman the right to vote. The amendment’s passage was a result of many factors, but largely due to the efforts of Alice Paul.
Paul, the New Jersey-born creator of the suffragist group the National Woman’s Party (NWP), spent the 1900s in London, helping the British feminist Pankhurst family obtain the franchise for women through militant means and civil disobedience. She came back to the US in the 1910s to work for American women’s suffrage. As head of the NWP, she organized suffragists to lobby Congress members, picket the White House, get arrested for these peaceful protests, and go on hunger strikes while imprisoned in order to get the amendment passed.
Suffrage at Radcliffe…
Although most suffrage advocacy work was happening in Washington, DC, Harvard and Radcliffe students in Cambridge were nonetheless active in the cause. Maud Wood Park Radcliffe 1898, a suffragist, attended the 1900 convention of the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), the largest suffrage organization in the country at the time. Dismayed to find that she was the youngest woman in attendance, she and fellow Radcliffe alum Inez Haynes Irwin established the College Equal Suffrage League to encourage young women to fight for the right to vote.
Under the auspices of the League, Park toured the country, going from college to college to motivate women undergraduates to support suffrage. She was wildly successful, as new chapters of the League were started in 30 states. Realizing that Park had the right idea, NAWSA began to actively recruit college women in 1906, and the League became an official branch of NAWSA in 1908.
Suffrage Consciousness-Raising at Harvard
The Crimson reports that there were several lectures made available to Harvard students about suffrage throughout the 1910s. The Harvard Men’s League for Woman Suffrage hosted several of these speeches, including one in 1911 delivered by Emmeline Pankhurst, a member of the British suffragist family. Because of Pankhurst’s militant methods, her inclusion in the speaker series was controversial, leading Harvard officials to bar her from speaking on campus. Due to student backlash, she was finally allowed to speak at Brattle Hall (the current Brattle Theater).
The Harvard chapter of the Equal Suffrage League sponsored other speeches given at Harvard about suffrage. In 1913, The Crimson discussed a lecture given in Emerson D titled “How the Women Recalled Judge Weller of San Francisco.” The Crimson labels the presenter as a “non-militant supporter of equal suffrage,” carefully differentiating between this speaker and the Pankhurst who had provoked so much debate two years prior. The next year, the League brought Desha Breckinridge, a prominent suffragist, to campus to speak about “Votes for Women” in Emerson D. In 1915, a panel discussion moderated by a Harvard alum between a suffragist and anti-suffragist titled “Pro and Con of Suffrage” was held in the Old Cambridge Baptist Church.
These lectures and others like them had the desired effect on the student body, as Harvard and Radcliffe undergrads began to support suffrage in droves. “The result cannot be other than a steady improvement in the moral plane of American political, social, and economic life,” an anonymous author in The Crimson opined in 1919, after the Senate passed the amendment.
“College women should realize their debt to the pioneers who have made our education and competence possible. They should be made to feel the obligation of their opportunities and to understand that one of the ways to pay that debt is to fight the battle for suffrage now in the quarter of the field in which it is still unwon,” Maud Wood Park wrote in 1908.
Although she penned these words 100 years ago, if the word “suffrage” was replaced with “feminism,” they could have been written by any contemporary blogger. College women must be aware of the feminists who came before them, those brave individuals who fought against sexism so they would have opportunities for success. Although the battle for suffrage has already been won, there are still so many feminist goals that have yet to be attained. We must protect all of our hard-earned rights and continue to fight for full equality. It’s just part of our legacy as American women.