Thursday, June 05, 2008

We've Come a Long Way, Baby

On June 4, 1919, Congress approved the 19th Amendment, (also known as the women's suffrage amendment) and sent it out to the states to ratify.

Women fought for over 70 years to gain the right to vote. Susan B. Anthony devoted her life to the movement. Elizabeth Cady Stanton began working for suffrage, and later moved into all areas of women's rights - while raising 7 children, at a time when there were no washing machines, computers, or telephones. She wrote at least 6 books, and innumerable pamphlets, periodicals, and other statements. These women were partners in the suffrage struggle, yet neither lived to see women get the vote.

Alice Paul was a leader in the last push toward the vote, heading the National Women's Party. Other suffrage groups at the time were focused on lobbying for individual states to give women voting rights. The NWP chose to lobby for a constitutional amendment. These young firebrands were not beloved by the women who had dominated the suffrage movement for decades. The women of the NWP had a huge suffrage parade on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, hoping to take advantage of the expanded media presence in Washington. The parade was disrupted at several points by angry mobs. The police turned a blind eye to the violence of the mob. It is interesting to note that most men thought that women should stay home and be cherished little darlings, yet had no compunctions about beating them up in the streets.

In January of 1917, frustrated at Wilson’s unwillingness to promote (or even discuss) a constitutional amendment the women of the NWP began a silent demonstration in front of the White House. The daily picketing continued for two months, regardless of the weather. On March 4, over 1,000 women marched around the White House, on the eve of Wilson’s second inauguration. In April of 1917, the US entered WWI. By summer, the picketers began to encounter resistance. Demonstrating during wartime was considered an outrage, (my, how history repeats) and so the women began to be beaten, harassed, and arrested. Once again, the police ignored the violence against the women. Guantanamo Bay was not an option at that time, so the women were sent to a prison in Virginia. They demanded to be treated as political prisoners, and when their demands were ignored they went on a hunger strike. Alice Paul was put in a psychiatric unit (in an attempt to discredit her) and force fed three times a day. Word of the torture these women were undergoing did get out to the media, and traveled around the world, tarnishing the US reputation in other countries. Again, history repeats. After enough stories of torture and ill treatment were leaked the public pressure became strong enough that the women were released, and Wilson decided to support the suffrage amendment. (This a very condensed version of the story.)

We’ve seen two historic presidential campaigns over the last 16 months. Barack Obama is not the first African American to run for president, but he is the first to become the nominee of one of the two major US political parties. Senator Hillary Clinton is not the first woman to run for president, but she is the first to be viewed as a serious contender, the first to nearly win her party’s nomination. Considering that a little over a century ago women were the property of men, this is a huge leap forward toward equality.

Senator Clinton was often the subject of media sexism. There were endless comments about her appearance, her laugh, her tears, and her voice. The party who had the shrillest candidate of all – Ron Paul - dared to call her “Shrillary”. There were the Hillary “nutcrackers” for sale. The fear created by a powerful, ambitious woman is astonishing. On the other hand, sometimes gender worked in her favor. Clinton was not subjected to endless lapel scrutiny or ruthless questioning about her ongoing lack of a flag pin. Her church affiliations were ignored completely by the right wing corporate media – a media that seemingly embraced and supported her candidacy.

Now, we’re being told that angry Clinton supporters, feeling their candidate didn’t get a fair shake because of her gender, plan to vote for McCain. The mind boggles. We’re supposed to believe that angry feminists will cast a vote for a right wing Republican who has a terrible voting record on women’s issues and will most assuredly nominate more fascist activist judges to the Supreme Court to ensure his stated goal of overturning Roe v. Wade? I have a hard time believing that is even an option – that women would cut off their noses to spite their wombs. Any woman who is considering that should get out her copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and re-read it.

I was often badgered about my failure to support Senator Clinton’s candidacy, and told on more than one occasion that it was my duty to vote for her, because she is a woman. I responded by pointing out that women my age worked hard for equal rights for women, and that by rejecting Senator Clinton as just another candidate I could not support, I was giving her the compliment of treating her as an equal. That said, I hope I live long enough to see a woman elected president, and I’m sorry I was unable to support Senator Clinton. I was unable to support ANY primary candidate who voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. I was unable to support a candidate who voted for the Patriot Act. My ovaries go into the voting booth with me, but they don’t hold the pencil.

I’m grateful to Senator Clinton for her candidacy, and paving the way for the next woman to run. We’ve come a long way, baby.

“I've always met more discrimination being a woman than being black.” Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman and presidential candidate.

For a detailed chronology of the National Women’s Party:

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