Suffrage and suffering Celebrating women’s hard-fought right to vote

Suffragettes | Wikimedia commons


Editor’s note: The Democratic Women of Monterey County luncheon at which Bettina Aptheker was scheduled to speak has been cancelled due to the coronavirus. “We do not feel our luncheons provide the social distance required to effectively delay rates of transmission,” according to Kate Daniels Kurz, president of the organization.

By Kathryn McKenzie

For much of history, women had few, if any rights at all. The right to vote came particularly late — just a century ago — and most of us in the 21st century have no idea of the bitter struggle that it took to make it reality.

And as Dr. Bettina Aptheker points out, not even all women got the right to vote in 1920, when the 19th Amendment was ratified. It would not be until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed that Black women were fully included.

Aptheker, a legendary UC Santa Cruz professor of feminist studies and author, was scheduled to be the featured speaker at the “Women’s Suffrage Centennial: 100 Years of the 19th Amendment” luncheon hosted by Democratic Women of Monterey County on March 19 in Monterey. The event has since been cancelled due to fears of the coronavirus

The right to vote, which in modern America seems passé to many, was a hard-fought privilege for women and people of color, originating at a time when they were viewed as less intelligent than white men. Suffrage — a word that comes from the Latin term for a voting tablet — seems similar to suffering, although the words have completely different origins.

Nevertheless, there was suffering in suffrage, over many decades that saw women jailed, tortured, belittled and besmirched for daring to want to vote.

Aptheker, author of the memoir “Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel,” will talk about how women’s suffrage was woven together with the civil rights movement, and how Black activists and women supported each other in the fight to vote. A distinguished professor emerita, she has taught at UCSC for more than four decades, and is married to Kate Miller, who taught women’s studies at Monterey Peninsula College for many years.

Aptheker’s own background has been steeped in activism and feminism. Born in 1944, she grew up as a “Red Diaper Baby,” the child of a union organizer and a Marxist historian. She was a leader in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in 1964, and in the 1970s, worked to defend Angela Davis, a longtime friend and fellow Communist Party member, in her high-profile trial.

Apetheker has been teaching feminist studies at UCSC since 1980, and earned her doctorate there in the History of Consciousness program. She is passionate about the need for people to know and remember the hard work and sacrifice that it took for all U.S. citizens to vote.

“The idea of women’s rights was a very radical idea,” said Aptheker, since for thousands of years, women were expected to be obedient, denied education, could not own property, and if they worked, had to turn over all their wages to their husbands.

But when the idea of women’s rights arose in the early 1800s, voting was a prime topic of discussion. Because they didn’t have the right to vote, women argued, they were forced to submit to laws to which they did not consent.

The suffrage movement in the United States traces its roots to the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first major women’s rights gathering in the United States. The organizers published a Declaration of Sentiments that declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal.” And of the 11 resolutions passed during the Seneca Falls Convention, all but one passed unanimously, and that was the resolution calling for the right to vote.

“It was proposed and no one would second it. They were too afraid,” said Aptheker. The motion was ultimately seconded by a man — the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Thus began more than 70 years of conflict between women working for suffrage and those who did not believe women should have that right. Activists were called “suffragettes,” originally a disparaging term, and they staged parades and protests, wrote letters and essays, and did not stop.

Some of the arguments against women voting seem laughable now, but were taken seriously in the 19th century. Some said that women given the right to vote would become infertile if they taxed their brains with too much thinking. Others called women too emotional and flighty to be given such a powerful responsibility.

Slowly, women did gain the right to vote in certain states, but they still could not participate in federal elections. The conundrum was that women’s right to vote was dependent on men voting for it, Aptheker said.

Suffragettes’ secret weapon in all this was that Black men were sympathetic to their cause, since many women in the suffrage movement were also abolitionists who sought to end slavery. Black men were given the right to vote after the Civil War, and although this led to terrible violence in the South, Aptheker said, “Black men in the North voted and were supportive.”

And although women’s suffrage was basically a white women’s movement, Black women also played an essential role, according to Aptheker. Women like Mary Church Terrell, who championed racial equality, and journalist Ida B. Wells, who wrote about lynchings and segregation, both also worked for women’s right to vote.

Black women weren’t guaranteed the right to vote until 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

Another figure that Aptheker recalls in the suffrage battle was Alice Paul, leader of the National Woman’s Party, who with more than 1,000 others picketed the White House daily during most of 1917. Their beginning tactic was to stand silently, dressed all in white, and holding signs that said, “How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?” and “Mr. President, What Will You Do For Woman Suffrage?”

But over the months, protests escalated and many women were arrested, including Paul, who was incarcerated for seven months. When she organized hunger strikes, Paul was held down and force-fed.

Public sympathy finally began to align with the activists, and “despite a very rocky path, the 19th Amendment cleared Congress,” said Aptheker, although the white Southerner delegation did their best to delay it. Three-quarters of the states needed to vote for the amendment, with the crucial vote coming in Tennessee, where it was ratified by one vote — by “a man named Harry Burn, who said if he had not voted for it, his mother would have killed him,” said Aptheker.

That was August 1920, and that Nov. 2, more than 8 million women voted in the United States for the first time.

Fast-forward to today, and groups like Democratic Women of Monterey County are still working to encourage gender and racial diversity among its membership as well as in elected officials. DWMC president Kate Daniels Kurz said that the struggle for suffrage “was intertwined with the struggle against racism.” The club formed in 2004 and now has nearly 200 members, with prominent local, state and national speakers featured at its events each year.

Aptheker calls the people who suffered for suffrage “really heroic,” and said their sacrifices should not be forgotten, or taken lightly. “I urge everyone to vote. People died for your right to vote. Even if you just write someone in.”

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Kathryn McKenzie

About Kathryn McKenzie

Kathryn McKenzie grew up in Santa Cruz, worked for the Monterey Herald for 10 years, and now freelances for a variety of publications and websites. She and husband Glenn Church are the co-authors of "Humbled: How California's Monterey Bay Escaped Industrial Ruin" (Vista Verde Publishing, 2020).