How Organizations in the Brandywine Valley and Beyond are Celebrating Women’s Suffrage
The movement’s centennial is being marked by museum exhibits, special events and more throughout 2020.
Pennsylvania Rep. Carolyn Comitta is proud to be a direct descendant of Abigail Adams. But when she speaks to audiences about women’s rights, she often shares her dismay that Abigail’s husband, John, didn’t always heed his forward-thinking spouse’s advice. When the United States’ second president was serving as a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress in 1776, his wife had a few requests:
“In the new code of laws, which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Alas, the Founding Fathers didn’t heed her advice. And just as Abigail predicted, the women of America fomented their own revolution. Without the benefit of social media, they came together to fight for the most fundamental right of a democracy—to cast their vote. Celebrating its centennial in 2020, the women’s suffrage movement did nothing less than change the world, inspiring future generations to continue the fight for fair and equal treatment. Celebrated Philadelphia artist and playwright Gilletta Gigi McGraw points out that women and men of all races and socioeconomic levels fought for women’s suffrage. “Many blacks were pushing for the right for women to vote at the same time they were trying to make people adhere to the 14th Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote,” she says.
Plans are underway across the country to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which made women’s right to vote in all elections part of the U.S. Constitution. In Seneca Falls, N.Y., Wesleyan Chapel—site of the first women’s rights convention— has received a much-needed facelift that includes new space for exhibits and events. Farther south, Turning Point Suffragist Memorial Association is working with the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority to raise funds for the site of the Occoquan Workhouse in Fairfax, Va., where detained suffragists endured hardships following public protests.
In Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery hosts Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence through Jan. 5, 2020. It contrasts the successes of the women’s rights movement with examples of how black suffragists were ignored. At the Library of Congress, Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote collects the original letters and personal papers of Susan B. Anthony and other leaders for an exhibit running through September 2020. And Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote features the original 19th Amendment and 90 other historic documents. It runs through Jan. 5, 2021, at D.C.’s National Archives Museum.
In Philadelphia, Drexel University’s Vision 2020 has spearheaded Women 100, a yearlong series of programs and events that includes an interactive exhibition at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, film screenings, and more. On Aug. 25, 2020, the Justice Bell—a Liberty Bell replica commissioned in 1915 by Philadelphia suffragist Katherine Wentworth Ruschenberger—will leave its home in Washington Memorial Chapel on the grounds of Valley Forge National Historical Park and travel to Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia for a “Toast to Tenacity” celebration in conjunction with Vision 2020.
Even closer to home, the Brandywine River Museum of Art is mounting Votes for Women: A Visual History on Feb. 1, 2020. Running through June 7, the exhibition explores how the social justice movement got its message across through illustrations, political cartoons, flags, banners and film.
The spark that ignited the women’s rights movement in America actually began on foreign soil. In 1840, George and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and James and Lucretia Mott attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. Sitting apart from their husbands behind curtains in the gallery, Elizabeth and Lucretia mused, “Here we are, fighting for the freedoms of the Negro, which include the right to vote, when we ourselves do not enjoy this privilege.”
Eight years later, the two women held a convention at the Methodist Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls to discuss the social, civil and religious rights of women. During the hot and steamy days of July 19 and 20, Stanton revised America’s founding documents. Titled the Declaration of Sentiments, the amended Declaration of Independence stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.”
The convention’s 300 delegates considered each of the Declaration of Sentiments’ 16 articles. It may surprise some today that the only article that didn’t receive unanimous approval was the one that provided women’s suffrage.
Two years later, the first national women’s rights convention was organized by Lucy Stone in Worcester, Mass., attracting more than 1,000 people from almost a dozen states. Later, at the Ohio’s Women’s Conference in 1851, former slave Sojourner Truth energized the audience with her fiery, “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, concluding, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again. And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them!”
In 1878, Susan B. Anthony presented a petition with 10,000 signatures to the U.S. Senate asking for an amendment to the Constitution that would allow women to vote in any election. It was defeated. The same petition would be introduced and defeated repeatedly for the next 40 years. Meanwhile, the suffrage movement limped along, sidetracked by other pressing social concerns, disagreements in approach, and simple lethargy.
The movement came back to life on March 3, 1913, when Alice Paul orchestrated a massive parade in Washington, D.C. A breathtaking sea of 5,000 women dressed in white made its way down Pennsylvania Avenue, followed by marching bands and lavishly decorated floats. Showing their support for the movement despite being generally relegated to the sidelines, black women marched, too. Organizers wanted to take advantage of the attention already focused on Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration, which was scheduled for the next day. And though some men threw garbage as they passed, the brilliantly orchestrated event showed the world what women were capable of.
In 1917, Paul grew frustrated with the plodding pace of the suffrage movement and began organized picketing of the White House. She and her followers, dubbed “silent sentinels” by the press, held signs that implored, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Police began arresting the picketers for “obstructing traffic,” fining them $25 plus costs. When the women refused to pay the fine, the police sent them to the horrid Occoquan Workhouse, where they were beaten and fed maggot-infested food.
Authorities made an example of Paul, sentencing her to seven months in jail. She staged a hunger strike, and the gruesome pictures of jailers force-feeding her and others went viral (in today’s vernacular). An outraged American public finally began to show sympathy for the movement. Bowing to that pressure, police released the women.
Soon enough, there was a surge of support on the federal level. On June 4, 1919, Congress passed the Suffrage Amendment, with the requirement that three quarters of the 48 states had to ratify it. Ten months later, 35 had complied, and the suffragists needed the support of just one more state. They descended on Delaware, thinking they could easily convince its legislators to vote in their favor. In the end, Delaware demurred, and suffragists descended on Tennessee, which complied on Aug. 18, 1920. Eight days later, 72 years after the Seneca Falls convention, the 19th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution. That November, over 26 million American women voted in a national election for the first time.
It’s no coincidence that the 2017 Women’s March on Washington harkens back to its 1913 counterpart. This time, though, women, men and children filled major thoroughfares and side streets wearing the pink knitted caps made especially for the event. Today, 131 women are serving in Congress, one holds the gavel as speaker of the House, and several are running for our nation’s highest office.
Abigail—and, most likely, John—would be impressed.