Given the misogyny on open display in our nation’s capital, and sordid revelations of the #MeToo era, it’s not unreasonable to question how much progress we have really made since U.S. women got the right to vote 100 years ago. Revisiting the battle helps provide the long view.
My grandfather always told me I had suffragette ancestors, but that was just part of my hazy Quaker heritage until I began researching a Variety story about how showbiz responded to the women’s suffrage movement over the decades. While doing so, I learned that my great-great-grandmother was president of the Women’s Suffrage League of Swarthmore, Pa., during the 1890s. Among saved mementos in my brother’s possession: a program for a Suffrage Sociable at her house and newspaper clippings from her lifetime.
More from Variety
“TAFT IS HISSED BY SUFFRAGISTS” blares one Washington Post article from 1910: the front page story notes that the sitting president received that response after telling the assembled crowd that he wasn’t sure the right woman would vote and the vote might be done by the least desirable people.
Born in 1849, Elizabeth Nicholson Garrett lived long enough to get the right to vote, dying the same year her grandson Sylvester married Molly Yard, who became president of the National Organization for Women at 75, after decades of fighting for the ERA passage and other feminist causes. (We never met, alas.) My own grandmother Rosamond, born in England in 1909 without the right to vote, never took that right for granted once she came of age in America: Well into her advanced years, she volunteered with her local League of Women Voters on Election Day. When I was young, my mother could not open a credit card in her own name.
As the PBS series “The Vote” repeatedly stresses toward its conclusion, people don’t give up power lightly. Suffragists including Alice Paul (another Quaker) were willing to be beaten and force fed in prison, just as John Lewis was willing to be beaten in Selma, Ala., and protesters calling for racial equality today are risking teargas and worse.
So go ahead and laugh at barbs about women’s libbers who wear the pants in the family — a taunt hurled at suffragettes 100 years ago and still tossed around today. Progress has definitely been made, but there’s more work to do.
(Photo of suffragists picketing the White House in 1917, from the Library of Congress and depicted in the PBS series “The Vote.”)