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April 8, 2011 > History of women's suffrage

History of women's suffrage

By Jessica Noel Waymire

How far have American women come in the last hundred years? Women's suffrage, granting women the right to vote and hold office, is fairly recent history. It was just one hundred years ago that the state of California became the sixth state in the nation to grant women the right to vote. How have we as a state, and a nation, been impacted by the involvement of women in the political arena?

The movement to grant women the right to vote in the United States began in the mid-1800s. But the Civil War and the end of slavery soon overshadowed initial campaigns in New York. In 1869 two organizations emerged to fight with more urgency for women's rights: the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. They eventually merged to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association and campaigned at state and national levels for the right of women to vote, hold office, and own property.

Two women in particular were most prominent in the early women's rights movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Stanton had some difficulty participating more actively in the movement, as she did not have the full support of her family. She wrote letters in her limited free time while tending to the needs of a growing family. Anthony, who collaborated with Stanton on numerous suffrage efforts, had considerably more energy to commit to the cause. She remained unmarried and dedicated her life to the achievement of women's rights. Stanton died 14 years before the constitutional amendment finally passed.

Women's suffrage was not a welcome concept to many in the 19th century, when women first began to press for their rights as fellow citizens. Those opposed to women's suffrage believed that a woman's place was in the home; her primary sphere of influence should be that of caring for her husband and children, not "gadding the streets and neglecting her children." In an article opposing the proposed constitutional amendment, J. B. Sanford, a senator and Chairman of the Democratic Caucus of California, cited statistics claiming an increase in divorce rates and crime in states where suffrage had already been granted.

Men were not the only ones opposing this political shift; there were a number of women who resisted this change as well. They feared that women's moral influence would be compromised by participating in an area they believed better suited for men. Cartoons from the opposition portrayed the devil tempting women with power. Other caricatures contrasted happy, elegant homemakers with unfeminine looking women neglecting their children while protesting in the streets. In spite of these efforts, the 19th amendment was added to the United States Constitution in 1920, prohibiting any U.S. citizen from being denied the right to vote based on gender.

What difference has this campaign made? According to a newsletter from the League of Women Voters of San Francisco, today more women vote than men, women have recently gained a slight majority in the workforce, and just as many women attend college as men.

Society has changed dramatically since our Victorian foremothers began the arduous fight for our freedom. Being a wife and mother isn't the only option anymore; young women can now seek a college education and a career other than teacher or nurse. Women have something to contribute and are able to do so without being entirely silenced. The choices to have children or not, to participate in the workforce or be a homemaker, are equally valid and are ours to make.

Unfortunately, women are still underrepresented in government with only 17 percent of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives being female. In California, Diane Feinstein has been the only female to be elected mayor of San Francisco, and just this year Jean Quan was sworn in as Oakland's first female mayor. If women do not have equal representation in legislative offices, women's issues will be sidelined. As an example, while more women than men are likely to complete a bachelor's degree (and achieve higher grades while doing it), women continue to earn less than men in the workplace.

The great women who have gone before us have left us a tremendous legacy. What will we do with what they have given us? We have come a long way in the last hundred years. Let's make the next hundred even better for our daughters.

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