Thursday, August 18, 2016

How women got the right to vote (and how PBS covered it in a documentary)



"Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of Electors for President and Vice-President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the executive and judicial officers of a State, or the members of the legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State."

- Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified 1868), Section 2 - a major barrier to the enactment of women's suffrage before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, because of the word "male"

I had a sort of request from one of my female readers to do something about women's history. Up until that point, I had thought that women would not like hearing things about women's history coming from a man (such as myself); but considered at that point that women might also dislike the idea of their history being left out - which is not a fair perception for my particular blog, I might suggest (since I have talked about it indirectly, in posts about other things), but one that might be perceived nonetheless on the part of some women, if I didn't actually go out and write something specifically on women's history. Thinking "darned if I do, darned if I don't" (or something along those lines), I thought "What the heck?", and decided to write about women's history after all. (If you don't like the idea of women's history written by a man, then by all means, don't read this; but if you're not bothered by the masculine coverage of feminine history, then you're entirely welcome to read this post.)


Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: The central figures of this documentary

Thus, I set out to write a post about two of the great feminists of the women's suffrage movement, which are Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. These were both depicted in a Ken Burns film called "Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony" (which was later broadcast on PBS). I imagine that Ken Burns and writer Geoffrey C. Ward (both men) also found themselves in the same uncomfortable position that I described for myself, which may have been why they dedicated this film to their daughters, and the other women in their lives. In that same spirit, I set out to give my review of this film; perhaps one that will be read by my future children and other descendants - which will likely include females, who will wonder what I said about their gender's history; and who I cannot let myself disappoint in my coverage here.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her two sons, 1848


Susan B. Anthony, 1848



The first women's rights convention: "All men and women are created equal"

Both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were present at the first women's rights convention in the United States - which was held at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Many credit this convention with inaugurating the women's rights movement in the United States, and there is truth in this - the women's suffrage movement, in particular, owes much to this convention. This presented Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Declaration of Sentiments," which modeled some of its language on the earlier Declaration of Independence. Most radically for the time, it proclaimed that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal" - a change whose radical departure with tradition would have been painfully obvious to the people present. The resolution to support women's suffrage also owed much to a famous male reformer who was present there, which was none other than the abolitionist (and former slave) Frederick Douglass - long a champion of giving the vote to his fellow African-Americans, and who saw giving the vote to women as a sister cause, in the campaign for black enfranchisement.


Frederick Douglass, 1848

The Fourteenth Amendment contained a sexist passage in it which drew the ire of women

But the two movements would clash later, in the battle over the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment - which said, on the one hand, that all persons born or naturalized in the United States were citizens of the United States (and of the State that they lived in), regardless of race or gender; but which said also, on the other hand, that the vote was restricted to males (in effect) because it added the word "male" into the Constitution for the first time - something that was sure to anger feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Frederick Douglass argued that the greatest outrages in the land were committed against black people, and not against women. One of the feminists present responded that the outrages committed against black people included outrages against black women, to which Frederick Douglass replied (in effect): "These outrages are not committed against them because they are women, but because they are black." The effect of this debate was to divide the black women present, some of whom agreed with Frederick Douglass, and others of whom agreed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. To make a long story short, the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, dealing a serious blow to the cause of women's suffrage. (Although it did grant citizenship to women and blacks - which was something that was not part of the Constitution until then.) Nonetheless, it was a blow for Stanton and Anthony; and it should be noted that although some individual states granted women the right to vote soon after (with the first of them being Wyoming and Utah), universal suffrage for American women would not be won until many decades later.


Frederick Douglass, circa 1860's

African American males got the vote 50 years before the females of any race did

The two movements clashed once again in the battle over the Fifteenth Amendment, which said that the vote could not be denied to citizens on the basis of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude" - which was a huge victory for black suffrage; but not a victory for women's suffrage, because it failed to mention gender among these categories. Stanton and Anthony argued that separating the issues would hinder the women's movement for decades, while Frederick Douglass argued (in effect) that any extension of suffrage (to some who didn't have it before) was better than no extension at all - pointing out that neither movement had sufficient control of the issue to get both issues addressed at once. To make a long story short, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed in 1870 - some 50 years before the vote was extended to women. (Women's suffrage would have to wait for a long time.)


Women's suffragists parade in New York City, 1917 (three years before women actually got the vote)

Women only got the right to vote after these two women had died, but they laid the groundwork for it

Neither Stanton nor Anthony would live to see the vote granted to women, but they laid some important groundwork for the Nineteenth Amendment's passage in 1920 - a decade or two after they were dead and gone. As a sort of epilogue to the film's focus on their lives, perhaps, the film ends with a depiction of how the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified - a depiction which I first saw in one of my classes at Yavapai College, which was a history class in which this female professor showed it to a class that I was the only male present in. It is a moving depiction, and one of the great watershed moments in American history - a movement which would change the electoral landscape more than any other, since more than half of the registered voters today are women (at least in the United States). Ironically, the women's suffrage amendment could not have been passed without the support of men, since (obviously) only the men had the power to vote on this issue before it was passed; but nonetheless, Stanton and Anthony deserve credit for making the argument to men (as well as to other women who could make that argument to men in their turn); and they thus deserve a place in the history of American achievement.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton, circa 1880


Susan B. Anthony, circa 1855

Voting rights got the priority over other issues in the women's movement

Both Stanton and Anthony were fairly radical for their time, making attacks on marriage and motherhood that alarmed many men (and even women) in their own time - and which continue to alarm many today - but which were eventually abandoned, in favor of focus on the women's vote - a wise political move that prevented them from alienating people away from their most important goal, which was the right to vote - a right by which all of their other rights could be protected (as Susan B. Anthony made clear). This is discussed by many women's history scholars in this film, all of whom (incidentally) are female - as there is not a single male talking head in the entire film. (There are some male actors reading quotes from the men of the time - notably Keith David as Frederick Douglass - but all of the scholarly talking heads are women, many of whom give important commentary on the events of this time.) The film also has a female narrator (Sally Kellerman); which helps to compensate somewhat for the film's being written by a man, and directed by still another man - both of whom care dearly, I might add, about women's rights - as their coverage in this film makes clear.


Women demonstrating for the right to vote, 1913

The right to vote shall not be denied "on account of sex" (a. k. a. gender)

This isn't my favorite Ken Burns film on an entertainment level, but it is probably the best coverage of the women's suffrage movement available in the documentary world, and the subject is certainly an important one. Bottom line, if you're interested in this time, this is a good film to go to; and you could do worse than to hear what it has to say about women's history.

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." - Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified 1920

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Marie Antoinette movie

Dolley Madison movie

My Frederick Douglass post



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