Suffrage, Protesting, and the Trailblazing Women from Then and Now

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Suffrage, Protesting, and the Trailblazing Women from Then and Now

March 26, 2020
A woman dresses up as a suffragist at a modern-day protest parade.

This August marks the 100th anniversary of women earning the right to vote. The right didn’t come without a whole lot of fight from remarkable suffragists, such as Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Alice Paul, and Carrie Chapman Catt, who led the movement around the turn of the 20th century. Many who fought for this fundamental right never saw their movement’s success. At the time when society believed women should stay in the private sphere, these women broke down barriers, entered the public sphere, and publicly protested and advocated for their right to participate in politics.

Fast forward 100 years and here we are, still protesting. Still standing up for our basic rights. While women have come a long way since the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment, we still have a long way to go to realize the full equality these suffragists set out to achieve. For centuries people have stood up to their governments and expressed their grievances and demanded change through protests. Over the last century, many protests organized and populated by women have centered around our rights: the right to vote, the right to hold the same degree and job as a man, the right to privacy in our own homes, and the right to do what we want with our bodies. For Women’s History Month, we’re looking back on some movements that women have led over the last 120 years. 

Suffrage Parade 1913

There would be no women’s movement without the suffrage movement. The women of this movement demanded that the government see and hear them. Bravery pushed them to challenge the status quo and show society that women could work outside the home. One of the monumental events of this movement was the 1913 Suffrage Parade, which took place on the eve of President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. More than 5,000 women from across the country marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, marking the first civil rights demonstration in the US capital. Lucretia Mott and Alice Paul, who strove for women’s full equality and eventually helped women secure the right to vote, powerfully led this march with the other suffragist leaders.

Women suffragists marching on Pennsylvania Avenue led by Mrs. Richard Coke Burleson in 1913.

Like many of the movements that followed, racial tensions and divisions rang true in the suffrage movement with black women’s voices left behind. Women of color like Sojourner Truth and Frances E.W. Harper were vital voices in the movement working for universal suffrage. As the suffrage movement progressed, it was largely seen as a white women’s movement as Black women were barred from some demonstrations or forced to walk behind white women in others. Victories that came after this march largely are attributed to these brave, powerful women.

The ERA & Uprising of Women in the 1960’s

As the 1900’s progressed and women (mostly white) moved into the public sphere, they started getting jobs outside the home, typically as secretaries, nurses, and teachers. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 which explored how gender roles suppressed women. The term Feminine Mystique, describes the societal assumption that women could find fulfillment through housework, marriage, sexual passivity, and child rearing alone.” Reading Friedan’s book helped many women realize they weren’t alone in feeling fed up and unhappy with the social constraints and gender roles put on them.

Activist Betty Friedan marches in the 1970s.

Second wave feminism, also known as the women’s liberation movement, focused on equal pay, sexual harassment and assault, domestic abuse, abortion, and childcare. Leaders such as Gloria Steinem and Florynce Kennedy, as well as groups such as the League of Women Voters and the National Organization of Women, pushed the feminist agenda. During the second wave, many black activists branched off because they felt the movement was not representing their voices, stories, and concerns. The National Black Feminist Organization was founded to incorporate these voices and bring an intersectional lens to the movement.

Many of these issues found a home in the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) which stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.” While in 1972 the ERA passed through Congress, it fell a few states short of ratification. Protests continued into the early 1980’s urging Congress to extend the deadline for ratification. Many of these protests focused on working conditions, equal pay, and sexual assault and harassment.

people standing in front of the United States Capitol with a banner reading "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex"

Since then, the ERA has been introduced before every session of Congress, and just this year the House of Representatives passed a bill to revive the ERA. Yet it still has not been ratified.

Access to Contraception

Also in the 1960’s, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutional right to privacy and therefore couples’ right to use birth control in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. This case set the precedent used in Eisenstadt v. Baird, in 1972 which later allowed unmarried women to use birth control. Then in 1973, the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade guaranteed women’s right to an abortion. Women not only realized their professional, personal, and sexual independence during these decades, but took to the streets and demanded their rights to bodily autonomy. It is important to note that during this time, black women were advocating to stop the forced sterilization of women of color, which was largely left out in the reproductive freedom movement. 

Estelle Griswold, Executive Director, Planned Parenthood Clinic in New Haven, and Cornelia Jahncke, President of Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, Inc., after the Supreme Court ruled in their favor in Griswold v Connecticut.

Women’s March 2017

January 21, 2017, marked the largest single-day protest in US history, with as many as 4.6 million people attending marches around the country. In Washington, DC alone, over 500,000 people marched through the streets with their pink “pussy hats.” The Women’s March responded not only to the behavior and rhetoric of incoming President Trump, but the policies that he promised to enact. Issues such as health care, reproductive freedom, immigration, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, equal pay, and xenophobia were among the top priorities of the attendees. The March extended overseas with thousands in other countries standing in solidarity with the people of the United States.

A photo from the Women’s March, Washington, DC, in 2017.

Marching for Access to Reproductive Health Care

Since the 2016 election our nation has seen a slew of reproductive health attacks against people across the nation, from abortion bans and restrictions that would leave millions without a place to go, to lots of attacks on birth control coverage and access. Already, more than 19 million women with low incomes live in contraceptive deserts, counties where they lack reasonable access to a health center offering the full range of contraceptive methods. These women already struggle to afford care, depending heavily on a safety net beleaguered by an onslaught of attacks—the Title X gag rule, attacks on Medicaid family planning care,  and efforts to undermine the ACA’s no co-pay contraception rule. Power to Decide has joined with partner organizations and organized rallies across the country to stand up and protect women’s full access to the full range of reproductive health services.

A speaker at the #StopTheBans rally in Washington, DC.

These are just some of the protests and movements that women have led, but each one produced tremendous change in the women’s movement and raised awareness for not only women’s issues, but for the importance of intersectionality. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us remember how far we have come, but also how far we still must go. Progress is not victory. Let your member of Congress know your concerns about certain policies. Get involved. Go vote. Be heard.