A comprehensive history of the women's suffrage movement in the United States, from 1776 to 1965
Most suffrage histories begin in 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton first publicly demanded the right to vote at the Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. And they end in 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, removing sexual barriers to the vote. And Yet They Persisted traces agitation for the vote over two centuries, from the revolutionary era to the civil rights era, excavating one of the greatest struggles for social change in this country and restoring African American women and other women of color to its telling.
In this sweeping history, author Johanna Neuman demonstrates that American women defeated the male patriarchy only after they convinced men that it was in their interests to share political power. Reintegrating the long struggle for the women's suffrage into the metanarrative of U.S. history, Dr. Neuman sheds new light on such questions as:
* Why it took so long to achieve equal voting rights for women
* How victories in state suffrage campaigns pressured Congress to act
* Why African American women had to fight again for their rights in 1965
* How the struggle by eight generations of female activists finally succeeded
And Yet They Persisted: How American Women Won the Right to Vote his is the ideal text for college courses in women's studies and history covering the women's suffrage movement, as well as courses on American History, Political History, Progressive Era reforms, or reform movements in general.
Click here to read Johanna Neuman's two-part blog post about the hidden history of Women's Suffrage as we celebrate the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment.
Johanna Neuman is an author, award-winning journalist, and one of the nation's preeminent historians of women's suffrage in the United States. Johanna received a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, served as president of the White House Correspondents' Association, and currently holds the title of Scholar in Residence, History Department, American University. She is author of the acclaimed book Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women's Right to Vote.
The Mississippi Delta, sometimes called "the most southern place on earth," resonates with the racial history of cotton, slavery, and the blues. In 1962, it became known for something more. Deep in Sunflower County, a 44-year-old African American woman in ill health and with little education went to the county courthouse in Indianola to register to vote. For asserting this right, Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor sharecropper who made her living off the soil, was forced out of her home, fired from her job, menaced by drive-by shooters, and beaten by white jailers in a sexualized attack so severely that she was in pain for the rest of her life.
Had she done little else with her life, Fannie Lou Hamer might have been little remembered today, a statistic of a life lived in hardship. But like generations of women before her and since, she rose up like a lion, demanding her right to vote. Her defiance fueled a grassroots movement in Mississippi in 1964, when young college students moved by the persistent scourge of racism risked their own lives to help those, like Hamer, who had been turned away at the courthouse door. Resistance from white segregationists was fierce. Both sides understood that the vote could unlock other reforms, that it was a tool of empowerment. Often, after dangerous encounters with the white male political establishment, she became the singing voice of her corner of the campaign, calming young activists with her rendition of "This Little Light of Mine." Her testimony and her raw courage made her a memorable figure. When W. D. Marlow, owner of the plantation where she worked as time and record manager for sharecroppers, first heard she'd gone to the courthouse, he said menacingly, "We're not ready for that in Mississippi, now." To which Fannie Lou Hamer replied, "Mr. Marlow, I didn't go down there to register for you. I went down to register for myself."
For two centuries, American women of all races "went down to register" for themselves. From before the nation's founding in 1776 until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, they sought the vote, sometimes individually, often in groups, sometimes alone, often with men at their side. In the 1950s and 1960s, African American women fought again, battling Jim Crow laws in the South that barred black Americans from quality education and public accommodations - and kept them from the ballot box. Obstacles in their path included literacy tests, poll taxes, and residency requirements, all meant to protect white supremacy. And later still other women of color - Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans - were empowered by new minority language ballots to participate fully in the promise of the nation's elections. Today American women are still fighting to protect their votes. Then, as now, their motives differed. Some thought the vote would confer equal citizenship. Others hoped it would deliver the political muscle needed for their causes, from temperance to education, from abolitionism to civil rights, from social justice to pay equity. For all of them, the vote was their entry into public life.
What made the journey so compelling, made the stakes so enormous, is that female activists were asking men to share political power. In the recorded history of politics, no concept is more enduring than power. And in the pursuit of power, no quality is more essential than self-interest. As Niccolò Machiavelli explained in his 1513 philosophical tract The Prince, "A wise ruler ought never to keep faith, when by doing so it would be against his interests."
That is why the Revolution - with its rhetoric of no taxation without representation and its themes of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - did not liberate American women from the cords of patriarchy that had restricted them since ancient civilizations. It is why the Civil War, which outlawed the cruel institution of slavery, did not banish racism. And it is why the Nineteenth Amendment, enacted in 1920 to guarantee women the right to vote, did not open all glass ceilings. Power guards its gates zealously, and no gates once locked open easily.
Because those in power never offer concessions to those without power unless they perceive that it would benefit them politically, female activists set out by the early twentieth century to convince men that the advent of women voting - or at least some women voting - would be in their interests. They organized one of the broadest class coalitions in history, a mass movement that before it finished in 1920 attracted working-class and elite women, professionals and educators, actresses and librarians, housewives and factory workers.
In building this mass movement, in appealing to both male and, in the West beginning in the 1890s, female voters, suffrage leaders assured those in power that enfranchising women would not change the electorate's racial composition. Playing the white race card, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony had done decades before, both moderates and militants in the twentieth-century movement limited their cause to expanding the voting population, not committing it to social change. They invited speakers from Colorado - which enfranchised women in 1893 - to lecture on how little had changed in the state's voting profile since. In public advertising campaigns and private buttonholing of legislators, they made clear they were fighting not for universal suffrage, but for educated suffrage, code for white entitlement. In their parades and their picketing of the White House, they rarely invited women of color to share the stage. The image, like the message, was Anglo-Saxon.
It might seem as if the right to vote is one of those "inalienable rights" promised to every citizen by the Declaration of Independence. But the U.S. Constitution does not describe voting as a right of citizenship. In fact the original document, enacted at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, made no mention at all of voting by the public. In a compromise crafted by the founding fathers as the price of uniting the colonies into a republic, the nation's foundational document left it to the states to develop their own qualifications for voting. At first, most states extended the vote only to white property owners, often also requiring a period of residency to prove fidelity to the state's interests. During the nineteenth century, some states extended the franchise to foreigners or to women, in hopes this offer of privilege would encourage more migration to their sparsely populated communities.
To readers interested in political reform, this long history of the Votes for Women campaign offers some lessons about the power of grassroots activism, and some cautionary tales about the speed of social change in the face of patriarchy, racism, and sexism - all weapons in the fight to maintain power. And to those seeking to add women back into history, or to put human faces to political events, it offers the narrative virtues of a group biography.
One mission of this book is to reinsert the story of women's struggle for equal rights into the meta-narrative of U.S. history. For too long, the cause has been studied as a separate story, untethered to its times. Suffrage leaders may have thought they could set sail alone, and often, they tried. In fact, their course was greatly swayed by other events in U.S. history - from the Revolution to the Civil War, from World War I to the Civil Rights Movement.
Most historians begin the story in 1848, at a women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY when Elizabeth Cady Stanton first stood in public and demanded the right to vote, and end it in 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. This book seeks to extend the boundaries of that history, positioning its origins with the revolutionary fervor in the 1770s and its final triumph two centuries later, when the Justice Department won new tools to enforce the country's constitutional amendments. In widening the lens, it becomes clear that men would not voluntarily surrender power until women were powerful enough to demand it. At every marker of change - from the movement to give women the right to vote in school board elections in the 1880s to debates about whether to enfranchise illegal immigrants in the 2010s - politicians saw it in their interests to defuse demands for social change by opening the tent ever so slightly to those on the outside.
The other mindful contribution of this narrative is to return women of color to its telling. Black women have always treated the vote as a sacred trust, understanding its power to transform lives and, as suffragist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin put it, to "lift as we climb." That white suffrage leaders shunned involvement of Asian Americans, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans in an effort to curry white male support has been much documented. The contributions and persistence of these suffragists of color in the face of abject discrimination is among the subplots that gives this story its poignancy.
Beyond broadening the movement's timeline, rejoining it to the arc of its times, and reinserting women too long silenced, this project seeks to equip readers about the tools to make their own history, in the shadows of this one. As voters and lawmakers now wrestle with issues such as the disenfranchising nature of gerrymandering, immigrant voting, and the drive to restore voting...