ColumnsThe Suffragist

How the 1918 Flu Pandemic Played a Role in Women’s Suffrage

In the nineteen teens, when duty called soldiers to war and a flu pandemic was killing entire families, women worldwide stepped up and took on many roles traditionally held by men. However, by the time both of those nightmares began, young American women in the National Women’s Party (NWP) — including North Carolina’s Gertrude Weil — had yanked the helm of the suffrage movement away from their elders who had spent decades trying to bargain with Congress. Then they turned up the heat.

Yet they still were not taken seriously a century after the call for women’s suffrage began. It took World War I and nearly 700,000 flu-related deaths in the U.S. alone before President Woodrow Wilson offered support for the 19th Amendment.

Previously, I wrote in The Suffragist that the push to amend the U.S. Constitution began in the mid-1840s. I was corrected by a Civics 101 podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio featuring Professor Martha Jones of John Hopkins University. According to her forthcoming book, Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote and Fought for Rights for All, African-American women like Maria Stewart were speaking to audiences and writing manifestos about suffrage as early as the 1820s.

So, by the time WWI began, not only had a century passed since then, but the women from the NWP had for more than two years stood in front of the White House as “Silent Sentinels” enduring periodic torture.

Still, all Wilson managed to say in support of the 19th Amendment was, “…we have made partners of the women in this war … Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

Unlike our current president, with his near-daily, ultra-long and self-focused press briefings, Wilson didn’t have much to say about the flu pandemic. Of course, he was focused on WWI, which the United States entered on April 6, 1917. A year later, the first incidence of what would later (inaccurately) be referred to as the Spanish flu showed up at a military camp in Kansas, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The reason that virus wasn’t called the Kansas Flu is because our president, and leaders of other countries involved in World War I, didn’t want to take people’s attention away from the war effort so they tried to keep the lid on flu news. It’s called the Spanish Flu because the media in Spain, which wasn’t then tangled in war, could tell the truth.

A PSA from 1918. (Photo courtesy of N.C. Digital Archives)

Even here in Charlotte, public officials and medical professionals misled the public about the devastation, as Mark Washburn explained recently in his article in The Charlotte Observer showing how even the city’s newspapers downplayed that pandemic.

Meanwhile, the virus began to do what viruses do: replicate and invade every available host lacking immunity, leading to a death toll that would exceed 50 million worldwide, depending on your source.

“Soldiers in crowded training camps were especially vulnerable. At the railroad station that served Camp Greene near Charlotte coffins were stacked from floor to ceiling, taking home the bodies of young soldiers who never saw the war,” wrote Harry McKown in a University of North Carolina article.

According to UNC Charlotte associate professor Dr. Heather Perry, “There was the same uproar about closed businesses and loss of income at that time. People resisted the quarantine and there was a lot of pushback against the public health measures which were implemented to help stop the spread — usually because people did not like being told what to do or because they chose personal economic concerns over public health ones. So, of course, that is one reason why the flu was so bad in Charlotte.”

In the meantime, women got to work, as they are wont to do. That same proactive determination to help during crisis, to do whatever must be done, is evidenced today in the faces of the pregnant nurses worrying in news reports. We see it on the hunched backs of those working feverishly behind sewing machines and 3D printers making cloth masks, gowns, face shields and other accoutrements for medical professionals, other frontline workers and high-risk individuals. We see it in the men and women running cash registers in checkout lines and delivering our food.

Now there’s a new suffrage battle in front of us: mail-in voting, something the leadership of the N.C. General Assembly, which returns to session April 28, has already said they’re not interested in (read Mary C. Curtis’ column for more on that).

For the coming battles we all need to focus and work hard, while also pacing ourselves and practicing self-care and physical distancing so that we, too, don’t succumb to COVID-19, our new viral enemy.

“When people died during the 1918-1920 influenza pandemics — yes, there were multiple waves (and we can expect multiple waves of COVID-19) — due to a variety of reasons, a cause of death was not listed,” wrote Perry in an email explaining why accurate numbers for deaths in Charlotte during the flu pandemic aren’t available.

“Keep in mind that the flu pandemic didn’t end in November 1918. In fact, although the city lifted the quarantine at the end of October 1918, they had to put the city schools and other areas back under quarantine in December because there had been such a resurgence of cases. In Char-Meck, people were still getting sick regularly and dying until well into 1919,” says Perry.

That is why mail-in voting is of utmost importance during a presidential election, because both scientists and historians like Perry are saying the same thing: Viruses don’t adhere to our timelines; we bend to theirs. They can change everything, and they don’t care about our hard-earned rights — so we must be smarter than them.

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