As a (*ahem* young) Gen X’er, I must admit to feeling a bit dumb when it comes to the history of women’s suffrage. I don’t remember the topic ever being a big deal in history class, not in high school or college. Neither do I recall a time when my mother, aunts, grandmothers or great-grandmothers ever said a word about our hard-earned right to vote, nor did they mention that one of our distant relatives participated in the movement.
Now, I’m asking myself why I and my female friends don’t know more about women’s suffrage as we approach the 100th anniversary of gaining our right to vote. And how can we educate ourselves and pass on what we know to younger generations?
It wasn’t until I was researching another ancestor, Levi Coffin, that my family loves to discuss, Levi Coffin — a Quaker abolitionist originally from Greensboro and known colloquially as the “president” of the Underground Railroad — that I first ran across the name of his cousin, Lucretia Mott. Then the information I found became confusing, as I learned men, including Quakers who’ve been preaching about equality between races and sexes since the 1600s, refused to allow women into the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in the 1840s.
Being excluded from abolitionist meetings didn’t sit well with women like Mott who, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others, held their own meeting in New York, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. And thus, the fight for women’s suffrage began.
Now, I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that Southerners were not giving any damns about either of those meetings. Tracing the timeline of history, we first must go through the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Panic of 1893 before women below the Mason-Dixon Line get involved in the push for women’s suffrage. Even then, as I discussed in my first Suffragist column, most women in Charlotte still weren’t into the idea of pushing for their own rights.
It wasn’t until wealthy wives of local business men and those women who were trying to create professional careers for themselves — like Charlotte’s Julia Alexander — began to care that area Suffragists held their first meeting here in the Queen City, and that was in 1913, a full 65 years after the movement got its start.
Meanwhile, in 1893, New Zealand became the first country to allow women to vote and several U.S. states — Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and Idaho — afforded women the right to vote in the 1890s, too. (Note that it wasn’t until 1924 when Native American women were recognized as citizens and allowed to vote. Asian-American women could vote by 1952, too, but African American women did not effectively obtain the right to vote until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …,” reads the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Note the repeated use of the word “men” though all persons have always also been part of “the governed.”
At the Seneca Falls Meeting, the new Suffragists created a list of grievances based on the Declaration of Independence, denouncing inequities not only in the voting booth but in regard to property rights, education, employment, religion, marriage and family.
For a sense of what they were complaining about, watch Little Women, a post-Civil War era film hitting theaters on Christmas Day. I saw a clip in which a character explained women were essentially considered property. Women: the original property, along with goats and shiny rocks — something to be controlled, perhaps fought over, traded and sold but definitely not persons to be taken seriously or given rights.
We all know that’s bullshit. And to that end it’s an easy argument to make that we women should be grateful to the Suffragists who fought for decades to secure our right to vote so that we could avoid “taxation without representation,” and the like.
So, I ask again: Why don’t we younger generations know more about the Suffrage Movement, since its success so clearly affects our daily lives?
Recently, a fellow League of Women Voters member opined in passing that the lack of generational continuity on this topic is akin to mother-daughter friction, insinuating younger generations don’t care about the sacrifices of the older generations. She pointed out it was the “Flappers” of the 1920s, the free-spirited, Prohibition-disobeying young women in their short skirts and short hair that were the generation that followed the Suffragist Movement and that, to them, the Suffragists were the old ladies of the time who, like most old ladies throughout history, went largely ignored.
But even the “old ladies” weren’t clamoring to become League members in the 1920s. Maybe that’s because people were distracted by World War I, followed by the Great Depression, World War II and the 1950s housewife ethos. Maybe it’s because young women felt the battle had been won, though clearly it had not, since only white women enjoyed any extra freedom once the 19th Amendment was ratified. Maybe it’s the reality that protesters and political advocates are marginalized as radicals, often depicted in pop culture as hysterical.
Whatever the reason, it’s clear the Suffragist Movement still has a public education problem and a lack of young volunteers. Today, local membership is firmly rooted in the Boomer Generation; one glance at the PDF newsletter and the bi-monthly luncheon schedule screams that fact. Beyond that, I’ve witnessed ageism (local college students, adults, being referred to as “kids” at meetings) and experienced condescension as a young-ish women attempting to help.
Even still, the volunteers of the non-partisan League — both locally and nationally — continue to do the good work of registering new voters even as it pushes for action on modern-day issues like climate change, transportation planning, healthcare reform, human trafficking, education issues, the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (introduced in 1923) and fair elections … something of extreme importance as Congress trips down the path of impeachment and the 2020 presidential election approaches.
These are issues that Gen Xers, Millennials and those of the horribly named Gen Z generation care about. So, is the lack of interest a signal that large swaths of our population don’t understand that women are still struggling for equality?
Maybe. As John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, pointed out regarding the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), “According to advocates, 80% of us think it’s already in the Constitution. It’s one of those things that’s so obvious you assume we already have it … [and then] you realize, fuck, women still aren’t guaranteed equal rights under the Constitution.”
I don’t know how to bridge the generational divide when it comes to women’s history, though I do know Winston Churchill’s famous quote: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
This monthly column written in recognition of the League of Women Voters of Charlotte-Mecklenburg in honor of its 100th anniversary.