As we embark on a crucial presidential election, today, women voters are the largest single voting bloc, but, as most of us know, that right to vote was a hard-fought battle 100 years ago. That is, ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
To commemorate that centennial, this Women’s History Month, I sat down with one of the foremost chroniclers of the suffrage movement, Brooke Kroeger, to tell us how it happened and glean lessons for women today.
Kroeger is a journalism professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, the author of several books, including “The Suffragents: How Women Used Men To Get The Vote,” and the creator of the website SuffrageandtheMedia.org, which has an extensive collection of media related to the suffrage movement and this commemoration. Kroeger previously had a long career as a journalist for many outlets, including Newsday and the original UPI (wire service), and at bureaus in Chicago, Brussels, London, and Tel Aviv.
Essentially, Kroeger told me that, from 1907-8 to 1919-20, “after stagnating for many, many years…there was a confluence of forces that” propelled the movement to finally get the 19th Amendment ratified. Those forces included:
1. Leveraging influencers and media: Kroeger says “the movement went through a huge change” that she describes as “going from dazzling to dowdy. And the way the movement did that was by bringing in elites, both society and social women, and men of position and power and influence. And many of them were publishers, editors, poets, writers and had direct access to the levers of media, and of course media was mostly newspapers and magazines…(which) played an enormous part in the entertainment and leisure life of everyone. So, it was real influence.”
2. Engaging men: “The reason their (men’s) participation in that last important,” Kroeger told me, “was because they had the means and the will to help the movement financially and politically.” All the important avenues of power and influence were controlled by men. Men “controlled the media, or they were the people who wrote for the media and were able to garner attention.” The editors of all the major mainstream newspapers and most of the magazines who assigned reporters (men and women) to cover movement events were men. And, of course the Congress and state lawmakers whose votes women needed to get the 19th Amendment passed were all men. Kroeger goes into much greater detail on this in “The Suffragents.”
3. Agitators and protesters applied pressure: Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party’s (NWP’s) protests and hunger strikes certainly, shall we say, raised the issue’s profile. “The NWP effectively commanded the attention of politicians and the public through its aggressive agitation, relentless lobbying, creative publicity stunts, repeated acts of nonviolent confrontation, and examples of civil disobedience,” including picketing the White House, which got them arrested, according to the Library of Congress’s American Memory, Women of Protest Records of the National Woman’s Party.
4. Women’s roles in World War I: “Also, very important was World War I, the sacrifices women were making were so heartfelt and so important,” Kroeger said. “Women were losing their sons. Women were losing their husbands. They were doing war work at an extraordinary level that it came, at this point, it was very, very hard to say, ‘you’re a citizen who can’t have the rights of citizenship.’ ”
5. President “Wilson’s finally coming around”: Kroeger said Wilson came around after being highly resistant to the federal amendment for years, when it became politically possible for him to lend his support.
There are many lessons for today’s efforts for women’s equality in the success of the suffrage movement, including, how women can leverage the assets and relationships within their reach.
For example, just like 100 years ago, women are leveraging the media and the men in their lives, as well as women’s organizations and support systems, to achieve their goals.