One hundred years ago, on August 18, 1920, the nineteenth amendment to the American constitution was ratified. After years of protests and marches and fighting, women became eligible to do what men had always done: make their voices heard at the polls. At long last, women had the right to vote.
It was a hard road and, in the grand sweep of history, not that long ago.
In Great Britain, the National Women’s Society for Suffrage was born in 1872 and later became the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. The term suffrage means to vote, and the women who rallied for the cause were labeled suffragists. In 1906 The Daily Mail, a London newspaper, snarkily coined the label suffragettes. This title held no honor and indeed was meant to demean the women who demonstrated. Any word with “ette” on the end usually means smaller, diminished, as in kitchen versus kitchenette. Women who protested and made themselves visible were deemed “less than” because their public activities were not ladylike.
The movement in America began long before the civil war. In 1848 a group of social reformers, mostly women, met in Seneca Falls, New York, at the invitation of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott to discuss the issues of women’s rights. Even though women throughout the nation were active in various organizations for change, such as anti-slavery and temperance leagues, they had no say at the polls. At this conference, attendees agreed that change needed to happen and produced a Declaration of Sentiments, announcing the grievances and demands of the signers. The excerpt below is an interesting echo of another famous document, with two notable changes:
We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men AND WOMEN are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted (AMONG MEN OMITTED), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Inez Milholland, and Nellie Bly as well as others often used horses to demonstrate and made great strides while riding astride. No side saddles here! Horses gave women an aura of power, and they used them to spread news about the movement to gain the right to vote.
On March 3, 1913, Inez Milholland led a suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Ave in Washington D.C. Milholland, a lawyer, wore a crown and a white cape and was riding a white horse named “Gray Dawn.” She was depicted as a modern-day Joan of Arc. According to the Library of Congress, the parade consisted of nine bands, four mounted brigades, three heralds, approximately 24 floats, and over 5,000 marchers.
The protestors were harassed by the throngs that lined each side of the Avenue, many of whom were in town for President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, scheduled for the following day. The unruly crowd of mostly men hurled insults and vulgarities; they tripped, shoved, grabbed the marching women; they forced the marchers to move single file due to the mass of bodies intentionally obstructing their procession. It was noted that a “mob” injured more than 300 suffragists, and that the police did little to protect them; rather, it was reported that police officers took pleasure in the vulgar jokes and some even joined in on the harassment.
Groups spearheaded by women in opposition to the suffrage movement were not uncommon either. They reasoned that married women and mothers did not have the time to become involved in politics while some suggested they weren’t mentally capable – allegations that came from within their own gender!
Newspaper articles and cartoons depicted women in such a manner that today are sadly familiar. Throughout history, nothing has really changed; power can enable or decimate a cause regardless of whether it is legitimate or morally right. Whoever has the most power usually wins, and only when those in power deem it beneficial to their standing do the winds begin to shift.
Now that women who ride horses – plus most other women – have the vote, our attention is drawn to the persistent denial of the vote to some citizens. Each state has its own election laws, and while some states encourage and enable voting for all, other states have laws seemingly designed to make voting for the elite classes only. Perhaps a nationwide movement of horsewomen (and men) to parade for voting rights would help publicize the plight of former felons who cannot register to vote in Florida, or expose the convoluted process of voting by mail in Alabama, or decry the elimination of massive numbers of polling places in Kentucky.
Who’s ready to saddle up for voting rights?
Click here for the timeline of the suffrage movement (1840 – 1920) and learn more about those who spent their lives ensuring a better future for all of us! You can also read HRL contributor Bernice Ende’s writeup of the long ride celebration that was, unfortunately, cancelled due to COVID-19…but no doubt was something truly special, planned with a lot of love and care.