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Essay: Key figures in women’s suffrage

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  • Subject area(s): History essays
  • Reading time: 3 minutes
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  • Published: 15 November 2019*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 817 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 4 (approx)
  • Tags: Suffragette essays

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In 1912, the embers from the fight for the American woman’s right to vote were burning brighter than ever. In the movie, “Iron Jawed Angels”, this fight is illustrated by the true story of young suffragist activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. In Philadelphia 1912, the two women meet with the heads of NAWSA (National American Woman Suffrage Association, formed in 1890 by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) determined to run the committee in Washington, DC. Once granted the committee, Paul and Burns begin to plan their suffrage events, recruit volunteers, and find sponsors, pressing for a constitutional amendment for all women to have the right to vote. Paul and Burns soon go on to start their own organization, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), which opposes any candidate against the proposed constitutional amendment.

Shortly after beginning protests outside the Whitehouse, the strong band of NWP suffragists find themselves imprisoned by false charges. In jail, the women begin a hunger-strike in which the warden requires the women to be force fed. Word of the force-feeding leaks out, and public opinion shifts in favor of the suffragists, now known as the “iron jawed angels” resulting in their quick released. By 1920, 35 states had ratified the amendment— all but one state (Tennessee) touched and converted by the suffrage movement ultimately driven by Alice Paul. On August 26, 1920, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment becomes law, and 20 million American women win the right to vote. While “iron jaw angels” fought valiantly for a women’s right to vote, they believed that women’s suffrage and black rights needed to be fought for independently. They believed women’s suffrage needed to be gained and respected first.

Many American History classes, at least the ones I ever took, fail to mention the efforts and accomplishments achieved by Alice Paul on her pursuit for women suffrage. However, she is one of many powerful and impactful women to not be honored the way I believe they should. Lucretia Mott was a women’s rights activist, abolitionist, and religious reformer. As a Quaker, her Civil Rights beliefs deemed her more as an abolitionist than suffragist. Mott was strongly opposed to slavery and advocated not buying the products of slave labor. This is admirable because just about everything was produced by slaves in the late 1800s and is even still difficult/ much more expensive to purchase products clean from human trafficking and sweat-houses today. Lucretia Mott and her husband attended the famous World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 that decided, once all parties were in England, women were not to participate. This led to her joining Elizabeth Cady Stanton in dedicating her life to women’s rights. Thus, even though she saw abolition as incredibly important, she too was swayed to the idea that a women’s right to vote was a separate fight entirely.

Similarly, Sojourner Truth was another major figure in the pursuit for women’s rights. However, unlike Alice Paul who thought fighting for women’s suffrage should be fought for separately and attained before abolition, Sojourner Truth believed they should occur simultaneously. She was a former slave who became an outspoken advocate for civil and women’s rights in the nineteenth century. Truth was born Isabella Bomfree in New York, bought and sold four times, and subjected to harsh physical labor and violent punishments. In 1827 (a year before New York’s law freeing slaves was to take effect) Truth ran away with her infant daughter to a nearby abolitionist Quaker family. As an ex-slave, she had never been taught how to read or write. She was illiterate and all of her speeches were delivered mightily and spontaneously.  In 1851, Truth delivered her most famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech at women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio. In it, she challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality by reminding listeners of her combined strength as an ex-slave and female status. Overall, she was a very impactful face to both suffrage and abolition where Alice Paul solely fought for a women’s right to vote.

Despite Truth’s argument, I believe, as much as all human civil rights are important, it was crucial for Alice Paul to devote her efforts entirely to suffrage. To change a law, society, or even another’s mind requires direct attention. If Alice Paul were to fight for abolition as well as suffrage, I feel that America would have been even more reluctant to change. Ultimately, the United States could only take so much change at a time and women’s suffrage seemed like an easier battle to win first. No matter the order of fighting for basic human rights, whether or not these women fought for suffrage, abolition, or both, they all provide a crucial role in the attainment of women suffrage in America and I am appalled I had never heard of any of them.

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