Originally presented August 19, 2020.
Guest of Honor: Victoria DeFrancesco Soto
Discussion moderated by Erika Prosper Nirenberg
Special Guest: Andrea Vocab Sanderson
Download Slide Show: Suffragist Portraits and League History (pdf)
Lucretia Mott’s stymied participation at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840 brought her into contact with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with whom she formed a long and prolific collaboration. It also led Mott into the cause of women’s rights.
As women, the pair were blocked from participating in the proceedings, which not only angered them, but led them to promise to hold a women’s rights convention when they returned to the United States.
Eight years later, in 1848, they organized the Seneca Falls Convention.
A former slave, Sojourner Truth became an outspoken advocate for abolition, temperance, and civil and women’s rights in the nineteenth century. Her Civil War work earned her an invitation to meet President Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
In 1851, Truth began a lecture tour that included a women’s rights conference in Akron, Ohio, where she delivered her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. In it, she challenged prevailing notions of racial and gender inferiority and inequality by reminding listeners of her combined strength (Truth was nearly six feet tall) and female status. Truth ultimately split with fellow abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who believed suffrage for formerly enslaved men should come before women’s suffrage; she thought both should occur simultaneously.
At the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Stanton, during her speech, explained the goals and purpose of the Convention.
"But we are assembled to protest against a form of government existing without the consent of the governed –to declare our right to be free as man is free, to be represented in the government which we are taxed to support, to have such [d]isgraceful laws as give man the power to chastise and imprison his wife, to take the wages which she earns, the property which she inherits, and, in case of separation, the children of her love; laws which make her the mere dependent on his bounty."
As a poet, author, and lecturer, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a household name in the nineteenth century. Not only was she the first African American woman to publish a short story, but she was also an influential abolitionist, suffragist, and reformer that co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.
In 1866, Harper spoke at the National Woman’s Rights Convention in New York. Her famous speech entitled, “We Are All Bound Up Together,” urged her fellow attendees to include African American women in their fight for suffrage.
"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul."
Anthony’s father was friends with William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Listening to these men discuss the conditions of slavery inspired her to become an activist. First, she gave passionate speeches as an abolitionist, and later as a suffragist. All at a time when it was thought to be improper for a woman to lecture in public.
It was after the Seneca Falls Convention that Anthony met Elizabeth Cady Stanton. A close friendship developed that lasted for over 50 years. Together, they organized, strategized, lobbied, and fought for women’s rights. Anthony, who never married, traveled the country by train giving speeches in towns and cities across states and territories demanding that women be given the right to vote. Her audiences were not always welcoming. Yet, she persevered, motivated by her belief that for women to be full citizens and truly equal to men, the ballot must be placed into their hands, for the right to vote is that right protective of all other rights.
"There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers."
An American feminist, suffragist, suspected spy, prisoner of war and surgeon, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker remains the only woman ever to receive the Medal of Honor, which she was awarded for her service during the Civil War.
Strongly opposed to traditional women's dress, she argued it was uncomfortable, inhibited mobility, and spread dust and dirt. Her typical clothes were, in the 1860s, trousers with suspenders worn under a knee-length dress (later she would wear jackets and trousers almost exclusively).
She was active in the fight for suffrage, and tried to register to vote in 1871, but was denied. She was among the early advocates for women's suffrage who argued that the Constitution had already granted women the right to vote, and that all that was required was enabling legislation from Congress. In 1912 and 1914, she testified in front of the US House of Representatives in support of women's suffrage.
Elizabeth P. Ensley was one of the key members of the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado. Under her guidance, the Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association of Colorado carried out a successful statewide suffrage campaign. Ensley was instrumental in mobilizing African American women to join the suffrage campaign and persuading African American men to vote for women’s suffrage.
In 1893, male voters passed the women’s suffrage referendum by a margin of six thousand votes, giving both black and white women the right to vote in Colorado.
During her second term as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Carrie Chapman Catt devised the “Winning Plan,” which carefully coordinated state suffrage campaigns with the drive for a constitutional amendment—the plan which helped ensure final victory.
Catt faced strategic challenges from younger recruits such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who favored militant tactics and focused exclusively on a US constitutional amendment. Catt also differed with Paul and Burns over picketing the White House during World War I; Catt threw her support toward Wilson’s war effort and continued her state-by-state suffrage campaigns.
With the vote won, Catt founded the League of Women Voters to educate women on political issues and served as the organization’s honorary president until her death in 1947.
"To the wrongs that need resistance, to the right that needs assistance, to the future in the distance, give yourselves."
Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez was a suffragist and an educator from Los Angeles. In 1902, she became the youngest instructor at the University of California and possibly the first Latina to teach at UCLA. De Lopez was a Spanish-language translator for the suffrage movement during the 1911 statewide campaign and is credited as being the first person in California to give speeches on equal suffrage in Spanish, which she did all across the state while distributing pamphlets in Spanish as well.
De Lopez was a member of the Votes for Women Club and was also the president of the College Equal Suffrage League of Southern California when she published a commentary on equal rights for women and men in the Los Angeles Herald in 1911, the year suffrage was finally won in California.
A woman of Native Hawaiian and German descent, Wilhelmine Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett fought for the equality of women during the Territorial Period through a multi-ethnic coalition. As founder of the National Women’s Equal Suffrage Association of Hawaiʻi, the first organization established to secure the vote for women, Dowsett used her leadership skills to press the 1919 Legislature to pass voting rights for Hawaiʻi women.
At a League of Women Voters meeting in 1926, she “urged most strongly that each woman realize her civic duty and, realizing them, do her duty in taking part in public matters, even to offering herself as a candidate for office to promote clean government…”
With indomitable courage, Wells shocked the world with her truth telling of lynching in America. She crisscrossed the South, investigating and reporting on atrocities occurring against Blacks. Her speeches and writings were fiery. Ultimately, Wells was run out of the South after her anti-lynching editorials were published in Memphis.
Wells was also an active fighter for woman suffrage, particularly for Black women. In 1913, she founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago. As president of the club, Wells was invited to march in the 1913 Suffrage Parade in Washington, DC. Organizers, afraid of offending Southern white suffragists, asked women of color to march at the back of the parade. Wells refused and stood on the parade sidelines until the Chicago contingent of white women passed, at which point she joined the march.
Earlier this year, Wells was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans.
"I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap."
Native American lawyer and suffragist Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin was a prominent advocate on behalf of Native women and on Native Americans’ position in mainstream America. In 1911, Baldwin chose to be photographed in traditional dress with her hair in braids for her personnel file photo for the Office of Indian Affairs. This simple photograph was a radical act for its time, when she would have been expected to assimilate into white American culture.
In 1913, when organizers of the Washington, DC, suffrage march attempted to racially segregate the parade, Baldwin marched with other female lawyers and recalled struggling to “walk four abreast . . . [in a space] no wider than a single car track,” as the parade was nearly overrun with men hassling the marchers.
Terrell joined Ida B. Wells-Barnett in anti-lynching campaigns, but Terrell’s life work focused on the notion of racial uplift, the belief that blacks would help end racial discrimination by advancing themselves and other members of the race through education, work, and community activism. Terrell fought for woman suffrage and civil rights because she realized that she belonged “to the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount…both sex and race.”
In 1950, at age 86, she challenged segregation in public places by protesting the John R. Thompson Restaurant in Washington, DC. She was victorious when, in 1953, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating facilities were unconstitutional, a major breakthrough in the civil rights movement.
Milagros Benet de Mewton was a Puerto Rican educator, women's rights advocate and suffragist. Benet was active in the struggle for women's enfranchisement and joined the first suffragist organization Liga Femínea Puertorriqueña in 1917, the year inhabitants of Puerto Rico gained U.S. citizenship.
When U.S. women gained the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Benet led the push to extend its coverage to Puerto Rico. In 1924, she filed a lawsuit challenging the right of the electoral board to refuse to register women as they were U.S. citizens. The Supreme Court of Puerto Rico ruled that states and territories have the right to determine who can vote and denied her claim.
Benet continued pressing through the Liga Social Sufragista for the filing of various bills, which continued to be rejected by the legislature. In 1928, she pushed for the U.S. Congress to resolve the discrepancies in voting rights for women in Puerto Rico.
Faced with the possibility that the federal legislature might give women the right to vote, the Puerto Rican legislature finally passed a law in 1929 granting suffrage to literate women. Universal suffrage, eliminating the educational restrictions, was gained in 1936.
Minnie Fisher Cunningham was an organizer and lobbyist for women’s suffrage in Texas and in Washington, DC. In Texas, she built an effective network of pro-suffrage workers as the president of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association and used that network in a campaign that saw the removal of a sitting governor and the legislative approval for woman suffrage in state primary elections in 1918.
Following her success in Texas, Cunningham was recruited by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to join their lobbying efforts of Congress for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. She also led a delegation to lobby President Wilson. After the 19th Amendment became law in 1920, she helped organize the National League of Women Voters and became its executive secretary.
Although her light skin color allowed her to “pass” for white, Logan lived her life as a woman of color, like her ancestors before her. She strove to spur often frightened or otherwise reluctant black women to political action through gaining access to the ballot. She occasionally used her light complexion to gain access to segregated activist circles, particularly suffrage associations. Logan used her access to these all-white institutions to advocate for the rights of African Americans.
As a part of her activism, Logan authored articles arguing for the equality of black women, some of which were published in the NAWSA’s Women’s Journal and in the NAACP’s The Crisis. Logan emphasized the importance of the vote to all women, but especially to black women through her writing in the monthly publication, Colored American, the country’s most widely read journal by, for, and about African Americans.
Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 officially granted women the right to vote, but Southern black women, her main constituency, largely had to wait until passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to exercise the franchise.
“If white American women, with all their natural and acquired advantages, need the ballot, that right protective of all other rights; if Anglo Saxons have been helped by it... how much more do black Americans, male and female need the strong defense of a vote to help secure them their right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?”
From 1912–1915, Maud Wood Park worked in Massachusetts to implement NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt’s “Winning Plan.” Although the fight for the 1915 Massachusetts suffrage referendum was unsuccessful, her leadership prompted Catt’s invitation to move to D.C. and chair the NAWSA Congressional Committee.
As chair, she coordinated with NAWSA state affiliates, oversaw a detailed record of the personal lives and interests of members of Congress, and established a lobbying model characterized by meticulous instructions, absolute propriety, and respect for U.S. Representatives and Senators. In fact, their lobbying decorum was so open and above board they were called “The Front Door Lobby” by the Congressmen themselves. After woman suffrage was won, she served for four years as the first president of the National League of Women Voters.
"The success of democracy doesn’t depend on a few persons who do great things, but upon many persons who do small things faithfully."
After the 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, and celebrated by millions of women across the country, the Indigenous suffragist Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, also known as Zitkála-Šá, a citizen of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, reminded newly enfranchised white women that the fight was far from over.
“The Indian woman rejoices with you,” she proclaimed to members of Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, but she urged them to remember their Native sisters, many of whom lacked the right to vote. Not only that, she explained, many were not United States citizens, but legally wards of the government, without a political voice to address the many problems facing their communities.
Otero-Warren played a critical role in getting the 19th Amendment ratified in New Mexico, facing opposition from the governor, legislators, the Catholic Church, and many members of the community. Coming from a prominent family with several politicians, Otero-Warren worked tirelessly for the cause and was selected as New Mexico’s head of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. She is credited for advocating for Spanish-speaking women and organized bilingual efforts throughout the state to support voting rights. Otero-Warren’s efforts as a leading suffragist served her well as she continued to champion women’s rights, child welfare and education, and advance her role in politics.
Mabel Lee was born in Guangzhou (Canton), later moving to New York City with her family. By the time she was 16, Mabel Lee was a known figure in New York’s suffrage movement, helping to lead a suffragist parade in 1912 while on horseback. Two years later, in college, she authored an essay, “The Meaning of Woman Suffrage,” arguing that suffrage for women was necessary for a successful democracy.
Despite the passage of the 19th Amendment, Mabel Lee could not vote until 1943. This was because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a Federal law in place from 1882 to 1943, that prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming citizens. Without US citizenship, Mabel Lee could not vote. Yet, she and other Chinese suffragists advocated for women’s voting rights, even though they did not benefit from the legislation.
In 1909 Burroughs opened the National Training School for Women and Girls, whose goals included preparing African American women for jobs both within and outside of the traditional female job sphere and aiming for each student to become “the fiber of a sturdy moral, industrious and intellectual woman.”
While leading her school and students, she was also a dedicated activist and advocate, striving for greater civil rights and suffrage for African Americans and women. She wrote and spoke extensively on these topics, highlighting the need for African American and white women to work together to achieve the right to vote for all. She also emphasized that suffrage for African American women was key to protecting them in a persistently prejudiced and discriminatory society.
Jovita Idár was born in 1885 in Laredo, Texas where her father owned a Spanish-language newspaper, La Crónica. In a December 1911 article, Jovita Idár asserted,
“Working women [recognize] your rights, proudly raise your chins and face the fight. The time of your degradation has passed…Much has been said and written against the feminist movement but despite the opposition, women in California can vote on a jury and hold public offices… .”
Idár and her brothers wrote articles in a number of Spanish-language newspapers that portrayed woman suffrage activities positively in Texas and nationally.
In January 1917, Alice Paul and others began eighteen months of picketing the White House, standing at the gates with such signs as, “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” They endured verbal and physical attacks from spectators. Instead of protecting the women’s right to free speech and peaceful assembly, the police arrested them on the flimsy charge of obstructing traffic.
Paul was sentenced to jail for seven months, where she organized a hunger strike in protest. Doctors threatened to send Paul to an insane asylum and force-fed her, while newspaper accounts of her treatment garnered public sympathy and support for suffrage.
By 1918, Wilson announced his support for suffrage. It took two more years for the Senate, House, and the required 36 states to approve the amendment. Paul's life work was not done, however. She also authored the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923. Work to pass the amendment is still ongoing.
Komako Kimura was a Japanese suffragist, actress, dancer, theater manager, and magazine editor before World War II. By the time she visited America in 1917, she had been working toward achieving suffrage in Japan for about five years, to no avail. She was in America to gain inspiration from American women, whom she admired due to the fact that they could use their clothing and makeup to express themselves as individuals.
During her visit, she met with the first female member of Congress, Jeanette Rankin, as well as President Woodrow Wilson. She also famously marched in the October 27, 1917 suffrage march in New York.
In 1913, the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, thousands of suffragists descended on Washington for the Woman Suffrage Procession, organized by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns for NAWSA. Inez Milholland, a 26-year-old suffragist, led the parade on horseback. Three years later, she would collapse while giving a speech in Los Angeles and die shortly thereafter. Her last public words were reportedly,
“Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
When members of the National Woman’s Party arrived in New Mexico to organize suffrage efforts, they listened to Aurora Lucero—a well-known author, advocate of bilingualism, and daughter of the first secretary of state—and Nina Otero-Warren—educator, suffragist, and future congressional candidate. Lucero and Otero-Warren insisted the suffrage campaign address Spanish-speaking women and include the use of bilingual publications and speeches, often helping with the translations. They were proud advocates for the Spanish language at a time when many Anglos wanted to do away with it because they believed it was "un-American."
The 1915 Santa Fe suffrage parade concluded at the house of U.S. Senator Thomas Catron, a notorious anti-suffragist, and Aurora Lucero was one of four suffragists to give speeches formally asking the Senator to support the federal amendment when he returned to Washington. He declined and lectured the women at great length on why they were wrong to demand the vote.
Aurora Lucero and other Hispanic women in Santa Fe harnessed the political clout of their long-established Spanish-speaking families and were a formidable political force. The 19th Amendment was ratified by New Mexico in February of 1920.
On May 19, 1912, Tye Leung Schulze became the first Chinese American woman to vote in the United States. She voted in that year's presidential primary, along with other California women who were enfranchised by the state in 1911.
"My first vote? - Oh, yes, I thought long over that. I studied; I read about all your men who wished to be president. I learned about the new laws. I wanted to KNOW what was right, not to act blindly...I think it right we should all try to learn, not vote blindly, since we have been given this right to say which man we think is the greatest...I think too that we women are more careful than the men. We want to do our whole duty more. I do not think it is just the newness that makes us like that. It is conscience."
In 1972, shortly after congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), LWV voted officially to support “equal rights for all regardless of sex.”
The League followed this vote with a nationwide pressure campaign that continued through the 1970s. That national campaign ended in 1982, but LWV continues to push for ERA ratification today.
The League sponsored televised general election Presidential debates in 1980 and 1984, as well as presidential primary forums in 1980, 1984, and 1988.
The debates focused on nonpartisan issues with a main goal of informing voters.
As candidates demanded increasingly partisan conditions, however, the League withdrew its sponsorship of general election debates in 1988.
Leagues around the country continue to hold debates and forums for local and state offices today.
The League’s grassroots campaign for national legislation to reform voter registration resulted in passage of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the “motor-voter” bill.
The goal: increase accessibility to the electoral process.
The motor-voter bill enabled citizens to register at motor vehicle agencies automatically, as well as by mail and at agencies that service the public. However, this is not available in Texas.
When the 2000 election exposed the many problems facing the election system, the League began to work on election reform.
Working closely with a civil rights coalition, LWV helped draft and pass the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which established provisional balloting, requirements for updating voting systems, and the Election Assistance Commission.
The League provided a dedicated website for voter information as early as the 1990s. In 2006, the League launched the next generation of online voter education with VOTE411.org, a “one-stop-shop” for election-related information.
Today, VOTE411.org provides both general and state-specific nonpartisan resources to the voting public, including a nationwide polling place locator, a ballot look-up tool, candidate positions on issues, and more.
In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering cannot be solved by the federal courts.
In response, the League initiated People Powered Fair Maps, a coordinated effort across all 50 states and D.C. to create fair and transparent, people-powered redistricting processes to eliminate partisan and racial gerrymandering nationwide.
Can We Talk? is a coalition of over sixty-five women's organizations in San Antonio, Texas, that holds events twice a year.
The event in March commemorates Women’s History Month, and the event in August celebrates Women’s Equality Day and Texas Women’s Independence Day.
We thank the League of Women Voters of the United States for the information and pictures used to tell the history of the League of Women Voters in this presentation.
We thank the Library of Congress for the many photos of courageous suffragists.
We thank the people at Kim Tindall & Associates whose technical support made this online event possible.