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Suffragists defeated obstacles a century ago

Dr. Anna Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt leading

Dr. Anna Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt leading 20,000 women on a march for suffrage on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in 1918. Credit: Newsday

On a cold November morning in 1872, in a farmhouse outside Charles City, Iowa, a drama unfolded that would change the course of history. Thirteen-year-old Carrie Lane was breakfasting with her family when her father and their hired hand rose from the table and reached for their coats. They were going into the city to cast their votes in the 1872 presidential election, Horace Greeley versus Ulysses S. Grant. Carrie noticed her mother didn’t join them. “Why isn’t mother going to vote?” she asked. Her parents laughed. “Women can’t vote,” her mother explained, to which Carrie asked: “Why?”

Why, indeed?

That question would confound Carrie Lane for most of her adult life, through college, a teaching career, and decades of activism that would ultimately transform her into the formidable suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt. Why can’t women vote? Weren’t they as intelligent as men? Didn’t they care as much about their nation and its future?

When Catt became an active suffragist in 1889, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention was a distant memory. Considered the first formal demand for political equality for women, its influence had faded and the movement was mired in its own self-proclaimed “doldrums.” Initial leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were aging, and while new leadership still worked raising funds, organizing conventions, and circulating petitions, they hadn’t achieved much success. By 1900, women could claim full suffrage in only four states.

There was fierce disagreement over methodology — one faction saw success progressing state by state, while another favored seeking a constitutional amendment granting women the vote nationwide. Catt developed a plan that would follow both paths. She was elected president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association not once, but twice, the last in 1915, amid the battle for woman suffrage in New York. A victory in New York could mean its 44 congressional representatives might tip the balance in favor of a federal amendment. The New York victory in 1917 was sweet, and carried them into the home stretch.

When the 19th Amendment finally won House approval in 1918 (and again in 1919) and Senate approval in 1919, it faced formidable odds for ratification by ¾ of the states. The final battle centered on Tennessee, the 36th state needed to ratify. The voting was intense, with skulduggery by anti-suffragists and last-minute vote changes, before the result of decades of battle was finally realized.

Catt did not attend the tally of votes in the statehouse in Nashville, choosing instead to pace by the open window in her hotel room nearby. After years of defeat, she could not bear to watch if the amendment failed again. When the final votes were announced, the roar from the Capitol told her all she needed to know. The amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920 and formally adopted into the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920.

The ratification of the 19th Amendment might be viewed as a beginning, rather than an end. Challenges arose almost immediately, especially for African-American women who faced formidable obstacles to both registering and voting. And one wonders what Catt would think of the continuing problem of voter apathy. In 2018, only 55% of eligible women voters exercised the right for which she had fought so hard.

But in 1920, those struggles were in the future. Carrie Chapman Catt’s single-minded determination, along with thousands of others, finally won the day, and the farm girl from Iowa saw her long-ago query, “Why can’t women vote?” rendered resoundingly obsolete.

Antonia Petrash, of Glen Cove, is the author of “Long Island and the Woman Suffrage Movement.”