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100 years ago today N.H. women got the vote

  • Suffragists march in New York City in October 1917, displaying placards containing the signatures of over one million New York women demanding to vote. Courtesy photo

Published: 9/10/2019 12:21:02 PM

As I get older, I take fewer things for granted. Today it’s that if you’re an American citizen at least 18 years of age, you have the unrestricted right to vote. What’s astounding to me is that less than 30 years before I was born, about half the citizens of this country didn’t have that fundamental right. Even now, it’s still less than a hundred years since the 19th Amendment to the Constitution did something about that.

Women’s suffrage, of course, was what needed the constitutional remedy, and the reason for thinking about it now is that on September 10, 1919, New Hampshire became the 16th state to ratify the amendment. New Hampshire isn’t traditionally an “early adopter” of anything new, but it decided its women deserved the right to vote just three months after Congress passed the amendment and sent it to the states for their consideration. By contrast, my home state of North Carolina was the next to last ratifier, finally, grudgingly, passing the amendment in 1971 – that’s not a typo. I was born there, but I’m glad I live here, particularly when it comes to anything relating to social justice.

The two names most closely associated with the suffrage movement are Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls conference in 1848 that first brought wide attention to the issue, and Susan B. Anthony. Those women and many others fought long and hard for a constitutional amendment of their own, after the 15th Amendment left them out when it prohibited voting restrictions based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Sadly, though, both women died before reaching the finish line, and so the baton had to be picked up by a new generation of suffragists.

Chief among the second wave of fighters for voting equality was Alice Paul, a name largely unknown today. Paul was the daughter of a Quaker minister and the “Rocky” of that final push to suffrage victory. She was often assaulted and once even dragged down the street, but she never failed to get up and she was jailed many times for refusing to submit to orders banning marches and demonstrations for the cause. When arrested and held, she refused to wear jail garb and she frequently refused to eat while in custody, making the authorities abusively force-feed her to avoid responsibility for her death. If women had been allowed in combat in those days, she was definitely someone you’d want leading your charge. And there were many others in her corps of determined women who, to paraphrase a famous movie line, were tired of waiting and weren’t going to take it anymore.

Again, the thing that’s most difficult to grasp is that all this happened so recently and so close to home. It wasn’t during the Middle Ages and it wasn’t in a cruel dictatorship halfway around the world. The women involved weren’t throwing rocks at the police or bombing buildings. In many ways the movement was the precursor of the non-violent protests during the Civil Rights era 50 years later. Most times the women just stood silently outside the gates of the Woodrow Wilson White House, holding banners that said politely, “Mr. President, how long must we wait?” (Also the title of a good new book about the long ordeal, by Tina Cassidy)

As best I can remember, there’s something in the First Amendment protecting that sort of behavior. Yet when the women failed to disperse after the police ordered them to move on, they were often attacked by men who were outraged that women might want the same rights they had – and then the women, not the men, were arrested. When the women refused to pay their court fines, they were often sent to workhouses that would have shocked Charles Dickens. Apparently, the judges who heard their cases – all male, too, of course – had misplaced their copies of the Constitution.

Once the so-called “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” passed the Senate by the skin of its teeth and went to the states, it finally came down to one young legislator from Tennessee who was the difference between the success or failure of the entire effort. He hadn’t committed to support women’s suffrage, but at the last minute he received a note from his mother urging him to vote for the amendment and he made her proud.

As Alice Paul quickly recognized, however, the battles weren’t over just because the war was won. She continued to fight for women’s rights for the rest of her life, including helping found the ACLU. She also campaigned tirelessly for the Equal Rights Amendment that’s been proposed in Congress every year for the past half century and is finally seeing a resurgence of support. Despite all her efforts for others, Paul herself died penniless and largely forgotten in 1977 at 92. She deserves much better from history.

Fast forward to today’s efforts to suppress the votes of many citizens – male and female – based on alarmist rhetoric and discriminatory motives unsupported by factual evidence of any kind. Then imagine how Alice Paul in her prime would have responded and step forward to form the new battle lines.

L. Phillips “Phil” Runyon III has practiced law in Peterborough for 45 years and was the presiding justice of the 8th Circuit Court for 27 years.


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