One hundred years ago some American women could vote but others could not, due to our country’s peculiar history of insisting that women win suffrage – the right to vote – one state at a time.

Maine suffragists labored unsuccessfully for decades to win voting rights. Part of what made this so difficult was that law, practice and social custom assigned women to the home, caring for husbands and children. They weren’t smart enough, not strong enough, had nowhere near enough time in their busy days for voting, the thinking went. They mustn’t be sullied by dirty politics. And, of course, men would vote as they were asked, if women simply treated them right…

In the early 20th century suffrage got a boost from the Progressive movement, in which men and women joined forces to address all manner of social ills. Many people thought women would clean up politics, just as housewives cleaned their homes. As Maine suffrage leader Florence Brooks Whitehouse (my great-grandmother) put it, “When [women] do vote they won’t be satisfied to skim the top of the pool of social corruption any longer, but they will pave it with clean cobble stones, and put a drain through it, and connect the source with the bubbling spring…”

The increasing numbers of women working outside the home also supported arguments for equal suffrage. By 1915 about 50,000 Maine women worked in manufacturing and other jobs. Working women could invoke the “No taxation without representation!” cry of the colonists almost 150 years before. Increasingly, people understood women needed the vote to improve their working conditions – whether they chose to marry and have families or not.

It wasn’t until 1917, however, that Maine suffragists finally persuaded the Legislature to send a state suffrage referendum to voters. This was soundly defeated, partly due to the United States’ entry into WW I, which diverted funds and organizers to the war effort. Worried that women voters would enforce Maine’s prohibition laws, the “whiskey interests” also campaigned against suffrage.

Another factor was the controversial National Woman’s Party (NWP), which in January had begun picketing President Woodrow Wilson outside the White House gates to pressure him to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution enfranchising women. When Wilson refused, the NWP banners became more provoking, resulting in public scuffles and arrests. In Maine, many men believed such unwomanly behavior – especially during wartime – shouldn’t be rewarded with the vote.

During the next two years Maine was again in the national spotlight because our U.S. Sen. Frederick Hale was on the short list of senators that suffragists hoped they could persuade to support the federal suffrage amendment. Pressure intensified once the U.S. House passed the amendment and it needed only a handful of votes to clear the Senate. The NWP sent organizers to help my great-grandmother, who was chair of the NWP’s Maine branch, put pressure on Hale. Yet Hale remained opposed until June 1919 when the final vote was found elsewhere; then he slyly switched his vote to “yea” to get credit for supporting it, though at that point it was superfluous.

In early November 1919, Maine’s Governor Carl Millikin called the legislature into special session to ratify the federal amendment. Suffragists believed this would be an easy win. Yet without warning, just days before the vote, long-time ally the Maine Federation of Labor (MFL) issued a public call for the legislature to defeat ratification! Alarmed, Florence wired NWP chair Alice Paul for help. Together, Paul and my great-grandmother corralled the MFL leaders in a room at the Capitol and harangued them until they retracted their statement. The following morning the House ratified by only four votes (the Senate had passed it 24-5). On November 5, 1919, Maine became the 19th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. Tennessee supplied the 36th and final ratification needed in August 1920.

Winning suffrage wasn’t the end of women’s quest for equality. It was simply the end of the beginning, and much work remained.

For starters, not all women in the United States were enfranchised by the 19th Amendment. Jim Crow laws in the south prevented blacks from voting, and it wasn’t until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that these barriers would be removed nationally. The U.S. didn’t recognize Native Americans as citizens until 1924, and Maine didn’t grant them voting rights until 1954. Poll taxes, the location of polling places, and gerrymandering likely affected participation of many women in Maine.

Today, the 19th Amendment remains women’s only constitutionally protected right. Every other right has been won through statute, regulation, and legal rulings, which are far easier to undo. A few examples of things women have fought hard for include the right to serve on juries, to continue working during pregnancy, for access to birth control and abortion, to not be sexually harassed in the workplace, to not be beaten by their husbands, and to have equal access to credit and  employment. In my lifetime women have made considerable progress toward equality. Yet in the centennial year of the 19th Amendment we’re still celebrating “firsts” for women, including electing Maine’s first female governor. And it’s equally frustrating to note that women of color trail white women in many categories, from pay equity to achieving high level jobs, appointments, or elected office.

In the session just ended, the Maine House failed to pass L.D. 433 which would have amended our state Constitution to prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s sex. This would benefit men as well as women. It’s curious that it was defeated in the House along party lines, with no Republican voting for it (it passed in the Senate). Why is equality a partisan issue? Why isn’t it simply a human right?

I love this quote from Alice Paul, leader of the National Women’s Party and author of the national Equal Rights Amendment (which has never been ratified):

“I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.”

Ordinary equality. Let’s get it done.


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