Second-Class Citizen, Part II: ‘That Vote Has Been Costly’

Cornelia Powell
5 min readAug 20, 2023
Women picket the White House, 1917, quoting President Wilson from his war message on their banner. The demonstrations, led by Alice Paul, challenged Wilson on his inaction; the daily picketing began in January 1917 and continued for 18 months, despite weather, harassment, and arrest.

Carrie Chapman Catt may be a name less familiar to some than the name of her mentor Susan B. Anthony, yet with her considerable organizational skills — a brilliant strategist and former teacher — she was the most recognized name in the U.S. suffrage movement in the early twentieth century. Catt led the National American Woman Suffrage Association in its final, exhaustive push to win the vote for women in the summer of 1920. In her brilliant book, The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote published in 2018, Elaine Weiss described the scene when Catt finally returned to her home in New York once the Nineteenth Amendment was signed into law. Catt sat at her desk and, looking out at her garden, wrote “a poignant charge to the women voters of the nation”:

The vote is the emblem of your equality, women of America, the guaranty of your liberty. That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Women have suffered agony of soul which you never can comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom. That vote has been costly. Prize it!

The vote is a power, a weapon of offense and defense, a prayer. Use it intelligently, conscientiously, prayerfully. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act!

With 33 years of suffrage work behind her, Carrie Chapman Catt moved on to voter registration and voter education through the League of Women Voters, an organization she helped launch. (Eleanor Roosevelt was one of Catt’s protégées.) When she turned her energies back to anti-war efforts, Weiss explained, Catt was “monitored by the FBI,” possibly for the rest of her life. “Alarmed by Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, she organized Jewish support groups and lobbied the U.S. government to ease immigration restrictions for refugees.” Mrs. Catt, as she was respectfully known by many, died of a heart attack in 1947 at the age of 88 after a lifetime of service for you and me and the women of the world.

The new century brought many “uppity, contrary women” into the public sphere. One of those groundbreakers was Margaret Sanger. Sanger, a “nurse who had watched her own mother die from the strain of too many childbirths, promoted birth control,” explained historians Eileen Tannich Gose and Kathy Wiederstein DeHerrera in Reflecting Freedom. “In 1914 she was arrested for obscenity charges for mailing birth control literature, and two years later she was jailed for opening a birth control clinic in the Brooklyn slums.” The authors write how this was a time when “many women wanted to control the number of children they bore. Also, pregnancy was risky; during World War I the U.S. women who died in childbirth outnumbered the men who died in battle.” Margaret Sanger continued her work for women of all classes and became even more effective in saving women’s lives after 1921 when she founded the organization later known as Planned Parenthood.

A suffrage leader of a younger generation, Alice Paul and her more extremist National Women’s Party, took the U.S. suffrage movement public during the 1910s in a big, bold and “unladylike” manner. (Just speaking in public was considered improper behavior for women.) Paul organized huge parades with women demonstrating and marching through city streets demanding the right to vote — although dressed in fashionably proper and press-friendly “ladylike” outfits. She also led demonstrations in front of the White House beginning in January 1917. They targeted President Woodrow Wilson — “using his own words to accuse him of his inaction on behalf of women” — and for 18 months, with women from every state participating, they picketed six days a week, “despite weather, harassment, and arrest” — even imprisonment under harsh conditions for some — authors Gose and DeHerrera reported. President Wilson, at the end of World War I, attempted to support a “new world order” for peace through the League of Nations, so Paul sent him a message: “There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it.” The president soon announced his support of women’s suffrage.

Once the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was signed into law in August of 1920 giving women the right to vote, Alice Paul and hundreds of other women didn’t stop there. “Women legally became people in the United States in 1920,” historian Sally Roesch Wagner clarified, “but money (poll taxes) and education requirements already in place in many states for men excluded many of those women from voting.” And that was if you were white; it took decades more for women of color to be allowed to exercise their right to vote. Paul knew that the fight for gender equality was not over and in 1923, on the 75th anniversary of the original Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, she organized a second meeting to introduce the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) also known as the Lucretia Mott Amendment. Paul and fellow women’s rights advocate Crystal Eastman thought that by having it clearly spelled out in the U.S. Constitution — that one could not deny the rights of another because of their sex — would help overcome many of the barriers that kept women as second-class citizens. The ERA launched what would become a lifelong campaign for Paul, Eastman, and others to win full equality for women. (However, and rather unbelievably as I’m writing this in 2020, it is still not the law of the land!)

The long push to win the vote for women had been costly indeed. Perhaps the “agony of soul” that “women have suffered,” as Carrie Chapman Catt described, was also a loss of that core sisterhood that had been the engine powering the women’s movement. But as the movement dragged on against one obstacle then another, differences intensified and the well-meaning yet determined suffrage leaders often had difficult choices to make. Institutionalized racism followed the Civil War — do they continue to honor the women-of-color members or appease the members from southern states insisting on segregation? Evangelical Christianity spread during the nineteenth century — do the suffrage leaders continue the stand to keep religion from intruding into government as well as acknowledging those who believe that Christianity had an essential role in causing and maintaining women’s oppression or appease the orthodox Christians (who seemed to ignore biblical ideas of female inferiority)? Yes, attaining the vote had been costly, but these were ground-breaking times. The world was out of balance and the women of this era were ready for revolution.

These revolutionary women were not only guides to freedom for others — and many did not live to enjoy the freedoms they fought for — but they also acted as clarion calls of courage for us today, to awaken us all, so we demand our “inalienable rights.” ~

NEXT Second-Class Citizen, Part III: ‘Reversal History’

CorneliaPowell.com

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Cornelia Powell

Grew up on a farm exploring wonder/Worked in fashion exploring dreams/Spiritual journeyed the world exploring me/Live on a green mtn ridge exploring more wonder