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Women's Suffrage + Defending Democracy: Hard Won - Not Done

Women's Suffrage Movement

August 11, 2020

Prior to ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920 and its formal certification on August 26, 1920, many small steps eventually led to suffrage (women’s right to vote). It all started on June 12, 1840 when Lucreita Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lady Byron tried to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention, though the invitation was only extended to “gentlemen.”

The women were barred from attending and incensed that females were excluded from participating in any meeting. During that time period American women were deprived of legal rights in virtually all dimensions of their lives; excluded from college, wages belonged to husbands, couldn’t own property and custody of children went to spouse in dissolution of marriage.

The Beginning of the Women’s Suffrage Movement

Eight years later in July of 1848, Mott and Stanton held a public protest meeting in Seneca Falls, NY, noted in history books as the official start of the American women’s suffrage movement. Between 1848 and 1920 — 72 long years — mockery, ridicule, beatings, arrests and imprisonment followed the suffragists in their fight to earn the right to vote.

Opposition, especially from virtually all male legislators in all states, was intense. Women’s active role in the World War I industrial preparedness caused anti-suffragist President Woodrow Wilson to change his mind and announce in 1918 women’s contribution during WWI had earned them the right to vote.

The theme of Iowa’s 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration is “Hard Won – Not Done.” The `Hard Won’ element is in recognition of the 72 year — if not longer — fight to garner equal representation at the ballot box and in positions of leadership in government, business and industry. Passage of the Equal Pay Act and Family and Medical Leave Act are other important milestones in advancing the position of women.

But, as witnessed by continual sexual harassment, spousal abuse, different legal rights for men and women, distinct societal expectations, women holding a minority of elected positions at city council, school board, county board, state legislature and U.S. Congress, minority representation of female corporate board of directors, female minority as business CEOs, women earning about 80% of men’s pay in similar positions and America ranking 53rd on the Global Gender Gap Index, the “Not Done” portion of Iowa’s 100-year commemoration is legitimate.

As noted in this issue of The Wall Street Journal, the 19th Amendment was really just the start to extend, protect and defend democracy. One hundred years later — if not 172 years — women stand in the forefront to achieve greater diversity and equal rights.

Several Iowans championed the suffrage movement. The most prominent was Charles City native Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), who created the “Winning Plan” in 1916 to gain support and eventual ratification of the 19th Amendment. Catt also founded the League of Women Voters in 1920, which continues to this day — 100 years later — a non-partisan grassroots organization who believes in the power of their male and female members to help create a more perfect democracy.

Read more about Carrie Chapman Catt’s contributions in this recent Greater Des Moines Partnership post.

Cameo profiles of 22 Iowa women (seven Black and 15 white) who were instrumental in Iowa’s suffrage movement, can be found at 19th-amendment-centennial.org under the heading Profiles of Courage and Persistence. The stories are a must read to fully comprehend their dedication to Iowa being the fourth state to ratify the 19th Amendment (July 2, 1919).

The narrative of the United States has been one of constantly seeking to perfect an imperfect democracy. Those who engage in the process of defending democracy, whether it was in 1848 or up to and including 2020, know — first hand — the task is, in and of itself, Hard Won – Not Done.

Greater Des Moines (DSM) welcomes diverse talent to the region. As one of the fastest growing business communities, inclusion and attracting diverse talent in the workplace is a key strategy of the Greater Des Moines Partnership. Learn more here.

Doris Kelley

Doris Kelley is chair of Iowa's 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration Committee. She was previously executive director and vice chair of the Iowa Board of Parole and a former Iowa State Representative. Doris currently serves on the board of the League of Women Voters of Iowa.