Sunday, August 15, 2010

Birthdays and bustles...

Women March for Suffrage, 1913, New York City

On this, the 60th anniversary of my dear brother's birth, I offer this recent gem of a NY Times op ed from Gail Collins – who is always a treat, her eyes ever on the prize – on the 75th anniversary of American women being granted the right to cast their votes for the very folks who determine the laws that govern their futures and future of their country. I've just cut and pasted the whole thing, as it's such an inspiring reminder of how hard it can to get a group of supposedly intelligent men to take a small, albeit obvious to any thinking person, step in the direction of progressive, liberal thought. Remember, it only passed the TN House by one vote, and he needed his momma's note to back him up.

My Favorite August

The story in American history I most like to tell is the one about how women got the right to vote 90 years ago this month. It has everything. Adventure! Suspense! Treachery! Drunken legislators!

But, first, there was a 70-year slog.

Which is really the important part. We always need to remember that behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.

That great suffragist and excellent counter, Carrie Chapman Catt, estimated that the struggle had involved 56 referendum campaigns directed at male voters, plus “480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party campaigns to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.”

And you thought health care reform was a drawn-out battle.

The great, thundering roadblock to progress was — wait for the surprise — the U.S. Senate. All through the last part of the 19th century and into the 20th, attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution ran up against a wall of conservative Southern senators.

So the women decided to win the vote by amending every single state constitution, one by one. [an MO adopted more recently by the anti-gay marriage crowd]]

There were five referenda in South Dakota alone. Susan B. Anthony spent more time there than a wheat farmer. But she never lost hope. The great day was coming, she promised: “It’s coming sooner than most people think.” I love this remark even more because she made it in 1895.

Sometimes I fantasize about traveling back through time and telling my historical heroes and heroines how well things worked out in the end. I particularly enjoy the part where I find Vincent van Gogh and inform him that one of the unsold paintings piled up over in the corner will eventually go for $80 million. But I never imagine telling Susan B. Anthony how well American women are doing in the 21st century because her faith in her country and her cause was so strong that she wouldn’t be surprised.

The constitutional amendment that finally did pass Congress bore Anthony’s name. It came up before the House of Representatives in 1918 with the two-thirds votes needed for passage barely within reach. One congressman who had been in the hospital for six months had himself carted to the floor so he could support suffrage. Another, who had just broken his shoulder, refused to have it set for fear he’d be too late to be counted. Representative Frederick Hicks of New York had been at the bedside of his dying wife but left at her urging to support the cause. He provided the final, crucial vote, and then returned home for her funeral.

The Senate failed to follow suit. But Woodrow Wilson, a president who had the winning quality of being very vulnerable to nagging by women, pushed the amendment through the next year. The states started ratifying. Then things stalled just one state short of success.

Ninety years ago this month, all eyes turned to Tennessee, the only state yet to ratify with its Legislature still in session. The resolution sailed through the Tennessee Senate. As it moved on to the House, the most vigorous opposition came from the liquor industry, which was pretty sure that if women got the vote, they’d use it to pass Prohibition. Distillery lobbyists came to fight, bearing samples.

“Both suffrage and anti-suffrage men were reeling through the hall in an advanced state of intoxication,” Carrie Catt reported.

The women and their allies knew they had a one-vote margin of support in the House. Then the speaker, whom they had counted on as a “yes,” changed his mind.

(I love this moment. Women’s suffrage is tied to the railroad track and the train is bearing down fast when suddenly. ...)

Suddenly, Harry Burn, the youngest member of the House, a 24-year-old “no” vote from East Tennessee, got up and announced that he had received a letter from his mother telling him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt.”

“I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow,” Burn said, switching sides.

We celebrate Women’s Suffrage Day on Aug. 26, which is when the amendment officially became part of the Constitution. But I like Aug. 18, which is the day that Harry Burn jumped up in the Tennessee Legislature, waving his mom’s note from home. I told the story once in Atlanta, and a woman in the audience said that when she was visiting her relatives in East Tennessee, she had gone to put a yellow rose on Harry Burn’s grave.

I got a little teary.

“Well, actually,” she added, “it was because I couldn’t find his mother.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 14, 2010

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the House of Representatives was composed of only men in 1918. Jeannette Rankin, a female representative from Montana, served from 1917 to 1919

1 comment:

  1. What a great article!I just thoroughly enjoyed reading it.I got a little lost in the political jargon,but not enough to deter me. Instead,I got out my dictionary and persevered.But I must tell you in all honesty, that I thought you were the author!Before I left the club house last eve,I took a quick look at your blogg,remembering you
    mentioned a new one for sunday, and since I'm always eager to see what you're writing about, I quickly read the first paragraph,"Your" paragraph, and saved the rest for today(delayed gratification)!It took me reading it over several times,that I realized that you were not the author.What gave it away?Well aside from Gail Collins name appearing throughout and her name at the very begining,it was the telling of the story in Atlanta and the mention of an AUDIENCE, that finally did it!!!Because for the life of me, I couldn't remember you being in
    Atlanta sharing this (or any other)story, to an AUDIENCE!!!Honest to God, there are times I doubt my own sanity!But moving on from there,that was an inspiring story.She wrote it well(which is why I thought it was you),and it resonated.She gave it a soul.The line that read
    "I never imagined telling Susan B Anthony, how well amer. women are doing in the 21 century,because her faith in her country and her
    cause, was so strong,that she wouldn't be surprised"was so profound,I just loved it. Along w/ the mention of Rep Fredrick Hicks,who left the bedside of his beloved, dying,wife(at her insistence),to cast what would be 'the final crucial vote'.And Harry Burn..w/ the letter from
    his mother!!!And the woman who put a yellow rose on his grave...This is very moving.You will not find this in the history books in school.How do I know?Because I would have remembered 'THIS'.And finally,the picture and quote from Susan B Anthony herself "Failure is Impossible".Words to live by! Thank you for bring this all to light. tee