“Remembering the Ladies” Series – Pursuing Suffrage and Civil Rights

Photograph of Susan B. Anthony standing beside Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (Public Domain)
Cover page of the official program for the NAWSA’s Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., 1913. (Library of Congress)

Among the many individuals and groups involved in the women’s rights movement in the United States, a mutually-shared long-term goal was the extension of the right to vote to both sexes. The pursuit for women’s suffrage can be historically traced back to the first few decades of the United States’ existence. New Jersey was the first state to grant women the right to vote, specifically only unmarried and widowed women regardless of their ethnicity. New Jersey retroactively eliminated the right for women and non-white citizens to vote in 1807, ironically due to a “progressive” law that eliminated the property-ownership requirement from voting in the state. The right for women to vote was first proposed by the public at the national level by the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. While Elizabeth Stanton was compelled by fellow attendee Frederick Douglass to call for the vote, the matter was considered the most-contentious element of the women’s rights movement at the time. Although the Seneca Falls Convention gave the women’s rights movement a larger platform than it had before in the United States, the proposal to extend the vote to women found itself overshadowed by the more topical controversy of slavery and its prospective future. Shortly after the end of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in 1865, the calls for women’s suffrage returned to the national spotlight. The next generation of women’s rights advocates used the Reconstruction Amendments as a foundational argument for why granting women the right to vote was the next step to be taken in the pursuit for progressive reforms. There remained an ideological divide among the movements that called for the right to vote for women. The National Woman Suffrage Association – led primarily by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony – demanded the right to vote at the national level, and criticized other organizations for seemingly focusing on civil rights for African-Americans rather than on women. By contrast, the American Woman Suffrage Association – under the leadership of Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Thomas Higginson – wanted to earn the right to vote on a state-by-state basis, while also maintaining a close alliance with the Republican Party in Congress. As women’s suffrage slowly increased across the country, the two major organizations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890. NAWSA adopted a stronger public outreach campaign to compel people to support women’s suffrage, most prominently with their endorsement of national campaigns from the government. When the United States was drawn into World War I in 1917, NAWSA allied itself with the federal government by promoting women to serve the country as nurses, industrial workers, or as auxiliaries in Europe. The campaign proved to be successful, as a piece of legislation that extended the right to vote to women passed the House of Representatives with two-thirds support in 1918. It passed the Senate in June 1919, and was adopted as the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. While the goal of having women’s suffrage encoded into national law was achieved, the long-term process of franchising all women remained unfulfilled. Native Americans were not legally considered citizens until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and were not allowed to vote until 1948. The Magnuson Act of 1943 extended citizenship and the right to vote to newly-naturalized Chinese men and women. With the replacement of the Naturalization Law of 1790 by the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, several restrictions and national quotas on immigration were removed, while granting citizenship and the franchise to Japanese-Americans. The Twenty-fourth Amendment eliminated poll taxes and literacy tests in all elections in 1964, and the following year saw the Voting Rights Act eliminate all forms of voter discrimination on the grounds of sex and ethnicity at the national level.

Photograph of Rosa Parks in 1955. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is in the background. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Photograph of Mary Fair Burks, founder of the Women’s Political Council, 1976. (Public Domain)

As the United States progressed through the Cold War, it became apparent that the right to vote regardless of sex was not the terminus of the many activist movements that grew increasingly larger in the social and political spheres. These movements and their goals sometimes overlapped with each other in the same way that its predecessors had in the 19th century. Amid the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, there were many women who found themselves as pivotal figures – and in some cases leaders – of the many organizations calling for social reform. On December 1 in the year 1955, Rosa Parks – the secretary of the NAACP chapter in Montgomery, Alabama – was returning home from a local meeting that discussed nonviolent protest as a viable strategy to call for change. As the bus system in Montgomery was racially-segregated, Parks was seated on one of the “colored” seats in the back of the vehicle. When all the “White” seats were filled in, the bus driver moved the colored section two more rows back, and ordered four African-American passengers to move along, including Parks. Three of the passengers moved, but Parks refused to leave the row. Parks remembered in retrospect that she had grown frustrated with the increasing unpunished crimes being inflicted against African-Americans in the southern states, including the widely-publicized lynching of Emmett Till earlier that year. These feelings reached their zenith when Parks was on the bus, which prompted her to make the decision to resist the order. Later in her autobiography, Parks specifically remarked that she was not physically tired when she was on the bus, contrary to popular belief, but rather that the only tired she was was being “tired of giving in.” Parks was arrested that evening, but was subsequently bailed out by her friend Clifford Durr and NAACP Montgomery president Edgar Nixon. Three days after Parks’ arrest, Edgar Nixon joined Jo Ann Robinson – a member of the Women’s Political Council (WPC) and a professor at the Alabama State College – to produce tens of thousands of handbills announcing a city-wide boycott against the Montgomery bus system. The WPC was founded in 1946 by Mary Fair Burks, an African-American educator who felt that her education and social status had shielded her from the racism and discrimination prevalent in society at the time. After serving as the organization’s president for a few years, Jo Ann Robinson was elected as her successor in 1950. Burks remained close to the organization in the following years, providing funding and being a co-designer of the Montgomery bus boycott. The boycott brought further national attention on life in the racially-segregated southern states, and in so doing helped garner support for the activist groups that had formed in protest against the current system. In December 1956, the district court ruling of Browder v. Gayle was upheld by the Supreme Court, which ordered the Montgomery bus system to be fully desegregated. The core group of activists from the NAACP and WPC reached an agreement that in order for them to successfully maintain the success of the bus boycott, they would need to helm a new organization that could effectively meet the increasing demands of the protests. African-American Baptist minister Ralph Abernathy provided the new organization its formal name, the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The first president selected by the council to lead the MIA was a young minister who would over the next several years become the foremost individual in the entire civil rights movement: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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