Setbacks and Struggles Make for Progress – Women’s History Month
By Amy Shropshire, Reference Department
On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, one of the Founding Fathers and to the Continental Congress as a whole as they were creating and debating the documents that eventually became the Constitution of the United States of America. She wrote:
“remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
Neither these words, nor their intent, made it into the final draft of the Constitution, and in fact citizenry and voting rights were limited strictly to land-owning white males over 21 in the 1770s. From literally the very beginning of our country, women have strived for equality, often without payoff for their efforts. Almost a hundred years later in 1872, Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth were being arrested and turned away while attempting to vote.
Another forty years later, on March 3, 1913, a massive parade in Washington D.C. witnessed between 5,000 and 10,000 participants supporting the cause of women’s suffrage. The parade was a full festival-like event with multiple speakers and performers. However, the parade procession itself was subject to massive verbal assault, intimidation, and heckling from detractors, with police escorts disappearing into the crowds instead of keeping order. The cavalry had to be dispatched to quell what was almost a riot. 200 people were treated for trampling injuries from the crush of the throng. The riot brought women’s suffrage more onto the national stage and into the political conversation.
August 18 1920, the 19th Amendment permitting female citizens the right to vote was finally ratified. However, many women were still not allowed to be considered citizens. Native American women had to wait until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act was passed to allow them to be US citizens, and Asian-Americans were not considered citizens until the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act granted them citizenship.
Meanwhile, back in 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. It was deemed illegal and raided by law enforcement ten days after its opening. Margaret Sanger went on to found the precursor to Planned Parenthood. She also commissioned the first ever commercially produced birth control pill, which was funded by the heiress Katherine McCormick. It wasn’t until 1973 that the landmark Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade established women’s reproductive rights as extensions of individual privacy rights and legitimized abortion as a legal medical practice up to pregnant people and their doctors and not government entities to administrate. Many of these rights are currently facing legal challenges again.
Once women gained the legal right to vote, the struggle to do only continued. The 1965 Voting Rights Act made certain types of voter suppression illegal, and allowed more to participate in democracy. The Voting Rights Act eliminated poll taxes that disenfranchised the poor, and literacy tests that disenfranchised the poor, the under educated, and often drew racial lines about who was considered “literate.” It wasn’t until the 1993 National Voter Registration Act was passed that people could register to vote at the DMV and other public assistance locations, allowing more people to be registered with less red tape and intimidation tactics.
Some voter suppression tactics are still in effect today, and the struggle continues. Some of these voter suppression tactics disproportionately affect women, such as strict ID laws that can cause a woman who changes her maiden name to a married one difficulty with proving her right to vote. At every moment in history, it has been the struggles and the setbacks that mark moments of progress. Strife is a sign of change to come, and the hardships of the present are the hard-won victories of future days.
For more information, check out some of the featured books on this month’s Women’s History Month display on the first floor of the Williamson County Public Library Main Branch. The book covers featured in this article are on display currently, as well as many others.
Statistical data from the Census Bureau about women: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/facts-for-features/2020/womens-history-month.html
Highlight of historical information from museums and archives: https://womenshistorymonth.gov/about/
History Channel highlights of Women’s History milestones: https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/womens-history-us-timeline
International Women’s Day Celebration in Nashville: http://www1.internationalwomensday.com/Activity/14351/International-Women-s-Day-Nashville
Women-centered volunteer and advocacy opportunities and crisis assistance through the YWCA, serving Nashville and Middle Tennessee: https://www.ywcanashville.com/