Ninety years ago, on Aug. 26, 1920, women won the right to vote, and Wisconsin has the proud honor of being the first state to have ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.
Photographs from that era show suffragists in floor-length, ruffled dresses sporting sashes that say, “Votes for Women!” Often they stood with mouths open and fingers upraised.
The Wisconsin Women’s Suffrage Association was founded in 1869, and that year, the state legislature gave women the right to run for seats on local school boards. Fifteen years later, Wisconsin women won the right to vote in those school board elections.
Led by such stalwarts of equality as Meta Berger, Olympia Brown, Carrie Chapman Catt, Marion Dudley, Jesse Jack Hooper, Ada James, Belle Case La Follette and Theodora Winton Youmans, Wisconsin suffragists pushed for the right to vote in all elections.
After losing a statewide referendum for women’s suffrage in 1912 by a margin of 2 to 1, they were not deterred. Instead, the fought even harder.
But along the way, they faced the most blatant discrimination.
The Wisconsin Historical Society has a poster from Watertown in 1912 with the word “DANGER!” in huge capital letters, followed by this: “Women’s Suffrage Would Double the Irresponsible Vote. It is a MENACE to the Home, Men’s Employment and to All Businesses.”
What was it like to live in their world, a world where women couldn’t vote?
How did it feel to be called “unwomanly” just because you wanted to count when tallies were being taken?
How much did it hurt to be called “unnatural” just because you wanted to cast a ballot?
The struggle for suffrage spanned 70 years. It was sometimes bitter, pitting woman against man, woman against woman, and even suffragist against suffragist. Advocates for the cause gave their time, their energy, and their fortunes. Some went to jail. Many died before the battle was won.
What if they had not given of themselves so bravely and freely? After all, there are countries on this planet where women still do not have the right to vote.
Today, women may no longer wear Victorian-style dresses, not to mention the sashes. But all too often in these accelerated times, we churn along on a hamster wheel of busy, busy, busy.
We work for less than men in the paid workplace.
We work unpaid in the home.
And we volunteer to sustain our schools, our congregations and our communities.
The 90th Anniversary of Woman Suffrage presents us with an opportunity to rest.
Let us pause for a moment, therefore, and appreciate the difference that 90 years makes.
Heartfelt thanks to our foremothers, who fought with such spirit on our behalf.
Wholehearted thanks to those forefathers whose enlightened support helped open the doors of opportunity.
Thanks, as well, to all those who continue to agitate for freedom today, with mouths open and fingers upraised.
Elizabeth Galewski is a community organizer for the Madison Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW).
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