Fight for the right
A few things you probably didn't know about the epic and oft unsung battle for the 19th Amendment
“Our Open-Air Salute to Suffragists is the result of a year of planning, and it originally was going to be a big rally with musicians, speakers and children,” Marcy Jung, president of the American Association of University Women, Durango Branch, said. Her group was collaborating with the League of Women Voters, La Plata, on a big event to mark the occasion. Then came COVID. “Now it will be a safe walking gallery highlighting people who were instrumental in getting suffrage passed, along with free yard signs and encouragement to vote.”
It will be a history lesson for many Americans, who know little of the decades-long fight to convince an all-male electorate to see women as their fellow citizens worthy of a voice and a vote.
“I never even heard anything about women’s rights growing up in the South,” Ed Cash, a recently retired Durango High School social studies teacher, said. “The first time I heard about it was at the University of Tennessee, which you may know has a premier basketball program. Everyone said if you want to see real basketball, go watch the women play. That’s when I found out about Title IX.”
He’s learned a lot more over the past year.
“This anniversary of the 19th Amendment sparked an interest in women’s issues, and we taught a whole section on it,” he said. “We looked at different generations of feminism, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, among the first suffragettes, then Alice Paul, who was much more radical and wider in her approach. We watched ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘All in the Family,’ studied why the Equal Rights Amendment failed and listened to Loretta Lynn and Beyoncé.”
Cash isn’t alone in not knowing much about the 19th Amendment and the history of women’s rights.
“Working on this celebration has shown me my own lack of knowledge,” said Jung, a former women’s studies 4 professor at Fort Lewis College. “It’s been really developmental for me. I knew about the passage of the amendment in 1920, but not about the limitations that still exist.”
Just the beginning
“Most of the early suffragettes were abolitionists first,” Trish Pegram, a former president of the local LWV, said. “There was quite a contest after the Civil War, when the 15th Amendment gave suffrage to black men. The suffragettes wanted voting rights for everyone.”
What: “Open Air Salute to Suffragists,” an educational exhibit with music. Attendees are free to come and go as they please; masks and social distancing required.
“There’s a point that often gets overlooked,” Pegram said. “Suffragists did make racist comments, particularly in the South, because the white men who were running the country were racist, and without their votes, the 19th wouldn’t have passed.”
While black women also won the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, only black women in the North could freely do so. The Jim Crow laws that kept black men from voting in the South also affected black women.
“I think it’s important to note that the amendment doesn’t discriminate,” Jung said. “It was people who excluded other people.”
Understanding social movements and how they worked toward their goals is easier in hindsight.
“Reformers, people who fight for change are always expected to be perfect,” Eleanor Smeal, former president of the National Organization for Women, said on PBS’ “Vote: The American Experience.” “But you’re living in a society where you make accommodations to go to the next step. Maybe you shouldn’t, but it’s almost impossible to get the whole loaf.”
Paul DeBell, assistant professor of political science at FLC, studies social movements and how they work.
“We see the same challenges in different movements,” he said. “From the suffragettes and Civil Rights Movement, to Black Lives Matter and even to what we’re seeing in Belarus, for example. You want to be inclusive and have a leadership that can formulate strategic principles, cut deals, get down to the nitty gritty of politics. Yet then you have a Black Lives Matter, which doesn’t have an identifiable leadership structure because of what happened to civil rights leaders who were slain.”
Native Americans earned the right to vote in 1924, after Congress determined that even though reservations were sovereign nations, their members were also U.S. citizens. It wasn’t until 1962 that the final state granted full voting rights to all Native Americans. Suffrage continued to be granted to different marginalized groups over the next 50 years.
Voting in Colorado
Colorado was ahead of the curve, granting women the vote in 1893. It was the second try after an initiative failed in 1877, but Colorado was the first state to grant women the right to vote in a popular vote with an all-male electorate.
There’s a hole in the newspaper records of The Durango Herald, but much can be learned by reading newspapers from surrounding communities, according to Caroline Bowra, former executive director of the Animas Museum who worked on the museum’s 19th Amendment activities.
“There apparently was some trash talking going on between the editors of The Durango Herald and the Mancos Times,” she said. “Even though the telegraphic columns and Denver dispatch said suffrage had passed by several thousand votes, the (Herald’s) editorial said it had lost and it would be a long time before it would be on the ballot again.”
The Mancos editor, after describing Durango as a “5-cent beer berg” called out the Herald editor on the shoddy editorializing.
Women’s voting power today
Women do not vote as a block, although black women are widely credited with the 2018 election of Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., the only statewide elected Democrat in Alabama and the first Democrat to win statewide office since 2008. And suburban women are being courted by both parties in the 2020 election cycle.
In Colorado, women use their hard-won right. In the June primary, women outvoted men, 857,116 to 729,147. And in La Plata County, registered active women voters nudged out the men as of the end of July: 18,560 to 18,264.