Colleen Shogan: Lessons in perseverance from the suffrage movement
The story of American women’s fight for their right to vote is full of inspiring examples of persevering through difficult times, and Pittsburgh women led the way.
During the current health crisis, we must find sources of inspiration that can help us cope during these unprecedented times. As vice chair of the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, my touchstone is the history of women’s fight for the right to vote. Through wars, riots, imprisonment, and even a pandemic, these courageous women never gave up.
As a Pittsburgh native, I’m especially proud of the stories of the women from our very own city who fought for what they believed in through all obstacles. Learning the stories of their resilience can help us find our own.
This year, the United States will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the pivotal moment when women won the right to vote. Suffragists — the activists who campaigned for women’s access to the ballot — began their organized fight in 1848 when they demanded the franchise during the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. For the next 72 years, they lobbied, marched, picketed and protested. On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was officially signed into law, establishing women’s voting rights in the U.S. Constitution.
Pittsburgh suffragists led the way for the commonwealth and the country. Jennie Roessing, Jennie Kennedy and Mary Bakewell developed the “Pittsburgh Plan,” a campaign strategy that inspired suffragists across the United States. Pauline, Emma and Mary Writt harnessed the power of African American women’s clubs in the city to organize for the right to vote. Although a state referendum for women’s suffrage failed in Pennsylvania in 1915, most western counties voted for the measure, in large part due to the organizing efforts in Pittsburgh. And, while most suffrage demonstrations across the country were segregated, a planning committee of white and black Pittsburgh women organized an integrated parade for May 2, 1914.
The movement in Pittsburgh was impacted by what was happening on the national stage. Over the decades, suffragists remained dedicated to the cause, even with seemingly insurmountable challenges. During the Civil War, women played a critical role in the war effort, yet male voters and politicians still denied women the franchise. In 1874, the suffragists’ appeals in court failed when the decision in Minor v. Happersett established that women’s right to vote was not protected under existing federal laws.
In 1913, suffragists planned the first major political march in Washington, D.C. — a grand parade of over 5,000 people from across the country. The procession devolved into violence when men swarmed the marchers, tearing down their banners and assaulting them.
In January 1917, suffragists became the first group to organize pickets outside the White House gates. In June 1917, police began arresting the picketers for obstructing sidewalk traffic and many were imprisoned. Yet every day that year, suffragists continued to send more of their troops to the picket lines.
They faced horrible conditions in prison, from filthy cells to unprovoked beatings. Suffragists protested this treatment by going on hunger strikes, but then were subjected to forced feedings. Despite the disappointments, violence and injustices along the way, the suffragists continued the fight.
In 1918, the suffragists, the country and the world faced a new kind of hardship. As the Spanish flu spread around the world, President Wilson changed his position and encouraged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. Shifting priorities due to the crisis, as well as the health of Members of Congress, may have contributed to further delay on passage of the amendment. Meanwhile, due to the flu pandemic, the suffragists were forced to greatly reduce or cancel their meetings and public demonstrations.
Pittsburgh was hit hard by the virus, with the highest per capita mortality rate of any city in the country, and the Red Cross played a major role in caring for the community. The heroic role many women played as nurses and volunteers during the pandemic and World War I contributed to changing public opinion about women and their civic role. This sea change in national sentiment transformed women’s suffrage into an inevitability.
In 2020, the centennial year of the victorious passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment, we are facing a series of trials and tribulations that will test our resolve as a community and a nation. As we look for inspiration during this time, we should turn to the story of the suffragists as one of American history’s greatest lessons in perseverance. No obstacle was too formidable for them to surmount. As Pittsburghers and Americans, we are beneficiaries today of their persistence to overcome.
Colleen Shogan, a Norwin High School graduate, is senior vice president and director of the David Rubenstein Center for White House History at the White House Historical Association and an adjunct professor of government at Georgetown University. The Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission was created by Congress .