At times it feels as if the year 2020 has been filled with an endless string of disheartening events and difficulties worldwide, mostly related to the global coronavirus pandemic.
However, the centennial of one of the greatest victories ever achieved for women in the United States, one of the brightest spots in women’s history — the right to vote — is being celebrated across the nation on August 18th of this year.
The passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920 is one of the greatest landmarks in the liberation of women in the western world. Coming after British women received the partial right to vote in 1907 (only for those who owned land, a very small minority) the US action was not the first attempt worldwide to give women the right of suffrage, but it was broader in its effect, creating no stipulations on property ownership.
All women from that point onward — either property owners or those who owned nothing at all — would have the right to vote in all elections in the United States.
The hard-won victory came only after many decades of work and activism on the part of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Sojourner Truth, and many others, both male and female, who recognized that the basic rights of women as American citizens were abridged by their exclusion from the voting process.
Miguel Sedamano, a writer on politics and foreign affairs who who earned his doctorate in political science at the University of Barcelona, wrote recently about the strong connection between the fight for universal right to vote in the United States to the political thought of Ancient Greece.
“While the word suffrage, derived from the Latin “suffragium” implies “the right to vote,” the movement embodied a more ambitious vision, establishing for the first time in history the foundations of a society in which men and women could enjoy equal right of speech (From the Greek: Demokratia Isegoria) and equal participation of all citizens in the exercise of power (From the Greek: Isonomia).”
Sedamano continues, saying that “the union between “Demokratia Isegoria” and “Isonomia” in the public sphere was an extraordinary milestone in the ongoing fight to extend individual rights in the United States and a lighthouse of hope across the world.”
The writer expands on this theme in his essay, recalling Euripides’s masterwork “The Phoenician Women,” written c. 411-409 B.C., saying that it was “a classic of ancient literature in which, with extraordinary erudition, Euripides explains the relationship between citizenship, freedom of speech, human dignity and power.”
Sedamano writes that Euripides believed that without the right of free speech, we are unable to exercise any kind of power, and thus we are in the same situation as slaves. “Further,” he states, “if citizens can’t exercise “Demokratia Isegoria” or “Isonomia,” they cannot oppose a ruler’s power. Only slaves and the dead lack of an independent voice.
The political scientist states that Professor Iris Marion Young, (1949-2006), “believed that freedom of speech entails a principle that everyone whose basic interests are affected by policies should be included in the process of making them.”
“In that spirit,” he continues, “we need to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment in the United States. A fundamental right based not by blood ties or lineage but by those innate characteristics that unite us as free and independent individuals, or as the ancient Greeks used to say: Individuals with “Demokratia Isegoria”, and “Isonomia”.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Another link to Ancient Greece exists in the American movement to give the vote to women in the form of activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who lived from 1815-1902, dying before she saw the fruits of her labors. Her “Declaration of Sentiments,” based on the Declaration of Independence and published in 1848, is seen as the first major event in the suffrage movement in the United States.
Educated formally, in contrast to almost all other American females at the time, Stanton attended Johnstown Academy, winning second prize in the school’s Greek language competition. Her family’s pastor, the Reverend Simon Hosack, urged the brilliant girl to go as far as possible with her studies; at the end of his life, he bequeathed to her his own Greek lexicon.
Her published work titled that “Declaration of Sentiments,” based on the Declaration of Independence, is viewed as initiating the first organized women’s rights and suffrage movement in the United States. In it, she stated the concept that both men — and women — were indeed created equal and therefore had equal rights as citizens.
Later becoming an abolitionist as well, alongside the formerly enslaved woman Sojourner Truth, Stanton wrote memoirs entitled “Eighty Years and More,” in which she recalled the pleasure she had taken as a child in attending Episcopal Church services with her family’s slave, Peter Teabout, who as a black man was obligated to sit in the back pews. She would joyfully sit with him, shunning the other white parishioners.
Sojourner Truth, whose original name was Isabella “Belle” Baumfree, was born an enslaved person in 1797 in Swartekill, New York. However, her innate strength was revealed when she was able to escape with her infant daughter to freedom in 1826.
Afterward, she went to court to also gain legal custody of her enslaved son in 1828, becoming the first black woman to win such a case against a white man.
She took the name Sojourner Truth at the age of 49 after she became convinced that God had called her witness to others, as the Bible says, “testifying to the hope that was in her.”
Her extemporaneous speech in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, went down in history by the title “Ain’t I a Woman?” In the 1860’s, Truth helped recruit black troops for the North’s Union Army.
She continued her work with Stanton until the end of her life, in 1883.
Susan B. Anthony
But perhaps the best-known suffragist in America was Susan B. Anthony, who never married but rather devoted her entire life to the effort to enfranchise women.
This firebrand for women’s rights was born in 1820 to a Quaker family in Adams, Massachusetts. She was known to have collected anti-slavery petitions at the age of 17, and by the age of 36 she was named the New York state agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society.
In 1866, she and Stanton created the American Equal Rights Association, which campaigned for equal rights for both women and African Americans. The two fast friends also began publishing a women’s rights newspaper called The Revolution in 1868.
Four years later, Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a trial that became the talk of the nation.
The suffrage movement in the US was extremely controversial in its time, with its proponents often accused of trying to destroy marriage. However, the unflinching determination of these three women, and many others, eventually led the nation’s populace to understand the necessity of granting females the same right to participate in public life as males enjoyed.
Public perception of Anthony actually changed so much during her lifetime that by her 80th birthday she was invited to the White House to celebrate with President William McKinley.
In 1878, Anthony and Stanton believed that the time was ripe, becoming the backers of a new Constitutional amendment calling for women to be granted the right to vote.
Sponsored by Sen. Aaron A. Sargent (R-CA), it later became known as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” and it was finally ratified decades later as the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on August 18, 1920. Like Stanton, Anthony also did not live to see the passage of the Amendment, dying in 1906.
Susan B. Anthony became the first American woman to be depicted on U.S. coinage when her portrait appeared on the dollar coin in 1979.