Today, it all seems inevitable. "The Cause," as they called it, the campaign for woman suffrage, seems as quaint as the clothes suffragists wore and the banners they held aloft: "Thoughts Have Gone Forth Whose Power Shall Sleep No More."
To our modern ears, Susan B. Anthony's last public words - "failure is impossible" - sound less like a final defiant cry than a statement of fact. On the 75th anniversary of suffrage Saturday, we have forgotten that failure wasn't impossible.When a small band assembled in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848 to declare that "all men and women are created equally," American women were not even allowed to keep their money in marriage or to determine the fate of their children. Nevertheless, these radicals resolved "that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise."
There was no straight line from that first declaration to final victory. It took over 800 campaigns directed at state legislatures, at party conventions, at state referendums and Congress before women won from men the right to vote.
When the constitutional amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878, Elizabeth Cady Stanton reported that it was greeted with "inattention and contempt" by a committee chairman who "stretched, yawned, gazed at the ceiling, cut his nails, sharpened his pencil. . . ." By 1900, the whole campaign seemed stuck in what even the suffragists called "the doldrums."
It wasn't until the war years when a newly energized generation of women came upon the scene with more aggressive tactics that the final countdown began. But victory was not inevitable until the very last moment in the very last state when a young Tennessee legislator heeded his mother's plea and switched sides, and the amendment was ratified by one vote.
So this anniversary is not just to celebrate victory but also the struggle. How long this took. How hard the fight.
Today, women are living in another moment of stalemate, backlash, lopsided change. The next generation of historians may describe the 1980s and '90s as our "doldrums."
It took two generations before women voted in equal numbers to men. Now we vote in nearly equally low numbers. It's taken 75 years to win 8 percent of the Senate seats, 11 percent of the House seats, 20 percent of the state legislature slots. Women are becoming doctors and lawyers in full proportion. But not politicians, not lawmakers, policymakers, world leaders.
Among all the fine speeches to be read Saturday, maybe we need most to hear the words an aging Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke to the next generation over a hundred years ago:
"I urge the young women especially to prepare themselves to take up the work so soon to fall from our hands. You have had opportunities for education such as we had not. You hold today the change-ground we have won by argument. Show now your gratitude to us by making the uttermost of yourselves and, by your earnest, exalted lives secure to those who come after you a higher outlook . . . a larger freedom."