To mark the hundred-year anniversary of the 19th Amendment’s passage, last Tuesday Bowdoin Votes, the Sexuality, Women and Gender Center and the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department brought author Elaine Weiss to campus to speak about her latest book, “The Women’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.” The organizers strategically scheduled her talk to precede the centennial of Maine’s ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.
In her talk, sponsored by the Edith Lansing Koon Sills Lecture Fund, Weiss focused on the final moments of the fight for women’s suffrage, painting a dramatic and complex narrative of the tensions within the suffrage movement and between the suffragettes and their opposition. The success of the suffrage activists, Weiss argues, was anything but inevitable.
“The suffragists did not just march and picket and protest and demonstrate. They also debated and lobbied and drafted legislation and campaigned,” said Weiss, emphasizing the uphill nature of the battle fought by the suffragettes in Tennessee, where her book is primarily set. The Volunteer State was the 36th state to ratify, making it the final state necessary for the constitutional amendment to become law.
Weiss strove to clarify that the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment did not guarantee voting rights for all Americans. Jim Crow laws and a litany of other laws prevented black people, Asian Americans and Native Americans from voting for decades after 1920. She emphasized that the fight to ensure the protection of every American’s right to vote is far from over.
“We are revisiting a lot of these issues because voting rights are being threatened in many, many states. Something like 25 states have imposed new restrictions and new suppression tactics in the last several years since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act,” Weiss said.
Furthermore, she explained that studying the history of voting rights is important in order to understand that democracy is at stake.
“I think we have to have a reckoning. Are we going to allow this? The suffragists used the argument: How can we call ourselves a democracy if half of the citizens of the nation can’t vote?” Weiss said.
The fight, Weiss reminded the audience, did not and does not end with the winning of the right to vote. Once earned, the vote can never be taken for granted—it must be valiantly defended. Weiss ended her talk with a quotation from Carrie Chapman Catt, protégé of Susan B. Anthony, and a key leader of the ratification fight in Tennessee and founder of the League of Women Voters.
“‘That vote of yours has cost millions of dollars and the lives of thousands of women. Women have suffered agony of soul which you can never comprehend, that you and your daughters might inherit political freedom,’” Weiss said, quoting Catt. “Use it intelligently, conscientiously and prayerfully. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act.”