If there’s one ray of light cast by a year filled with shadows – a global pandemic, economic hardship and uncertainty, police brutality, a reckoning with systemic racism, just to name a few – perhaps it’s that all this turbulence sparked a little reflection on where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. In addition to a slew of tension-driving headlines, 2020 also marked the centennial of the ratification of the 20th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote after a long, sometimes violent fight that brought many legislative close-calls and disappointments, parades and political fashion, and ultimately triumph.
Staunch advocate for women’s independence and a leader in the fight for the right to vote, Susan B. Anthony wrote, “There shall never be another season of silence until women have the same rights men have on this green earth.” While the 20th Amendment was a victory for women, there is still work to be done – and not all Americans have the right to vote even now.
But a study of the women’s suffrage movement offers today’s college students a prime opportunity to reflect on how that propulsive history directly impacts their lives in the present moment. After watching the Twin Cities PBS-produced documentary Citizen, which explores the multigenerational march of Minnesota women and all they hoped would come with the vote, a small group of Saint Paul College students enrolled in Dr. Ayesha Shariff’s history and women’s studies classes shared the following reflections on how they connected personally with the history.
Editor’s Note: These pieces have been minimally edited to preserve the integrity of the students’ perspective. We hope you enjoy discovering what the next generation of writers, historians and activists has to say about the impact of the women’s suffrage movement then and now.
A REFLECTION ON THE ROLES WOMEN OF COLOR DID – AND DID NOT – PLAY
One of the things that I learned and surprised me a lot was the fact that many of the early suffragist women were very racist and classist. In the documentary, they describe that women got very angry after Black men got the right to vote before them, which made these rich white women mad that they got that privilege before them. Along with that, I learned that it was mostly a white women’s movement at first and it wasn’t until much later where they wanted all women to be included in the movement. But then also once other races and ethnicities were included during one of the marches, the white women wanted it to be segregated by race and ethnicity, but the women of color didn’t agree and just integrated themselves with the white women. Another thing I learned was that women would stay outside for so long, chain themselves to the White House gates, get harassed, and laughed at, and still didn’t give up. As a woman, that is so admirable and I feel so thankful for these women for putting up with all of that so I, many generations later, have the right to vote. I am not 18 yet, but I will be soon and I will make sure to always vote in any election. It is such an important part of being a citizen and considering we didn’t have the right to it at first but do now, I will always take advantage of that right and vote. I feel like so many people take it for granted and even today in some other countries women don’t have that right so it is so important to use the right that these women worked so hard for us to get. ~ Written by Amalie Persson
A REFLECTION ON THE STRONG CHARACTERS OF THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THE RIGHT TO VOTE
During this film, I learned a lot of things that I have never learned before. Something that I found interesting and that I was surprised to know was that in Minnesota, the age of consent was once at 10. Dr. Ripley fought for the age of consent for children, especially young girls, to raise to 18 but was granted 14. To imagine growing up in a society like that scares me; I’m grateful that it is no longer at such young ages. Another thing that I never knew was the density of the hardships that suffragist women went through. Many of them were rejected and portrayed as disgusting and insufferable by white men who wanted to keep their upper hand, and even by other women who thought that women’s right to vote would upset the balance and dynamic of women and men. Some of them were beaten, pelted with rotten tomatoes or dragged through the streets. I knew that they endured hate and were met with challenges, but I didn’t know that it was even from other women, and I never was taught how strong these women were. I think it’s very important to highlight that, even though they were faced with uphill battles, especially women of color, they never kept fighting for their freedom and rights without violence and worked their way up from the bottom, which says a lot about character. One last thing that I thought was really cool that I never knew was how much Minnesota played a part in women’s suffrage. Minnesota has some really cool history in itself, but the history of the women in this state amazes me. This film connected to me because I realize how important it is to vote and exercise the right that was so painfully fought for. I was never really taught to care about voting or thought it was valuable to my life, but it wasn’t until recently that I realized that maybe it was a good thing. This film enlightened me on the rights I was given because of many strong people. ~ Written by Amber Walker
A REFLECTION ON HOW IMPORTANT VOTING IS NOW
Something that I learned from the film that I didn’t already know was the lever that the men pulled when a woman came to vote to block them from the important elections and only giving them access to the small elections. I also learned that they originally wanted to be a part of the 15th amendment along with Black men, but a lot of women were angry about the fact that they got rights before them because not a few years beforehand they weren’t even seen as citizens. Another fact I didn’t know was that the age of consent was 10 at one point. I was definitely glad that Ripley was willing to fight for it, even if she did try and get it changed to 18 but only got it to 14, but the fact that she tried to advocate for those women means so much to young people now. One connection I can make is between the activists in Minnesota and the larger national women’s suffrage movement was the fact that they realized the power of petitioning and getting out there was going to make the movement work. Learning about the story of women’s quest for voting rights connects to me personally because I am a woman who votes regularly. Without the efforts of these women, I would not be able to vote for what I believe in, and we wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump out of office who was very discriminating to women and people of color. I am able to vote for what I believe in and have my opinion matter because of the efforts of these people. – Written by an anonymous student
A REFLECTION ON HOW OPPRESSED WOMEN ONCE WERE
The Citizen Documentary talks a lot about the history of Women’S Suffrage and the associations that it brought upon to fight for the ability and rights to vote as a woman. There were many things I didn’t know before watching It, but I definitely learned many things that I wouldn’t have known. To start, I didn’t know that, up until 1870, women weren’t able to own their own property. They were basically the property of men and, even if they made money working, their wages were also the property of men. They couldn’t get higher education and if they wanted to divorce their husbands, the father would keep the kids. They couldn’t borrow money without their husband signing off up until 1974. I honestly didn’t know that women were so oppressed and they had to fight so hard for rights that every human being should already have. Many women across Minnesota organized suffrage groups. At first, the Minnesota legislature allowed women the right to vote in school board elections, but they wanted to be able to vote in all elections. Learning about women’s quest for voting rights connects to me because Black people weren’t able to vote until the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote. Although I never have experienced the right to vote, knowing that Black people fought for their rights to be able to vote and let people like me vote gives me motivation to vote when it’s possible and not to lose the opportunity. ~ Written by Anwar Mohamed
A REFLECTION ON HOW SOME GENDER ROLE STEREOTYPES PERSIST
I feel like voting is such an important thing for everyone. Getting to express your voice isn’t something you take lightly. Being a woman, we are looked down upon and even though we are not oppressed anymore, to this day, some men think that women should be under a man. In countries in the Middle East and Africa, women are still looked at as less than. Women back in my parents’ home country, Ethiopia, still have to go through young marriages since it is normalized, sadly. Many old people in my family still look at women as if they are less than because that is how they were raised back home. Now that they live in America, they had to adjust to a different culture and lifestyle that was completely different from where they were from. They were taught that women were slaves to the kitchen and would have to do anything necessary to please a man. Sometimes when I am with my grandparents and we have dinner, I am told to go do the dishes or clean up after the men when they are completely capable of doing that themselves. I argue with my parents sometimes because when I would be cleaning, my brother would be able to leave the dinner table and go play his games without touching a thing. They think women have to live to all their expectations, but when it comes to sons in the house, nothing like that is expected of them. I explained to my parents that it isn’t fair how it is like that and that there is no difference between me and a man that makes a man unable to do simple things like cleaning or cooking. Now they do expect my brother to clean up after himself since he is getting older. ~ Written by Fatima Mohamed
A REFLECTION ON HOW HARD WOMEN HAD TO FIGHT FOR THE VOTE
In the past, women’s voices were difficult to hear in society. They had almost rights in life. For example, women could not get a higher education, they could not control their meager wages and they did not have right to vote and so on. The right to vote seemed to be unique to white men. There are some pioneers for women who tried to do something to get rights for women. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as the leaders of the women’s civil rights movement, fought for women to gain more power. They supported the Prohibition Act, and one of the reasons mentioned in the movie is that men will beat and scold women at will after drinking. The passage of the 15th Amendment also strengthened their determination to fight for the right to vote. They fought for women’s rights in many aspects of life: increasing the number of women’s jobs, improving women’s education, fighting for women’s legal rights. More and more women joined their ranks. They demonstrated peacefully in the streets, carried out hunger strikes, and united their forces so that the society could hear their voices. Through their efforts, the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, is recognized by more and more people. ~ Written by Jianing Wen
A REFLECTION ON GENERATIONAL AND CULTURAL MOTIVATIONS TO VOTE
In 1909, the voting machine was purchased in Minnesota. On the voting machines, there were instructions before entering the booth. It’s sad that the judges would pull the poll that they wanted, and it sometimes would not be the vote of a women. Women faced a lot of challenges. They could not be used in juries. They could not borrow money for college. Women who were married were the property of their husbands, and the husbands could beat them and get away with it. The husbands were able to take the wives’ hard-earned money and their properties. But single women were entitled to their own money and properties. Women were better off single then married. It seemed as if they had more rights being single then married. Women wanted to be heard and wanted their votes to count. Women who were not citizens could not vote either. One thing that I connected with is, as an American Hispanic woman born in the United States of America, I’m a citizen. But growing up on my mom’s side of the family, their religious belief is that we could not vote. I did not vote until I was about 21 years old when I first voted for Barack Obama. I worked with an African Black woman and she was as sweet as can be. She served in the army and she pushed me to vote and gave me that energy. She went and got the registration form for me, and I filled it out, and she mailed it in for me. She slept over at my house and took me to vote the day I was to go vote. She was afraid I wouldn’t go. I explained to her about what my family said about it. But since then, I vote all the time and am so happy I do. I tell my mom all the time, “MOM! You need to go vote, women made history, they fought for us to have jobs, have freedom, be equal to men, and we are not taking advantage of it.” But my mom still hasn’t till this day. I hope she will do that one day. My mother is 49, and I will push her until she does. ~ Written by Joanna Villegas
A REFLECTION ON THE IMBALANCE OF POWER BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN
Through the ages, the biggest and most extraordinary inventions and breakthroughs were alway in praise of and credit to men. Since ancient times, men were always placed above the female in terms of the leaders and education. Women’s abilities were suppressed in the communities where they lived in old age and were forced to keep the male satisfied and birth more citizens. This ideology was rooted in many societies all around the world where the male was above the woman. During the start of the 20th century, women were still not granted the right to vote and were considered “citizens,” but they were not considered to be of the same status as men. Voting polls were rigid so that, if a female were to go and vote, a voting judge had to adjust the voting machine for a woman to vote so that her vote could only count for small local voting. Although the right for a woman to vote was passed in the 1920s, to this day we are still fighting for society to equalize the playing field in many ways for women. From jobs to norms, men are always given the excuse to be themselves and do what they want because “ men will be men,” whereas a woman is exposed to the pressure of working harder to have her work as recognized as the males. I can connect to this personally because, to me and my female friends, I have seen others given better opportunities before me and my friend mainly because they were males. ~ Written by Melissa Olanda Mendoza
A REFLECTION ON HOW THE 15TH AMENDMENT PAVED THE WAY FOR THE 19TH AMENDMENT
The first thing that catches my attention in the film is how women in Minnesota actively engaged in many reforms. I was not aware of that until I watched the film. This helps me understand why Minnesotans always stand up against all forms of racial injustice in the country. I am also impressed by how women led the suffrage movement in Minnesota and created several suffrage associations and clubs.
I also learned how Minnesota is historically important in Black men’s freedom. As stated, in 1868 Minnesota made history by giving Black men the right to vote. Not surprisingly, it was a victory for women suffragists because of their contribution to make the 15th Amendment happen. Also, they rejoiced to see soon it was going to be their turn because, if Black men have the right to vote, later they could have the same right as well. We know that both Black men and women almost had similar social status: They were not fully considered to be citizens. Hence, seeing Black men have civil rights motivated more women to join the movement because they saw their freedom almost happening. They also took advantage of this historic event by asking to include women’s right to vote in the 15th Amendment. They gained more energy to accelerate the suffrage movement. They believed that they were going to be included in the next Amendment. However, that was not the case. So, it took around 50 years to ratify the 19th Amendment in 1920, which given women the right to vote. And Minnesota was the fifteenth state to ratify it. Finally, the first woman who voted under 19th Amendment was a Minnesotan. ~ Written by Sanley Guerrier
This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.
The stories in the collection Then & Now: Reflections on Women’s Suffrage were composed by St. Kate’s students enrolled in a Public Relations Writing class in Spring 2020. Read them and see how the next generation to do the work sees the struggle for women’s equality as they look back to the strengths and pitfalls of history, and look around at the fight for equality today.
Just 39 words in length, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote when it was passed on June 4, 1919 and enacted on August 26, 1920 – but its passage was fraught with decades of legal challenges and intense demonstrations in which women activists sometimes put their lives directly on the knife’s edge. Explore a timeline contributions of Minnesota women to the passage of the 19th Amendment.