No matter her leadership of a national movement to secure voting rights for half the American population, Susan B. Anthony had to suffer 19th century indignities.
She traveled on the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad in January 1865 on the way to visit her brother, a newspaper editor in Leavenworth, Kansas. Weather slowed the Missouri crossing, putting her transit at about 19 hours.
Twelve miles east of St. Joseph, the frigid train stopped for a derailment ahead on the line. She spotted a hovel beside the tracks and ventured out to ask a woman to sell her a cup of coffee.
“I was desperate. Any decent farmer’s pigpen would be as clean as that (train) car,” the suffragette wrote in her journal. “When she handed me my drink, she said, ‘This is no rye; it is real coffee.’ And so it was, and I enjoyed it ... cracked cup and all.”
Her struggles would be of greater import in the times ahead as she worked toward women’s suffrage, a breakthrough in American rights that passed Congress 100 years ago. The 19th Amendment would become part of the U.S. Constitution in 1920 after ratification by 36 states.
Anthony, along with most others at the genesis of the movement, would never get a chance to cast a vote, testament to the decades-long struggle to achieve enfranchisement for American women.
“That is something that I think a lot of people don’t realize, the amount of time that it took,” Dr. Elyssa Ford, a cultural and social historian at Northwest Missouri State University, said. “The women who were there who started this are not the same women who got the right to vote. They were dead.”
Anthony died in 1906. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, another pioneer in the fight for women’s rights, died in 1902.
Many historians cite the birthplace of the women’s rights movement as Seneca Falls, New York, where the Wesleyan Chapel hosted a convention in July 1848. It was meant as a discussion of “the social, civil and religious condition” of women.
A resolution adopted by the convention said that “all laws which prevent women from occupying such a station in society as her conscience shall dictate ... are contrary to the great precept of nature.”
It proved revolutionary for the time, but Ford pointed out that one particular provision brought up at Seneca Falls got seen as too provocative.
“Of all of the things they were talking about, which were really sweeping changes in terms of the position of women in society, the one that was considered the most radical was the right to vote,” the Northwest historian said.
‘Reception was positive’ A national movement had begun, but Ford said that much of the organizing took place in rural communities. Maryville, for instance, hosted talks by Anthony (a library fundraiser on March 2, 1876) and Stanton (on April 2, 1879). Phoebe Couzins, a Missourian and one of the nation’s first female attorneys, spoke in the city in 1882.
“What I noticed in Missouri is that a lot of the rural areas were surprisingly open to the idea of suffrage,” Ford said of her research. “If you read the newspaper articles about the talks that Stanton and Anthony gave here in Maryville ... the reception was positive.”
Yet the suffrage movement lost traction as votes in state legislatures continued to fail, sometimes by tantalizingly close margins. National organizers had to frequently change tactics.
When a Missourian named Virginia Minor attempted to register to vote in 1872, being turned down, she and her husband filed a lawsuit that eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court. The all-male justices ruled unanimously that citizenship does not equal voting rights.
Later, the women’s suffrage movement would become linked to the women’s temperance movement, a connection that gained some backers but possibly more enemies.
Eventually, history began to catch up with this effort. States like Kansas, in 1912, adopted women’s suffrage.
The next year, suffragettes organized a massive parade in Washington, D.C. Leading that procession was the Missouri Ladies Military Band, from Maryville. Alma Nash, founder and director of the band, applied to take part in the parade, never dreaming her musicians would be in the lead.
‘To the heroic women’
In 1917, a Montanan named Jeannette Rankin became the first woman elected to the U.S. House. The next year, she opened debate on the amendment for women’s voting rights. President Woodrow Wilson gave his support. The Senate would not supply the needed two-thirds majority until 1919.
Missouri became the 11th state to vote in favor of ratification. Gov. Frederick D. Gardner directed a message to the state General Assembly that put the vote in context of the recently completed war in Europe.
“It comes at this time as a peculiarly fitting tribute to the noble mothers who gave their sons to the nation,” he said, “to the heroic women who participated in the overseas duties, and to all women who faithfully kept the home fires burning during the late war.”
With the amendment and the right to vote, the struggle for gender equality continued, said Dr. Melinda Kovacs, a political scientist at Missouri Western State University.
“There is a view of gender roles that dies hard,” she said, adding, “Legal equality is a good first step but that does not always translate to equality in lived experiences, equality in pay, equality in promotions, equality in how men and women are seen in certain roles.”
Such a disparity can be seen in Congress. Though women make up 51 percent of the American population, about 24 percent of the members of the House and Senate are women.
“I think there have been changes in American politics and maybe even American political culture when it comes to how woman-friendly or how open to women is politics, but it’s still understood as a male or masculine sphere,” Kovacs said.
The Western associate professor said mixed signals get sent to young people about how they should view gender equality, even if males and females have the same right to vote.
“This is about sending messages to the younger generation, people who are children today, about, ‘Can I really be anything I want to be?’” Kovacs said.
“What if I am a little girl and what are my chances of ending up in Congress, what are my chances of being a Supreme Court justice? That is what is at stake here.”