Thoughts on the 100th Anniversary of the Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment

Written by Acting MLARI Research Director, Karen Linkletter

Direct results always come first. In the care and feeding of an organization, they play the role calories play in the nutrition of the human body. But any organization also needs a commitment to values and their constant reaffirmation, as a human body needs vitamins and minerals. There has to be something “this organizations stands for,” or else it degenerates into disorganization, confusion, and paralysis…Value commitments, like results, are not unambiguous. 
-    Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive, 1966, p. 56.

Western suffragists, including Utahns Martha Hughes Cannon, Sarah M. Kimball, Emmeline B. Wells, and Zina D. H. Young, pose with national suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw at the 1895 Rocky Mountain Suffrage Meeting in Salt Lake City

Today we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Amendment reads as follows: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Management as a Liberal Art offers us the opportunity to learn from history. It also requires that we practice management with an understanding of integrity in leadership. Achieving one’s goals is important, but intentions and methods are just as important. If the results are driven by improper motivations or strategies, the leader does not model virtue. The history of the 19th Amendment’s ratification presents such a case study for us.

The traditional narrative has been that the American suffrage movement began with the Seneca Falls convention. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were two anti-slavery activists who met in 1840 at a convention in London. Women were not allowed to participate in conference activities on the convention floor. In New York, Mott and Stanton, along with others, organized a convention to be held in the Wesleyan Church in Seneca Falls. The subject of the convention was the “social, civic, and religious condition and rights of women.” On July 19, 1848, 200 women attended the Seneca Falls Convention, where Stanton read her “Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances.” Stanton used the language of the Declaration of Independence in her preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Men (including Frederick Douglass) attended the second day of the convention. The convention attendees adopted 12 resolutions calling for specific equal rights for women – including the right to vote.

Lucretia Mott
Lucretia Mott

While Seneca Falls was an important moment, it overshadows the fact that there were other women – Black women – who were also speaking out for women’s rights at the time. Maria Stewart was the first African American women to speak publicly on women’s rights, particularly Black women’s rights. In 1832, Stewart delivered the lecture “Why Sit Ye Here and Die” to the New England Anti-Slavery Society in Boston, in which she demanded equal rights for African American women.  Following Seneca Falls, many abolitionists and suffragists spoke to meetings and gatherings aimed at promoting women’s rights. Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech in 1851 to the national women’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio. The American Equal Rights Association advocated suffrage for both women and black men. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with Frederick Douglass, helped form this organization in 1866. Abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper spoke at the founding meeting of the organization.  Harper co-founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. She was a traveling lecturer on anti-slavery in 1850s. In her 1866 speech at the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs’ convention in New York, she stated that “We are all bound up together.” She urged attendees to include Black women in the suffrage and equal rights movements.

But the end of the Civil War brought controversy, and coalitions between white and black suffragists began to deteriorate. Some in the movement supported the 15th Amendment, which gave Black men the right to vote. Others were against it and thought that allying interests with Southern whites would be a better strategy.  When Douglass argued for the support of the 15th amendment during the American Equal Rights Association’s May 1869 convention, Stanton disagreed, using particularly ugly language: “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for… Susan B. Anthony… [The amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.”  Douglass responded cuttingly, with a clear message to white women: “When women, because they are women,” he said, “are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lampposts; when their children are torn from their arms and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.” Douglass was pointing out the realities of Black life in America, and the absurdity of white women believing that Black women did not face their own special challenges. 

Elizabeth Stanton
Elizabeth Stanton

This sad situation led to an eventual devil’s bargain for the suffrage movement. The movement, which split over support for the 15th Amendment, eventually regrouped under the umbrella of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890. Although Black women were not officially excluded from membership in the organization, Southern chapters did exclude Black members. Northern chapters were discouraged from welcoming Black women’s organizations that sought to affiliate themselves with the group for fear of angering Southern whites. Leaders like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who had been important in the early suffrage movement, now were relegated to the sidelines. At the famous Woman’s March in Washington D.C. on March 13, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, Black suffragists were told they had to march in segregated units in the back if they wanted to participate. Mary Church Terrell marched. Ida B. Wells refused initially, only to come out of the spectator section and join the white suffragettes from her state, marching in the front.

The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, but did it achieve the suffragists’ goal? If the goal was to gain votes for white women only, yes. Black disenfranchisement continued to be a problem well into the 1960s, as the late John Lewis sacrificed his skull at the march on Selma to gain voting rights for Black Americans in 1965 through the protections of the Voting Rights Act. If the mission of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was to focus on white women’s suffrage, the organization should have stated it as such. Because it chose political expediency at the price of moral honesty, the result was indeed “disorganization” and “confusion.” A movement that initially had the energy and power of leaders like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth and many others degenerated into a debate over tactics and lost its moral core. As a result, Black women (and men) still fight against disenfranchisement, and there is a lasting distrust when it comes to white and Black collaboration on matters of social justice.

Peter Drucker’s concept of Management as a Liberal Art allows us to view historical milestones with an eye for lessons we can take away. The celebration of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage is a celebration for some, but not all. Management as a Liberal Art requires us to consider the broader implications of the choices we make, even if those choices accomplish direct results. As Drucker stated, “Value commitments, like results, are not unambiguous.

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