Fighting for women’s right to be heard.
While women have fought for their rights throughout history, the organized suffrage movement began in 1848 with the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. At first, suffrage was closely aligned with the other two great movements of the progressive era, temperance and abolition. However, the alliance with temperance faltered when Susan B. Anthony decided it was “perfectly idiotic” to lobby men for the vote while telling them that the first thing women would do with it would be to outlaw alcohol.
The bond between suffrage and abolition was stronger and more significant. Frederick Douglass was one of the few men, and the only black, at Seneca Falls, and Sojourner Truth electrified an early women’s convention with her famous “Ain’t I a woman” speech. But that alliance broke down when the Fifteenth Amendment, giving black MEN the right to vote, was proposed. Declaring it “the Negro’s time,” Frederick Douglass supported the amendment and a lot of women’s suffrage advocacy soon took an ugly racist turn.
The 20th century brought new challenges that divided the movement, especially WWI. Some suffragists split from the mainstream and ramped up their radicalism with new dramatic flair. This was the era of spectacular parades and publicity stunts, women in white dresses with yellow sashes, and defiant daily picketing at the White House in the midst of war. There were arrests, jail sentences, hunger strikes and horrific force feedings that turned suffragists into martyrs.
It all finally ended on August 18, 1920, when Harry Burn of Mouse Creek, Tennessee, the youngest member of the state legislature, changed his mind at the last minute and voted to ratify the 19th Amendment . . . because his mother told him to.
Eight days later, on August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution. None of the pioneers lived to see it.
The suffrage movement in Maine largely mirrored the national campaign. It was overwhelmingly white and upper class, and splintered into different camps. There was a strong “anti” coalition in Maine as well, equally energized and vocal, predicting dire consequences for family life and the social fabric if women were to enter the political realm. Men lined up on both sides.
For years, Maine suffragists faced defeat after defeat, as the all-male legislature repeatedly voted down measures to enfranchise women in the state. In 1917, suffragists finally succeeded in putting the question to the people as a referendum, but it was a disaster. The referendum was defeated by 36,713 to 19,428 (all male) votes. Only Auburn and Rockland voted in favor of suffrage.
When, in the spring of 1919, Congress sent the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution to the states for ratification, Maine “antis” immediately called for another referendum. Suffragists began a frantic effort to line up state representatives and push for a special session before the referendum could be held. On November 4, 1919, Governor Milliken called a special session of the Maine state legislature. By a vote of 72 – 68, Maine became the 19th state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.
Ready to learn more? Here are some great resources to learn more about the Suffrage movement.
Maine Memory Network: Debates over Suffrage
Maine Memory Network: Writing Women
Maine Memory Network: Westbrook Seminary: Educating Women
Maine Memory Network: Margaret Chase Smith: A Historic Candidacy
Maine Memory Network: Rebecca Usher: "To succor the suffering soldiers"
Websites & Blogs
National Women's History Project
National Votes for Women Trail
National Collaborative for Women's History Sites
Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument