I was going to devote this post today to how awesome my first week of classes was, but then I remembered that today is Women’s Equality Day, so I figured I would devote this post to something a little more important.
91 years ago today, the 19th amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. For years, I thought that this right was won by virtue of marches, picketing, yelling, and general rowdiness on the part of American women, and I would have been partially right. But this right, this basic human right that women in America so frequently take for granted (or simply refuse to use), was also won by women who were willing to be tortured in horrible ways (although, really, is torture ever NOT horrible?) for something they believed in so passionately.
I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t really get this concept until my 19th century European History class last year, when my professor showed us a clip from the movie Iron Jawed Angels. This is a dramatization of the American suffrage movement, and as such the scene I am about to link to should be taken with a (very small) grain of salt. I do know that the suffragists/suffragettes who were arrested for using their First Amendment rights were treated brutally, and as far as I can tell, the way force-feeding is depicted in this scene is more or less accurate. WARNING: It’s also incredibly disturbing, and if you are particularly squeamish, I wouldn’t watch.
As I said earlier, this really happened. And women were so passionate about their cause, and believed so strongly in its righteousness, that they were willing to subject themselves to this over and over again. I don’t believe this happened in America, but at least in Britain, the government passed the Prisoner’s Temporary Discharge for Health Act (more commonly referred to as the Cat and Mouse Act) in 1913, as a response to the suffrage movement. This basically meant that, if a women was arrested and went on hunger strike in prison (as so many did to protest their unlawful imprisonment), she would be released by the authorities as soon as she was too sick or weak to be a “menace” to society. The assumption was that she would start eating again in the free world, and when she regained some strength, they could re-arrest her for the same crime. Apparently, this made the government look less sinister than when they were simply force-feeding the women.
Thinking about what these women went through makes me think two things:
1) These suffragists could have easily returned home, just like so many people wanted them to. They were facing social pressure from every angle, illegal imprisonment, torture, and permanent injury, all for the sake of something that a good portion of America thought was foolish anyway. Men and women of all classes thought that a woman’s place was in the home, and that giving her the vote was silly, since her husband/father/brothers could vote for her. It’s not like these women were the only ones brave enough to stand up for something everyone thought was right. I can’t even imagine the inner strength and courage these women possessed.
2) Ironically, part of the reason why we celebrate Women’s Equality Day on August 26th is to acknoweldge that women are not yet completely equal to men in this country. To argue that (which I by all means intend to do) would take another post entirely, but my point here is this- how can I build on the courage and hard work of these women, to ensure that my daughter’s daughters (to borrow from Mary Poppins) will live in an even better world than the one I inhabit? What will be the legacy that I leave to the future women of this country? Will it be one of true equality, where women and men have equal access to all of the human rights and liberties that make this country great? Or will it be more like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? (I realize now that that was an incredibly depressing way to end that thought, and I really hope that book never comes true.)
I know a lot of people think politics is boring, or pointless, or only useful if you need a good cry, but I feel like we owe it to the suffrage movement to use the 19th amendment wisely and diligently. So many women either don’t realize how their voting right was bought for them (I really didn’t), or don’t care, and that makes me sad, which is why I’m writing this post.
As everyone who isn’t living under a rock is currently aware, we have an election coming up next November. Might I suggest that you take some time this election season to get to know the people running, get informed on the issues, and then submit an informed vote? White men won the vote with the Revolutionary War, people of all races won the vote with the Civil War, and women won the vote by accepting no less than full citizenship. We have a heritage of fighting for our rights in this country, and there’s no better way to honor that heritage than at the voting booth.
I hope you all have a wonderful weekend, and Happy Women’s Equality Day!