The ‘Undesirable Militants’ Behind the Nineteenth Amendment

A century after women won the right to vote, The Atlantic reflects on the grueling fight for suffrage—and what came after.

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Editor’s Note: Read more stories in our series about women and political power.

Some mornings, President Woodrow Wilson would shut his eyes as he rode past the women who had assembled once again outside the White House. Occasionally he tipped his hat to them. He didn’t want a confrontation, but by the spring of 1917 it was clear that they weren’t going away. Wilson had claimed earlier in his presidency that he wasn’t aware women even wanted the vote. Plausible deniability was no longer an option.

The women had first appeared in the chill of January, silently holding banners that said: “Mr. President, you say liberty is the fundamental demand of the human spirit,” and “Mr. President! How long must women wait for liberty?” Bouts of miserable weather and jeering passersby came and went. The protests continued.

June brought chaos. After months of fragile peace, police started loading the women into paddy wagons. By autumn, hundreds of women had been arrested for obstructing the sidewalk outside the White House. Many of them were sent to prison. Newspapers reported that women were tortured at Occoquan, the Virginia workhouse where several prominent suffragists served time. The idea was “to break us down by inflicting extraordinary humiliation upon us,” Eunice Brannan told The New York Times after her release, in November. Brannan and others described being beaten repeatedly, dragged down stairs, thrown across rooms, kicked, manacled to prison-cell bars, denied toothbrushes, and forced to share a single bar of soap. Drinking water came from a dirty pail that sat in a common area. The guards, some of them marines from nearby Quantico, warned the women they’d be gagged and put in straitjackets if they spoke. Bedding was never washed, and the beans and cornmeal served to prisoners were crawling with maggots. “Sometimes the worms float on top of the soup,” one woman wrote in an affidavit. “Often they are found in the cornbread.” It wasn’t until the following spring that the D.C. Court of Appeals deemed the arrests unconstitutional.

By then 26 women had departed for a railroad tour of the United States, all the way wearing replicas of their prison garb—blue calico tunics with washrags pinned to belts. Their message was the same from Chattanooga to New Orleans; Denver to Milwaukee; San Francisco back to Hartford, Boston, and New York: We just want to vote. Please help us. How long must women wait for liberty?

On June 4, 1919, these women and dozens of others poured into the U.S. Senate gallery to watch the final vote on the Nineteenth Amendment, which would guarantee them the right to vote. When it passed, they broke into a roaring applause. For two full minutes, senators made no attempt to quiet them. After that, they got back to work. At least 36 states had to ratify the amendment for it to be made official. This took 14 months, just in time for women to vote in the 1920 election.

Before women could win the right to vote, they had to convince people to take them seriously. In the discombobulated decades after the Civil War, American men occasionally found themselves making public arguments against suffrage—brushbacks that were issued casually, even lazily. Girls aren’t smart enough to make a big decision like this. All you’ll do is cancel out your husband’s vote. You’re too pure for politics. Most women don’t actually want this. I’ll buy you another new toy instead. It’s just too expensive to have this many voters. Um, we’re all out of voting machines. Or, as The New York Times declared in 1913, “all the rumpus about female suffrage is made by a very few of our disoriented sisters.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, so wrong. But understandable. The powerful are often blind to the stakes and momentum of a political revolution until it’s too late.

Library of Congress

When it became clear that suffragists wouldn’t back down, the arguments against them took on an apocalyptic hue. The men and women who opposed the movement issued grave warnings. Banner-making and clubhouse meetings upstate may have been tolerable, even cute, but earlier stirrings had given way to more radical behaviors. During the time women could be found picketing outside the White House, they were also lighting liberty bonfires, parading in the streets, and refusing to eat. By the eve of World War I, suffragists weren’t just a political nuisance that could be dismissed with a newspaper column. Instead, critics yowled that they were instigating a “petticoat coup,” destroying the family unit, and unraveling the very fabric of civil society. Newspapers described them as “undesirable militants,” “unwomanly,” “shameless,” “pathological,” and “dangerous.” Women’s political power—whether they have it, how they get it—has never been about elections alone.

The theologian Lyman Abbott, writing for The Atlantic in 1903, described women who would attempt “man’s function” as “monstrosities of nature,” doomed to inferiority anyway. Such arguments fueled women’s rage and firmed their resolve. “Of course, we enjoyed irritating them,” Doris Stevens wrote in her 1920 book, Jailed for Freedom. “Militancy is as much a state of mind, an approach to a task, as it is the commission of deeds of protest. It is the state of mind of those who in their fiery idealism do not lose sight of the real springs of human action.”

A century later, Americans are only just beginning to reckon in earnest with the complexities of the suffrage movement’s victory. Many of the white women who are widely remembered as its heroines refused to fight for the black women who risked their lives for the cause. Some of those same white women had fought vocally against the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black men the right to vote in 1870, saying that white women deserved to vote instead. Many of the white women held at Occoquan complained about the black women who slept in the cots beside them, citing integration as evidence of intolerable prison conditions. Suffragists in Washington, D.C., refused to let black women march alongside them in their parades. (In 1913, the journalist Ida B. Wells, who had recently co-founded the NAACP, famously marched with the white women from her state’s delegation anyway.) Women finally secured the right to vote nationwide in 1920, but black women were for decades after that routinely turned away from the ballot box. Only in 1965, with the Voting Rights Act, and with subsequent court decisions, were the tools of disenfranchisement that targeted people of color—including poll taxes and literacy tests—outlawed.

The centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment’s passage is an occasion for celebration, but it is also a cause for inquiry. Americans have again arrived at a political and cultural flash point in which women are playing a transformative role. More women than ever before ran for Congress and for governor last year. More women than ever before are now serving in the House and in the Senate. So far six women are running for president—the most for a major-party nomination in American history. (The previous record was two.) That’s why, to deepen The Atlantic’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election, we’re launching a series over the next several months that looks back on the battle for suffrage, to better understand how we reached this political moment, and where it may lead. Today you can read Emma Green’s story on the activists from either pole of the abortion debate who see themselves as the rightful inheritors of the early women’s movement. You can also read Annika Neklason’s exploration of The Atlantic’s archives to see how we covered the suffrage movement at the time. (Spoiler: Our record is not exactly great.) Look for voting-themed clues in our crossword puzzle all week. And in the days and months to come, we’ll publish many more stories in this series about the stakes of this political moment, and how women are defining it.

Fraud and intimidation still occur on Election Day. The social structures built on the assumption that women would be forever excluded from political and professional spheres remain rigidly in place. In this country and around the world, people refuse to acknowledge the forces and systems that work against women. People continue to fight over what it means for women to have political power, or whether they truly have it. The feminist movement is as fractured as ever, stunted by many of the same forces that complicated the fight for voting rights a century ago. No woman has been president of the United States. The pressing question isn’t just what all of this means for women, but what it means for everyone. Women have been allowed to vote for nearly 100 years now. The real work is just beginning.