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Centennial Celebration: The U.S. Congress ratified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920. It reads: “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.”
by Audrey Partington
Special to The Greater Olney News
To say the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted the vote to women understates the 72-year struggle by three generations of women.
Among them were legions of Marylanders who fought for the vote with enormous personal sacrifice.
While the movement began at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in July 1848, Maryland can trace its activism for women’s suffrage to the colonial period.
In 1648, the British-born Margaret Brent petitioned the Maryland colony’s governing body for a vote on the grounds that she was a landowner, who also served as colonial Gov. Leonard Calvert’s executor. She was denied.
Upon Calvert’s death, Brent requested a voice in the legislature to lobby for a tax to repay debts not covered by the deceased governor’s estate. Instead, she sold off cattle belonging to the governor’s brother, Cecil Calvert (Lord Baltimore), proprietor of the Maryland colony. Her bold move saved the colony, but earned the scorn of Lord Baltimore. She fled to nearby Virginia, where she once again prospered. She has the distinction of being the first woman in colonial America to argue for the vote.
The women’s suffrage movement that began with promise in Seneca Falls lost its momentum with the outbreak of the Civil War. With men at war, women kept the home fires burning and ministered to the wounded.
Women reformers who took part in the anti-slavery movement had hoped that enfranchisement of freed men would extend to them. Instead, they saw the 15th amendment grant the right to vote to citizens regardless of race or color, with no mention of gender.
The National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed in 1890, with chapters in a growing number of states.
In 1892, the Maryland Woman Suffrage Association was formed through a merge between the Baltimore City Suffrage Club and a group of Quaker suffragists in Sandy Spring.
The Just Government League of Maryland, an affiliate of the national suffrage association — was created in 1909 to promote the social benefits of enfranchising women. By 1915, membership totaled 17,000, making it the largest suffrage organization.
African American women fought for social reforms within their own clubs since the women’s suffrage movement was largely segregated. Such was the case in Maryland, where the issue of votes for women was complicated by southern politics, which sought to disenfranchise black men.
The DuBois Circle, the oldest black women’s organization in Baltimore, and the Progressive Women’s Suffrage Club were both active in the African-American neighborhood of Druid Hill in West Baltimore to advocate for universal suffrage and other reforms.
Marching for the vote
Proximity to the nation’s capital allowed Maryland suffragists to attend rallies, meet with the president and members of Congress, and picket the White House. They also hosted delegations, which came to Washington to lobby for the vote.
On March 3, 1913, the more militant wing of the National American Woman Suffrage Association — which later formed the National Woman’s Party — held a suffrage parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
The city was packed with people in town for Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration but the 8,000 marchers stole the show.
Failure by the local police to control attacks on the marchers led to a congressional inquiry. But the event was successful in refocusing the movement from the states to the federal level by lobbying for a constitutional amendment.
Maryland women from all over the state participated in the parade. That included students and faculty from Baltimore’s Goucher College, Sandy Spring Quakers, women from Overlea, Md., who hosted the “Army of the Hudson” (marchers who walked from New York to Washington), and suffrage delegates who rode the “Suffrage Special” train to Washington.
In the summer of 1913, “Couriers to Congress” from across the nation converged at a baseball park in Hyattsville, carrying suffrage amendment petitions with 75,000 signatures. They rode to the U.S. Capitol in 60 automobiles to deliver their petitions to the Senate.
The following summer, women from Baltimore hiked across Garrett County, visiting 14 towns to spread the suffrage message to rural citizens.
In 1915, the Prairie Schooner Women’s Suffrage Campaign went to Havre de Grace in horse-drawn covered wagons, where they were greeted by the Harford County chapter of the Just Government League.
The Margaret Brent Pilgrimage to the colonial heroine’s home in St. Mary’s County and throughout Southern Maryland — also in covered wagons — lasted 23 days during the summer of 1915.
Pickets and prison
Members of the National Woman’s Party picketed the White House throughout Wilson’s presidency. The pickets coincided with the influenza pandemic of 1918 and World War I.
The protestors intended to shame the president and the nation for denying American women the vote while fighting abroad for freedom and democracy.
In 1919, the picketers began publicly burning copies of the president’s speeches, with banners implying that the leader of the free world was a hypocrite. These “Watchfires of Freedom” resulted in more arrests. Among these brave women were about a dozen Maryland suffragists.
At first the protestors were tolerated but then these “Silent Sentinels” were arrested and jailed. Those who refused to eat were violently force fed. Upon their release from jail, some participated in the “Prison Special,” a nationwide train tour, wearing prison dress.
Congress finally passed the 19th amendment to the Constitution in June 1919. It reads:
“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.”
Maryland was not among the required 36 states that ratified the amendment in 1920. Maryland did not ratify the amendment until March 29, 1941, and did not certify that vote until March 25, 1958. But Maryland women were enfranchised by the federal amendment.
After winning the vote, suffrage clubs on the national and state level turned their attention to voter education. With chapters in states across the country, including Maryland, the League of Women Voters also marks its centennial this year.
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