The idea of women’s right to vote grew slowly during the years after the American constitution was adopted. The idea that ordinary men—farmers, merchants, and other non-royal citizens should vote was radical enough for the founding fathers. When Abigail Adams asked her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” as he and others wrote the document, he laughed and ignored her request.
Years went by and American men expanded voting rights to other men, but they apparently never thought of giving women the same rights. Some women realized they would never be given voting rights unless they took dramatic action. Sending petitions and making speeches was not enough.
The presidential election in 1872 marked a turning point. In Rochester, New York, fourteen women, including the suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony, decided they would vote in the presidential election. When Anthony cast her vote, she was arrested, but not jailed. It was not until two months later that her trial began. While she waited, Anthony went on a speaking tour around the area to tell people what she had done and why it was important for women to be allowed to vote.
The judge, however, did not want to hear her arguments. Nor did he give her an opportunity to voice her concerns. He wrote his decision in the case before the trial even started and he directed the jury to find Anthony guilty. They obediently did as they were told. Anthony was fined $100, which she refused to pay. She hoped to make public the reasons for her refusal, but the judge made that impossible. He released her despite her failure to pay and because she was not jailed, she was unable to speak in court and unable to appeal the case to a higher court as she had planned.
Even though she was not able to appeal the court’s decision, Anthony did manage to call attention to the cause of women suffrage. She won many supporters who worked with her during the years it took for women to finally win voting rights. Unfortunately, Anthony died in 1906, long before the 19th amendment gave American women the right to vote, so she was never had a chance to legally cast a ballot in an election.
Susan B. Anthony was not the only American woman who attempted to vote. In 1880, Louisa May Alcott, author of the Little Women and other classic stories, seized the chance to vote. Her opportunity came in Concord, Massachusetts when the town decided women would be allowed to vote in school committee elections.
Alcott led a group of twenty women to the town hall to cast their ballots. They were able to do that, but after their votes were cast, the polls closed so they could not have a voice in any other decision. For several years afterward, Alcott led efforts to have women vote in school committee contests, but she found it difficult to keep them interested. With such a limited voice allowed in city affairs, most women did not think voting was worth their time.
For the rest of her life, Alcott continued to support women’s suffrage, but just like Susan B. Anthony, she was never able to vote in a national election. She died in 1888, more than thirty years before the Women’s Suffrage amendment was passed.
America was not the only country in which politics were tumultuous as the world moved into the twentieth century. Liberal ideas such as women’s suffrage gained support during the late 1800s and during the early 1900s, more and more people believed that radical changes were needed to improve the lives of ordinary people. As usual, the upper classes tried to preserve their privileges and prevent change.
In Southampton, England, a large port city on the southern coast of England, shipping companies found an ingenious way to keep the men who manned the ships from casting their votes and having a voice in elections. Whenever an election was called, the owners made sure that all the ships would leave port before election day. This effectively kept the seamen from voting and allowed the prosperous owners to be sure that only Conservative candidates would be sent to the House of Commons.
During one bitter election season, however, at least one woman, Ellen Mongan, took a stand. On election day, after the ships had left port and the children were in school, she marched down to the polling place and demanded to be allowed to vote.
“I know how my husband wanted to vote, and I can cast his ballot,” she insisted.
Her demand caused consternation among the voting officials, while some of the bystanders began to cheer her on. Other women had not demanded such a privilege, but the idea made sense to some observers. Such rebellion might cause dramatic changes in the city’s voting pattern.
Eventually the forces of tradition won. Ellen was not allowed to vote. A few years later, in 1910, she and her husband moved to the United States and settled in Brooklyn. Women could not vote there at the time, of course, but at least her husband, Patrick Mongan, could vote as soon as he became a citizen.
In 1920, women at last got the vote in the United States. From that year on, Ellen voted in every election until her death in 1943. Unlike Susan B. Anthony and Louisa May Alcott, she had the satisfaction of being an active, engaged citizen. And in the years since her death, her children and grandchildren, including me, have understood the importance of voting and the value of a ballot.
None of the women I’ve mentioned had success in their first efforts to vote, but at least they had the satisfaction of knowing they had taken a stand. And over the years, their courage has made a difference. During this month’s midterm elections, many analysts have acknowledged that the votes of women have been a major force in preserving the values enshrined in Roe v. Wade and ensuring that American women will continue to have the right to control their bodies and their medical decisions.
Words, whether in speeches or writing, may give people new ideas, but it is ballots that give them the power to turn those ideas to action. As Herbert Hoover wrote, A whole people with the ballot in their hands possess the most conclusive and unlimited power ever entrusted to humanity.