It was July, 1920, just before the presidential election. Seven decades of women had worked for this moment, for the 19th amendment to be ratified, for the woman’s voice to be heard on the ballot. Thirty-five states had said yes and it was all left in the hands of one state. Tennessee ratified and 27 million women were able to vote.
In honor of Constitution Day, Sept. 17, award-winning journalist and writer Elaine Weiss K’73 P’07 returned to Hamilton to give a lecture, “The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote.”
In her book of the same name, Weiss wrote about the generations of women who fought for women’s suffrage: the women who, despite opposition from politicians, the media, and, perhaps most poignant of all, other women, remained persistent in demanding the right to vote. She detailed the story of Tennessee, of the 19th amendment being ratified, and how it all came down to one legislator’s decision.
Watch the archive video of the Constitution Day talk by Elaine Weiss K’73 and Professor Phil Klinkner’s introduction.
“The Woman’s Hour is the story of the struggle to make one big change in the Constitution: the 19th amendment, correcting what the founding fathers forgot – or rather, refused to consider,” Weiss said. “The 19th amendment wasn’t just a legal change… it didn’t just make women full citizens, it marked a societal change, a cultural shift.”
Weiss shed light on pivotal activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Stanton who, despite living in a time in which propaganda about women belonging in the home was standard, worked tirelessly to lead marches and conventions and fight for women’s rights. These women acted as mentors for the generations following who continued the fight for women’s suffrage.
“They traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to do as Susan Anthony called it, ‘organize, educate, and agitate’ in tiny mounds and big cities all across the nation. They had to change hearts and minds before they could change the world,” Weiss said.
While she celebrates the work and determination of the suffragists, Weiss did not shy away from the issues between the movements of abolition and suffrage, which she called a “heartbreaking split.”
“Abolition and women’s rights were sibling movements through the Civil War,” Weiss said. “[But] once the war was over, they were told that the nation would not handle two big reforms at once. And their abolitionist brothers deserted them. ‘It was not the woman’s hour,’ Frederick Douglass and other male abolitionists told them. Stanton and Anthony refused to support the 14th and 15th amendments because women were excluded. In anger, [they] expressed violent, racist sentiments against black and also immigrant men.”
History major Christine Walsh ’20 attended Weiss’ lecture and gained insight into the roles of the female suffragists and the arduous process of winning the vote, something she realized she had never properly learned about before.
“We haven’t ever discussed the suffrage movement that much in my classes, because it’s just assumed that we know about it,” Walsh said. “By illuminating how long of a process it was in order for women to get the vote and how, as [Weiss] put it, that they had to fight for it – they weren’t granted it – I think that it can show us a lot about how we, in this current political climate, need to employ the tools that those women did.”
Weiss discussed the relevance of the women’s suffrage movement in today’s complicated political and social climate. After attending the lecture, Walsh feels empowered to follow in the footsteps of those who fought for our rights almost a century ago.
“What resonated with me the most was how essential it is for women to continue to use their voice, especially now,” Walsh said. “I’m guilty of this myself, but we need to not just be tweeting or attending protests, but following that up with definitive action, whether that’s voting, lobbying, joining grassroots organizations... It’s important to do something that keeps your involvement alive and keeps your mind aware of how that issue may be progressing or not.”
The Woman’s Hour will be adapted to the screen by Steven Spielberg and Hillary Clinton. It is set to be released in the summer of 2020, a century after the ratification of the 19th amendment.