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Let's Talk About It: Women's Suffrage: Program Theme/Goals

In January 2021, the Woodward Library was awarded a grant from the American Library Association and support by the National Endowment for the Humanities. This guide provides an overview of grant materials and upcoming programming.

Program Theme/Goals

The theme of Let’s Talk About It: Women’s Suffrage was developed by Melissa Bradshaw, senior lecturer in the department of English at Loyola University Chicago, and Allison K. Lange, associate professor of history at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

The American Library Association has provided a background essay and discussion questions for the chosen books and themes: Let's Talk About It: Women's Suffrage.

The Let’s Talk About It program seeks to:

  • Help communities see firsthand the ways in which the humanities give profound meaning to the human experience.
  • Facilitate reflection and discussion of important issues and subjects through the lens of the humanities.
  • Nourish connections between libraries, local scholars, and the community.

The goals of the Let’s Talk About It: Women’s Suffrage theme are to:

  • Advance civic education and knowledge of a key moment in the history of voting rights through facilitated discussion, focused on a series of books and questions curated by national scholars.
  • Provide opportunities for communities to deepen their knowledge of American history and culture by examining events and individuals who impacted the women’s suffrage movement.
  • Engage communities in critical reflection and discussion on the women’s suffrage movement, the movement’s lasting impact, and the history of voting rights and citizenship.

The Let’s Talk About It: Women’s Suffrage theme will explore the following key humanities focus areas to illuminate the history of women’s votes and encourage reflection on the history of voting rights and citizenship.

Promises and Limitations of Our Country’s Founding Documents

The nation’s founding documents promised an equal society but implicitly entrenched a social hierarchy, including the patriarchy. Under the laws of coverture in the early United States, few married women could own property or control their money. Except for a brief stint in New Jersey from 1797 to 1807, women could not vote and did not hold office. Enslaved women did not even have the right to control their own bodies. Women’s rights activists began organizing in the 1830s and 1840s to secure rights like these. The nation continues to strive to achieve the ideals of liberty and equality promised by — but also limited by — these foundational texts.

Voting Rights and Citizenship

We often think of voting as a basic right of citizenship, but suffragists proved that our Constitution does not guarantee voting rights. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, guarantees the rights of all citizens. Suffragists believed that citizenship rights included the ballot. However, in 1875, suffragist Virginia Minor brought a case to the Supreme Court, which declared that voting is not a citizenship right. The decision still stands. Minor v. Happersett laid the foundation for modern voting rights debates, from late nineteenth-century poll taxes and literacy tests to twenty-first century voting regulations.

Inclusion/Exclusion of Suffrage History

Suffrage history highlights the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of social movements in the past and provides a framework to examine current social movements. During the early decades of suffrage activism, reformers often allied with men and women of color. However, in 1870, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which removed race as a barrier to voting and effectively enfranchised Black men, strained the broad coalition. Some suffragists supported the amendment, while others — like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — lobbied against it and drove away activists of color. Even when suffragists joined forces in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, local and state organizations could and did exclude women of color. Women of color like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell founded their own organizations to fight for their communities. When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, leading suffragists like Alice Paul refused pleas by Terrell to address the literacy tests and violence that prevented women of color from voting.

The Aftermath of the Nineteenth Amendment Following the Women’s Suffrage Movement

The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was a significant milestone for women’s rights, but women continued to organize after its passage. Native American and Puerto Rican women had to win citizenship rights before they could cast a ballot. For decades after the amendment, poll taxes and literacy tests in Southern states prevented many poor women from voting. Black women faced violence for registering to vote. This Let’s Talk About It focus area will emphasize the continued efforts to create a more equal society even after 1920.