By CRAIG NORTHRUP
Hagadone News Network
COEUR d’ALENE — Women rallied Monday to learn more about the lessons of the Women’s Suffrage movement in American history.
Dr. Amy Canfield, associate professor of history at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, served as guest speaker of the Kootenai County League of Women Voters event at the Coeur d’Alene Public Library. She spoke about the evolution of voting rights, saying that women’s right to vote was not easily won.
“Ours is a nation that boasts equality,” Canfield said before the presentation. “But our country doesn’t always live up to it. When you look at what women went through — some were jailed for organizing, some were jailed for illegally voting, some were beaten for standing up for their rights. Equal rights is not just a right. It’s a right that has to be fought for.”
Canfield’s hourlong presentation addressed the history of America’s Suffrage movement, which found its roots in the nation’s infancy.
“Women played an integral role in the American Revolution,” she told the group. “During the war, they were promised a voice in the process, but after the war, they were marginalized as the Republican Motherhood: charged with raising the next generation of good citizens, rather than being seen as citizens.”
America kicked the Suffrage can down the road, Canfield explained, in the years leading up to the Civil War, as women were told the abolition of slavery required more immediate attention. After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, when Suffrage saw a fractured push for leaving the issue to the states, she said the fire of Suffrage began to burn for good.
“Women in the southern states were voting,” Canfield said. “They were voting illegally, but they were voting … As time went on, this divide of Suffrage spread.”
The movement actually found its legal footholds out west first, as Idaho was just the fourth state to seal women’s right to vote, after Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. This progressive stance, Canfield explained, was more about the woman’s place on the early homestead, rather than a more comfortable life in cities. As Suffrage ballooned back east, a pro-woman’s vote newspaper called The Revolution ran its motto, which would cast fear among the male population:
“Men their rights and nothing more,” it read, “women their rights and nothing less.”
“This fear permeated the nation,” Canfield said. “Men were afraid their rights would be taken away. This is a fear we actually see anytime we see a fight for equal rights. The group that’s in power is typically worried they’re going to lose their rights in some of this.”
“I think it’s important we know where we came from,” said Bonnie Douglas of the Kootenai County League of Women Voters. “That’s why this talk is so important. A lot of women’s issues have been highlighted in the news in the last few weeks. It’s important to understand that woman voters have a long history to thank for their right to vote, and it’s important we remain informed.”
The rhetoric swirling around Suffrage see-sawed during this time between dismissive and fear-mongering. Canfield showed early political cartoons depicting Suffragettes as angry, deranged spinsters. But support for Suffrage continued to swell into the early 20th century, where she said an organized march on March 3, 1913 — the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration — brought the movement into the national discussion. More than 8,000 marched on Washington that day, with 200 women sent to local hospitals by a crowd of male counter-protesters.
“At that moment, Suffrage could no longer be ignored,” Canfield said. “Woodrow Wilson had to talk about it. Men had to talk about it. Our country had to talk about it.”
The march became a lightning rod of political voltage, with the Suffrage movement spawning its own political party: the National Women’s Party, a one-issue platform discouraging candidates who did not agree with a woman’s right to vote. Women continued their protest, leading to their arrests and eventual beatings in what Canfield said was a horrific event.
“The warden at the time instructed the guards to do whatever they wanted to the women that night,” Canfield said. “The guards beat and tortured the women. They dragged them from their cells, broke their arms, left them battered. There was talk of sexual assaults. They left the work house calling it ‘a night of terror.’”
That night turned public opinion firmly toward a Constitutional Amendment, our 19th, giving women the right to vote.
“I was born on Aug. 26,” Douglas said, “the day the 19th Amendment became law. I knew when I was a little girl that this was an important day … Now, we’re focusing on education, toward 2020, the 19th Amendment’s centennial. It’s important we honor their sacrifices.”
“I’m outrageously proud of our history,” Canfield told the group. “Our history is a history of protest. What women sacrificed for us to continue to vote is simply awe-inspiring.”
She added that the need for women to vote is just as important today as it was in Suffrage’s infancy.
“Voter apathy puzzles me so much,” she said, “especially in local elections. One vote can change everything. We know this because of where we came from, and when we see how short we’ve fallen.”
Not coincidentally, local polls close tonight at 8.