You Go, Girls: The Suffragettes

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

Old-fashioned laws permitted husbands to beat wives who refused to, ahem, submit to their spouse's demands. As if that weren't insulting enough, governments granted only men the right to vote. Eventually, in America and England, groups of gutsy gals began demanding women's rights, especially suffrage (voting rights). Here's a sample of those rebellious females.


The women's suffrage movement attracted some unusual women. Take, for instance, Margaret Brent. In 1647 it was considered "not done" that a woman would remain unmarried, much less become a property owner. Brent managed to do both and accidentally became the first woman suffragist when she insisted -unsuccessfully- on being allowed to vote in the Maryland assembly.

Almost two centuries later, Harriet Tubman (1820-1913) escaped slavery through the Underground Railroad. Tubman should have been preoccupied after 19 trips across the Mason-Dixon line, leading 300 other slaves 90 miles to freedom, which resulted in a $40,000 price tag on her head. Instead, she demanded the right to vote for all women while speaking out against slavery and racism. Not one to be idle, she also worked as a spy and a nurse during the Civil War for the federal government, which rewarded her with a $20 monthly pension in the 1890s and her picture on postal stamps in 1995.


In 1848, Elizabeth Stanton (1815-1902) kicked off the "official" suffrage movement with the first United States convention for women's rights. As a young child, Stanton took scissors to certain paragraphs in law books owned by her daddy judge in an attempt to get rid of laws that essentially defined women as men's property. The judge, who often lamented that his only child wasn't a boy, stopped her by mentioning such incisions wouldn't change a darn thing. To make up for being female, Stanton studied typically "male" courses, including Latin and Greek. Later on, she omitted the word "obey" from her wedding vows, giving her new husband a pretty good idea of what he was in for. Still, he called Stanton radical -as did several women's rights supporters- when she insisted that the early movement include voting rights for women.


In 1851, Stanton stumbled into Susan B. Anthony's path at a street corner, igniting a 51-year relationship. Anthony (1820-1906) came from a Quaker family that included antislavery activists. Quakers supported equality of the sexes but also discipline and hard work, displayed by Anthony's severe expression flaunted later on U.S. dollar coins. Anthony shifted from teaching to pushing for women's rights after being informed that females didn't get to speak during political meetings. To make up for being silenced, she traveled about the country speaking of rate women's cause.

In 1869, Stanton & Anthony separated from a national women's rights association that was waiting for black men to gain voting rights before pushing for women's suffrage. They created a new group with a "world-shattering" focus -voting rights for women and and end to male dominance.


While both ladies initially embraced a new leader of the women's movement, Victoria Woodhull (1838-1927), their efforts resulted in Woodhull only getting a tiny mention in a six-volume book series detailing the early women's movement because she used rather …unusual methods. Woodhull practiced spiritualism and magnetic healing, and often talked freely about sexual matters -something that ladies of that era simply didn't do. In fact, during the 1800s, society prohibited words dealing with body parts in social conversation. Societal pressure did not stop "the Woodhull"; she not only became the first woman stockbroker in America, she also became the first woman to run for president.

Woodhull grew up poor, along with five siblings, in a family -led by a law-breaking father- that defined bizarre. By age 13 Woodhull and her sister conducted seances while their dad collected the money. After a disastrous marriage at age 15 to a drunken doctor, Woodhull befriended wealthy Cornelius Vanderbilt. Woodhull claimed that spiritual guides Demosthenes, Napoleon, and Josephine relayed insider stock market tips, which she passed on to Vanderbilt. In turn, he passed her half of his considerable profits. With her sister, she created a new stockbrokerage, serving champagne and strawberries dipped in chocolate to customers.

At that point, Woodhull could have put her feet up and lived a life of luxury with her second hubby, but she believed spirits wanted her to lead a social revolution, cleaning up the mistreatment of women. This eventually flushes her career down the toilet. But first in 1871, while the two main factions of the women's movement kept busy criticizing each other, Woodhull ignored them and became the first woman to speak before the House Judiciary Committee. Her argument that the Constitution already gave women the right to vote didn't convince the majority of Congressmen.

After Woodhull announced her presidential bid in her new publication, the Woodhull & Claflin Weekly, the conservative faction of the women's movement began publicly to pooh-pooh her. In 1872 she was the first woman to run for president of the United States as a candidate of the new Equal Rights Party. Newspapers claimed that Woodhull had two husbands because she took in her drunken ex-husband. Her outcry against forcing women to stay in abusive marriages was interpreted as promoting "free love." Her refusal to condemn prostitutes -claiming that society drove them into selling themselves similar to the sexual submission that wives underwent- earned her a reputation as a tart.

In response, Woodhull published the love affairs of a famous married preacher, also president of the mud-slinging women's group. Woodhill spent Election Day in jail, charged with illegally printing "obscenity." In and out of jail, she apparently didn't have a get-out-of-jail-free card and lost her fortune to bail and lawyer's fees, until she was finally found innocent.


Meanwhile, New Zealand in 1893 became the first country to give women the right to vote, but other countries refused to do so. Since England's long time  struggle for women's rights foundered by 1905, English suffragist Emmaline Pankhurst (1858-1928) and supporters had their fill of "ladylike" tactics and drew attention to the cause by disrupting government meetings, breaking windows, and setting fires. Pankhurst, responsible for the term "suffragette," frequently ended up in jail with tubes up her nose filled with liquid food after refusing to eat.

Alice Paul (1885-1977) became a jailbird, too, after meeting Pankhurst while in England studying for a social work doctorate degree. Her crime? Dressed as a cleaning woman, she hid in a room waiting for the Prime Minister to speak. During a lull in his speech, she shouted, "How about votes for women?" Back in America, Paul disagreed with the statewide focus of the main women's group and instead resorted to civil disobedience to push a constitutional amendment. She started her "radical" tactics in 1913 by leading 8,000 protesters through Washington, D.C., streets. By 1917 Paul and others  started picketing in front of Woodrow Wilson's White House. The women chained themselves to fences and held signs asking, "Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?" Paul's frequent jail time included force feedings and being assigned to the psychiatric ward where inmates nearly drove her crazy.


A law university initially denied ex-teacher Belva Lockwood (1830-1917) her law diploma but she eventually got to use lawyerly skills to secure the right for women to vote in some states.  Lockwood also became the first woman to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court. Although Lockwood criticized Victoria Woodhull for being too radical, she too ran for president -in 1884 and 1888.


* Stanton ran for Congress in 1866 -receiving 24 votes. She presided over a new women's group in 1890, but the group spurned her in 1895 when, at age 80, she wrote The Women's Bible, which eliminated to original version's submissive role for females.

* Susan B. Anthony authored the 19th "Anthony" Amendment, but died before it was finally added to the Constitution in 1920, finally allowing American women to vote.

* Woodhull was reported "dead" by newspaper headlines in 1873. Clearly alive, she eventually moved to England, married husband number three (after divorcing number two), and ran briefly for U.S. president in 1884 and 1892 from across the Atlantic Ocean. Realizing the commute would be difficult, she stopped campaigning. Instead, as a wealthy widow, she played fairy godmother to residents in an English village until her death in 1927.

* Paul's picketing served as a warmup for a lifetime of work on equal rights. She earned a bunch of law degrees and authored the Equal Rights Amendment, which Congress failed to pass every year until after her death. Before her death at age 92, she remained an activist -over the phone. In 1995, Paul's face showed up on 78-cents postal stamps.

* Pankhurst remained feisty -in and out of jail in her fifties- and died in 1928, shortly after English women gained voting rights.

* Lockwood continued to argue cases -winning a big one in 1906, a $5 million lawsuit for eastern Cherokee people.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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