Suffragist Kate Richards O'Hare addresses a crowd in front of the St. Louis Court House on National Women's Suffrage Day, May 2, 1914.
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The ‘Undesirable Militants’ Behind the Nineteenth Amendment

A century after women won the right to vote, The Atlantic reflects on the grueling fight for suffrage—and what came after.
On June 4, 1919, these women and dozens of others poured into the U.S. Senate gallery to watch the final vote on the Nineteenth Amendment, which would guarantee them the right to vote. When it passed, they broke into a roaring applause. For two full minutes, senators made no attempt to quiet them. After that, they got back to work. At least 36 states had to ratify the amendment for it to be made official. This took 14 months, just in time for women to vote in the 1920 election.
Before women could win the right to vote, they had to convince people to take them seriously. In the discombobulated decades after the Civil War, American men occasionally found themselves making public arguments against suffrage—brushbacks that were issued casually, even lazily. Girls aren’t smart enough to make a big decision like this. All you’ll do is cancel out your husband’s vote. You’re too pure for politics. Most women don’t actually want this. I’ll buy you another new toy instead. It’s just too expensive to have this many voters. Um, we’re all out of voting machines. Or, as The New York Times declared in 1913, “all the rumpus about female suffrage is made by a very few of our disoriented sisters.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, so wrong. But understandable. The powerful are often blind to the stakes and momentum of a political revolution until it’s too late.

When it became clear that suffragists wouldn’t back down, the arguments against them took on an apocalyptic hue. The men and women who opposed the movement issued grave warnings. Banner-making and clubhouse meetings upstate may have been tolerable, even cute, but earlier stirrings had given way to more radical behaviors. During the time women could be found picketing outside the White House, they were also lighting liberty bonfires, parading in the streets, and refusing to eat. By the eve of World War I, suffragists weren’t just a political nuisance that could be dismissed with a newspaper column. Instead, critics yowled that they were instigating a “petticoat coup,” destroying the family unit, and unraveling the very fabric of civil society. Newspapers described them as “undesirable militants,” “unwomanly,” “shameless,” “pathological,” and “dangerous.” Women’s political power—whether they have it, how they get it—has never been about elections alone.
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