The History Of Women’s Suffrage

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Nineteen is the magic number for women's suffrage. It first took off in the 19th century, culminating in the 19th Amendment, which now celebrates the 100th anniversary of its passage in Congress on June 4, 1919. At that time, 19 states, Wyoming the first in 1869, had granted full or partial suffrage to women, but Maryland was not among them.

The history of women's suffrage in Maryland is checkered at best. Maryland claims the first women's suffragist in colonial America: Margaret Brent. Born and educated in England, Margaret Brent and her siblings, Mary and Giles, settled in St. Mary's County in 1638 and soon became some of the largest landowners in the colonies. As an unmarried woman, Margaret Brent owned property in her own name, and likely was the first woman lawyer in the colonies, representing herself, her brother and other women in court. Thanks to Margaret’s experience in public affairs, Governor Leonard Calvert named her executrix of his will. In 1646, an uprising mirroring the civil war raging in England erupted in Maryland. Governor Calvert raised some soldiers and defended the colonies but died before he paid them. In colonial America, representation in the legislature was based on property. Seeking to pay the soldiers and continue protecting the colony, Margaret Brent petitioned the assembly for two votes, one as a landholder and one as Governor Calvert's executrix. The assembly flatly denied her request to vote, but the court later permitted her to pay the soldiers from Lord Baltimore's estate. Amid the fallout, Margaret Brent and her siblings moved to Virginia in 1649, and women's suffrage languished for the next 200 years.

As women became civically active in the late 19th century, women's suffrage organizations blossomed. In 1889, Caroline Hallowell Miller organized her Sandy Spring Quaker community, and in 1894, the Baltimore Suffrage Club was founded, both of which later merged into the National American Women's Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which in 1902 and 1906 held its national conventions in Baltimore. At the Lyric Theater in February 1906, Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe and an 86-year-old Susan B. Anthony urged women, from factory workers to college students, to fight for the right to vote. Anthony died a month later. In 1909, Edith Houghton Hooker formed the Just Government League, which later ratified with the more militant National Women's Party. There was even a Men's League for Women's Suffrage formed in 1910.

While unified in their goal, these groups were plagued by divisions over how to progress and how high to aim. Should they circulate petitions, hold parades and open-air meetings, or engage in civil disobedience? Should they shoot for a federal constitutional amendment, a state constitutional amendment, or focus on gaining the vote in municipal elections? Either way, they took action: in 1912, the largely anti-suffrage Democratic Party held its national convention in Baltimore, where suffragists lobbied conventioneers and staged a parade with 40,000 spectators. In 1917, Dorothy Ford re-enacted Paul Revere's ride by galloping into Annapolis on horseback with the message, “Keep not liberty from your own household.” Most controversially, Maryland suffragists that same year picketed the White House and burned the president in effigy, and women like Amelia Walker, Nina Samarodin and Julia Emory were arrested, tried and incarcerated.

Locally, the movement enjoyed some success: In 1900, Annapolis granted women the right to vote in a special municipal bond election, and in 1908, the Kent County town of Still Pond granted the right to vote to all taxpayers over 21. In 1906, proposed suffrage legislation met with jokes and laughter, and, though defeated in 1912 and 1914, in 1916 and 1917, it passed the Senate.

After Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919, there was a huge push for 36 or three-fourths of the then 48 states to pass it. Many state legislatures, Maryland included, were adjourned, so special sessions were requested to pass the amendment so that women could vote in the 1920 presidential election. Maryland failed to hold such a session.

During the 1920 regular session, on February 20, women gathered on the State House steps, trying to convince a legislature made exclusively of men to grant them the right to vote. They failed. Democrats, long opposed to expanding voting rights, controlled both legislative houses and the executive office, and they shut it down. Not only that, they passed resolutions decrying the 19th Amendment as infringing on state's rights, and sent representatives to swing states to urge them not to ratify the amendment. They failed, and in August 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, making women's suffrage the law of the land. Maryland didn't vote to ratify the 19th Amendment until 1941, and didn't certify it until 1958, but that didn't stop millions of American women from voting in the November 1920 election. Nor did it stop the Supreme Court, which in 1922 held that the 19th Amendment was legally adopted in Leser v. Garnett, in which an anti-suffragist Baltimore judge contested the right of two women to vote based solely upon their gender.

In Maryland's defense, it is one of the 37 states that passed the Equal Rights Amendment. In 1972, the Maryland Constitution, Declaration of Rights, Article 46, was amended to state that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged or denied because of sex.”

In an era where the House of Delegates just elected its first female speaker of the House, it's daunting to realize that 99 years ago, not only would a woman not be on the ballot, she could not have cast one.

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