Women’s Struggle for Equal Rights: Cracking the Glass Ceiling, Part 3

by CJFosdick on June 8, 2010

Would you go to jail for what you accept as true? Would you be willing to have people treat you like dirt, hit you with nightsticks, spit on you, and otherwise mistreat you because you are standing up for what you believe is right? That is exactly what American women who were advocating women’s suffrage faced before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. These women were not just fighting for the right to vote; they were fighting for basic human dignity, for their right to be treated with respect, to actually not be treated worse than animals, but as equals to men in here in American. Read on:

Thirty-three women were thrown in jail on November 15, 1917, and by the end of the night were barely alive. Forty prison guards, with the blessing of their warden, beat one woman, Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her hanging for the night, bleeding and gasping for air. They hurled Dora Lewis into a dark cell against an iron bed and knocked her out cold. Her cell mate, Alice Cosu, thought Lewis was dead and suffered a heart attack. Additional affidavits describe the guards grabbing, dragging, beating, choking, slamming, pinching, twisting, and kicking the women. The warden had ordered his guards “to teach the women a lesson.” Their crime? They had dared to picket President Woodrow Wilson’s White House for the right to vote. When the “Night of Terror” ended, it did not end the persecution. For weeks, the women’s only water came from an open pail. Their food was colorless slop infected with worms. One of the women, Alice Paul, went on a hunger strike. The guards tied her to a chair, forced a tube down her throat, and poured liquid into her until she vomited. She was tortured this way for weeks until word was smuggled out to the press.*

Social change always comes slower than laws dictating this change. In many ways, women were their own worst enemies. They often held themselves back from living up to their potential. For centuries, eons of time actually, women were thought of as the weaker sex. They thought of themselves as second class citizens, and this is how they were treated. They were expected to stay home, keep the house nice, garden and preserve food for winter, and feed and care for the family. Their home and family defined their horizons. The general thought was that they could not think as good as a man, nor should they get involved with such heavy issues as politics. They simply didn’t have the mental capacity for this. The man was king in his own home, while his wife was often little better than a slave. If the husband beat his wife, most people looked the other way. That was his business.

I am talking about generalities, of course. Many women broke the stereotypes that had bound women for centuries. We know of famous women, of course, queens like Queen Elizabeth I and empresses like Cleopatra. Women scientists, like Madam Curry, changed the course of history, and Florence Nightingale changed nursing, but of course, nursing was an acceptable occupation for women, as were teachers, secretaries, and waitresses. (All unmarried that is.) A famous author, Mary Ann Evans, used the male alias, George Sands, because her own female name would have held her back. Those women who did succeed in the all male world had to be strong women willing to fight for what they believed. Thus, it was with the brave women who fought for women’s right to vote. Unnamed, unsung heroines who paved the way for women to actually be treated as equals. All during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a continuing struggle to get to where women are today. Even after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, women had a struggle to change attitudes about the “weaker sex”. Take Babe Wilkerson Zaharias voted the outstanding female athlete of the century in 1950. Babe was outstanding in any sport she tried, but earned her fame for her golfing success. While still in high school, she set a world record in the 1932 Olympic 80-meter hurdles. She competed at a time when women athletes were considered freakish. Some writers condemned Babe for not being feminine. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed home, got themselves prettied up, and waited for the phone to ring.” This says it all. Babe paved the way for other women to become respected athletes.**

Yes, there is still a glass ceiling, but it got seriously cracked in the last election by Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. The majority of women before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had no expectations of a life beyond home and family. Women today have broken all sorts of barriers, even running for President of the United States. Perhaps, the last barrier holding women back will be broken when the first woman will be elected President. But rest assured, if it were not for the women fighting for Woman’s Suffrage, willing to be treated in such a brutal way to fight for the right to vote, we ladies never could have traveled as far and gained so much. Let us remember today what our sisters of history did for us, and not take for granted our freedoms they gained for us today.

*http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/sufferage/nwp/prssoners.pdf
** Woman of the Century, and ESPN.com Dickerson Was a Woman Ahead of Her Time

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