In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, importuning him to “remember the Ladies” in drafting the code of laws for the new nation. But the founding fathers did not. Eleven years after her letter, the framers of the Constitution drafted a document beginning “We the People.” What they meant was “We the Men.” In 1787, women were not considered even three-fifths of a person, as male slaves were in figuring the number of representatives from each state to the new Congress. Women were disenfranchised and largely invisible in public life.
The first major effort to change that was the women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth McClintock drafted a Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, using wording from the Declaration of Independence to assert that “all men and women are created equal.” Over the following decades, women and the men who supported them worked tirelessly for women’s rights, including the right to vote. It would take three generations of struggle for women to finally be written into the Constitution in 1920, and those who began the fight would not live to see its conclusion.
In the intervening years, the Civil War would be fought and the 15th Amendment passed, saying the right to vote “shall not be denied by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But women were still excluded. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 gave newly enfranchised Black males a voice in government for the first time and they won election to state legislatures and even the U.S. Congress until white backlash forced them out.
By the early 1900s, the original leaders of the women’s suffrage movement had died, and a younger group of women activists were ready to move beyond the traditional strategies of holding meetings, writing petitions and giving speeches to persuade state legislators to allow women the vote. Led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, these women organized the Congressional Union (later the National Woman’s Party), taking more drastic action to create a federal law, instead of state-by-state legislation. They organized huge marches – one was on the eve of Wilson’s inauguration in 1913, which diverted attention from his arrival at Union Station. When three years later, Wilson was unmoved, they organized pickets in front of the White House. By 1917 women from every state took turns standing at the gates from dawn to dusk, for months on end, in rain, sleet, and snow. They were called the Silent Sentinels.
To remove the political embarrassment, police arrested them, dragged them to court and threw them into prison, the most notorious being the Occoquan Workhouse. There they were brutalized, forced to work, slept in rat-infested cells on bug-ridden mattresses and fed food crawling with maggots in jail. When they went on a hunger strike, they were force fed three times a day. Prison doctors tried to place Alice Paul in a psychiatric ward. It was this inhumane treatment that became the turning point for the right to vote.
When Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification, the climax of the long struggle came in Tennessee, where a young legislator who had announced his intent to vote against the amendment changed his mind after receiving a letter from his mother asking him to vote for suffrage. With that one vote in 1920, women were finally added to the Constitution.
Interestingly, Georgia, which had been the first state to vote against passage of the 19th Amendment, did not formally ratify it until 1970. Georgia women were kept from the polls in 1920 with a new requirement that voters needed to have registered to vote 60 days prior to the election.
But there were victories. Suffragist Jeannette Rankin was the first woman elected to Congress in 1917 from Montana. Though women had not yet gained voting rights nationally when she was first elected, some states – primarily in the West – had extended the franchise to women. Rankin bought a farm in Watkinsville in 1928 and divided her time between Montana and Georgia until her death in 1973. A group of local women used the proceeds from the sale of her Georgia property to launch the Jeannette Rankin Foundation, which provides scholarships to help older women pursue higher education.
The first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate was 87-year-old Georgian Rebecca Latimer Felton, who was appointed to serve one day on Nov. 21, 1922, until a successor was elected the next day. The state has had no other women in the Senate until the appointment of Republican Kelly Loeffler earlier this year.
Only seven women from Georgia have served in the House of Representatives, and we’ve also have had a tough time making inroads in the Georgia General Assembly. Up until 1987, women held less than 10 percent of the seats, and it was only in the last two legislative sessions that their numbers topped 30 percent (72 of 236 members). With record numbers of women running this year, that percentage may rise.
At the local level, Athens-Clarke County has had three women mayors since the city and county governments were unified in 1990: Gwen O’Looney (1991-1998), Heidi Davison (2003-2011), and Nancy Denson (2011-2019). In 2021, women will account for five of the 10 seats on the Athens-Clarke County Commission.