Lessons from the Suffrage Struggle for Today’s Activists
Social movements arise when activists galvanize citizens to take on their official leaders or establishments. Often, the individuals who bring about significant change have no formal power and, while engaged in bitter struggle for social or economic change, are dismissed, disparaged, or imprisoned — even executed.
Activists who seek to bring about change in the face of more powerful forces face many choices in terms of how they will lead their struggle. History shows that some do so peacefully and some do not. Some try to effect change from within, while some opt to work outside the system and attempt to dismantle or overthrow it. Whatever path these leaders choose, they will be criticized by those who benefit from the status quo and ostracized, or even persecuted, by those with power.
An example of a social movement whose leaders eventually succeeded in bringing about radical change is the American women’s suffragist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The struggle to obtain the right to vote for women in the US lasted nearly a century, involved four generations of activists, and culminated formally with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1919 (ratified in 1920), banning discrimination in voting based on sex.
From the start of their struggle, the suffragists understood that the right to vote wasn’t merely a symbol of equality between the sexes. It was perhaps the only way that most women could help shape the direction that society moved. Resistance to suffrage remained stiff until the end — signifying the difficulties in pushing for change.
The suffrage movement required unity among women, many of whom shared little in common and had different and sometimes conflicting interests. The only thing that connected them, aside from their sex, was the lack of the vote, and not everyone cared about that equally. This provided a challenge to the leaders of the suffrage movement — one that can be instructive for aspiring social leaders.
Among the instructive conditions under which the suffrage movement formed and eventually prevailed include:
1. A movement born out of a just cause. A movement must be created out of something that others see as unnatural or unjust, and worth fighting against. A principle that history shows is that social and economic processes precede significant political events. In this case, the processes involved the entry of women into the workplace, where they increasingly functioned as individuals with direct bearing on the economic system. Simultaneously, the rise of women’s colleges in the late 19th century meant that most educated women, barred from political life and economic leadership, dedicated themselves to reform and social work. The changing sociological circumstances, coupled with the conviction that there must be political change, formed the genesis of the suffrage movement.
2. The ascension of dynamic, committed leadership. The formation of the National American Women Suffrage Association in 1890 helped the movement gain institutional momentum. Its leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, focused on assuaging conservative’s fears. Other suffrage leaders, such as Alice Paul, linked the fight for women’s voting rights to the progressive movement, appealing to working-class immigrant communities and bringing the suffrage struggle from the elite corners of society to the mainstream.