Fond Reflection: Women Persist Despite Being Jailed to Gain Rights

Interim Head of School, Pat Preib
I was reminded recently of my grandmother  Mae Padden, who was born in the 19th century,  because we celebrate March as Women’s History Month. My grandmother liked to tell us stories about the “old days” when she was growing up. She told stories about how she learned to drive one of those new-fangled contraptions called an “automobile” when the greatest danger to the driver was the horses and carriages tied up along the streets. Or about the speakeasies she visited; in fact, she claims to have taken her first drink in one. “Don’t tell anyone,” she warned us. Or about the devastation of the Great Depression that drove so many people to despair and poverty.

My favorite story was the one she told about women gaining the right to vote. My grandmother claimed that she never really thought about voting, taking for granted that men were the ones who voted, not women. Then she read about women being jailed for demonstrating for their right to vote. For some reason, she said, that news really got to her. It bothered her that women were treated as criminals just for demanding to participate in political affairs.

In the United States, the women’s suffrage movement took nearly 100 years to win that right for women, and it wasn’t easy.  There were prejudices to overcome, disagreements among activists over the best way to approach the effort, and the need to prioritize voting rights for women against other prominent social ills. The struggle included jail time and forced feeding to counteract a hunger strike initiated by some jailed suffragettes.  Nevertheless, the women persisted; on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified.

Many historians note the importance of women's contributions during the First World War in turning attitudes toward acceptance of women’s roles in the political arena. Women had proven themselves indispensable in both the public and private realms during the war, so that enfranchising American women and declaring for the first time that they deserved all the rights and responsibilities of citizenship seemed far less unusual.
For my grandmother, the trials and tribulations of the suffragette movement was a political awakening. August 26th was her birthday; gaining the right to vote was the best birthday present she ever received. My grandfather,  trained as a lawyer, became a judge, and my grandparents often entertained other judges, lawyers, and politicians in their home. My mother recalls my grandmother being hospitable and welcoming to their guests and wholly unafraid to voice her thoughts in lively dinner conversations.

That tradition has carried across the generations, and my nieces now take voting and participating in the political realm for granted.  And while I very much doubt that my grandmother believed that a woman would ever be taken seriously enough to run as a candidate for Congress, or even Vice President or President of the United States, I have no doubt whatsoever that she would be gratified and proud that it has happened.