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Women's Fight for the Right to Vote

By Lauren Ober

Official program of Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913.

Official program of Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913.

It is unthinkable to most women today to be denied the right to vote on the basis of gender.

But a century ago this month, scores of women, nine bands, four mounted brigades, and 24 floats paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue to rally for that very right and "march in a spirit of protest."

The ambitious Woman Suffrage Parade would never have happened were it not for Alice Paul, an alumna of American University and Washington College of Law.

In the 100 years since the parade in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, women have not squandered the right their predecessors fought hard for.

Women now make up a critical part of the American electorate — 52 percent, according to Gallup. In eight consecutive presidential elections since 1980, the percentage of women who voted was higher than that of men.

In 2012, President Barack Obama’s outreach to women largely contributed to his reelection. The 20-point gender gap was the largest in Gallup’s history with Obama winning the vote among females by 12 points whereas Republican hopeful Mitt Romney won among men by eight points.

These figures show the legacy of Paul’s work for women’s rights. They also signify that social movement and political activism matter, said Associate Professor Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute. They matter not just to women, but also to the electorate as a whole.

"If you’re keeping half of the population from being able to fulfill their civic duty, politicians can’t be held accountable to the fullest extent," Lawless said.

In order to exercise any sort of political agency and participate in the national discussion, women first had to be given a voice, said Assistant Professor Lauren Weis, director of the Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies program.

"The women’s suffrage movement had a profound influence on the way that women understand their role in society,"Weis said.

A Movement Takes Shape

After college, Paul worked for the burgeoning suffrage movement in England. She returned to the U.S. full of ideas of how to advance the suffrage movement here.

Her timing was perfect, said Professor Pam Nadell, the Patrick Clendenen Chair in Women’s and Gender History.

"In the 1900s, we really begin to see mass support for women’s suffrage," she said. "It was part of a larger push for women to show themselves to be political actors."

In November 1912, Paul approached the National American Women Suffrage Association with the idea of a parade for the cause. The parade, which was planned for the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration, was critical to the success of the suffrage movement, Lawless said.

"This was the first time we saw a large mass of women rallying for voting rights. The visual impact of that was huge," Lawless said.  

 Not only was the sight of so many supporters of the movement important, but the parade also signaled a speeding up of the struggle.

"The parade is indicative of a change in the long movement for women’s suffrage," Nadell said. "This mass outpouring of people into the streets helps to change the dynamics of the movement."

The parade was not without drama, though. Hundreds of women were injured when men lining the parade route blocked the marchers’ passage and some got violent. Still, Paul would not be deterred.

Paul’s Legacy Continues

In the days following the parade, the suffrage movement attracted the attention of the public and the press. Paul had infused new life into the movement. Four years later, New York granted women the right to vote, a signal of the parade’s success in garnering broad support, Nadell said.

In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote, ending a 70-year struggle.

"Before then, if women wanted to protest, they had to work through men," Nadell said. "Now women could raise issues that mattered to them because they could exercise the power of the ballot box."

Paul had a mighty hand in this victory and after the constitutional amendment passed, she returned to school where she earned a bachelor of laws degree from Washington College of Law. She then went on to earn a master of laws and a doctor of civil law degree from American University.

Armed with legal knowledge, she continued to fight for women’s rights, drafting a rewrite of the Equal Rights Amendment and pushing for its ratification. The amendment never made it through the ratification process, though since 1982 it has come up during every session of Congress. It’s a symbol that Paul’s work isn’t finished.

"We’ve come a long way," Nadell said. "But women have not achieved parity in American society."

There is still much to do, Weis said. For example, the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education is still kept busy investigating violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and discriminatory practices that prevent women from full access to education.

"First, we need to get serious about enforcing statutes," Weis said. "We have many rights that are already denied to women on the basis of their status as women."