Maryland’s complicated story behind battle for suffrage
Next year, Americans will commemorate the centennial of the suffrage amendment giving women the right to vote. There will be much to celebrate, as we remember the long struggle begun in the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her colleagues resolved that it was “the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Seventy two years later, on Aug. 24th, 1920, Tennessee’s governor certified his state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving it the 36th and final approval needed to pass. In the greatest expansion of suffrage in our history, 20 million Americans, including 350,000 Marylanders, were now enfranchised.
Celebrations, however exhilarating, often obscure earlier defeats. It is worth noting how hard, and ultimately unsuccessful, the battle for suffrage was in Maryland. For years in organizations such as the Maryland Equal Rights Society a handful of white and black women had spoken out for suffrage. By 1900, the Maryland State Society of Suffragists sent delegates to the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and later its activist offshoot, the National Woman’s Party.
In lectures, tea parties, street corner meetings, and even a parade of automobiles into Washington, Maryland women made the case that voting was the natural right of citizens, male and female. Granted the vote, they argued, women would be a cleansing force in politics. There were special local reasons to adopt women’s suffrage. Maryland was home to Margaret Brent, America’s first suffragist who had demanded a vote in the colonial legislature in 1648. The state and its capital city were named for women.
From 1900-1920, Maryland suffragists lobbied the legislature to change the state’s constitution, which expressly limited the vote to males. In 1906, they hosted the NAWSA convention in Baltimore’s Lyric Theater. There an audience of 2,500 heard national and state leaders make the case that taxation without representation was tyranny. They listened as well to Susan B. Anthony’s last speech that the fight must always continue.
But for an increasingly mobilized opposition, women’s voting violated God’s will and disrupted established family traditions. Furthermore, any expansion of suffrage would include black women who would become political equals to white women, overturning the state’s discriminatory norms.
In 1917, a great opportunity arrived as the suffrage struggle shifted to passing a federal amendment. Local women picketed the White House, were jailed, and when they went on a hunger strike, were force fed. Isabel Hooker, head of the Just Government League, after delivering a petition with the names of 125,000 supporters, sought Gov. Albert Ritchie’s endorsement of a federal amendment. But the governor took a convenient pass: The matter was one for the legislature to decide. Controlled by the Democratic party, the legislature declined.
In other states, support for suffrage was growing. By 1920, two-thirds of Congress had voted for a federal amendment, as had several states. But in February 1920, the Maryland legislature rejected the amendment, denying that Congress even had the right to propose such a change. Voting was a state matter, as Democratic legislators argued against women moving beyond the domestic sphere into a male public space and also expressed their fears about enfranchising black women. The Baltimore Sun called the amendment a force bill and praised Maryland men “who have been true to the honor and the interests of the state. Maryland suffragists have received the rebuke they deserved.” William Marbury, member of the House of Delegates and scion of a famous legal family, sued to have the amendment negated by the Supreme Court. In this sad chapter in state history, the Maryland legislature did not ratify the suffrage amendment until 1941.
The lessons here are that women’s suffrage, so obviously right to us today, was bitterly contested in Maryland. It was contingent on the ratification by other states of a national amendment. It remained uncertain as Maryland politicians tried to overturn the amendment. Suffrage’s opponents were implacable as the issue tangled with race politics and what critics called “Negro rule.” Today, the best way to celebrate the 19th Amendment is to remember just how contested the vote has always been and to protect its legitimacy — with the same persistence of the states’ tenacious suffrage women.