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Last night, at the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to lead the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket.
The Washington Post reported that the celebrations inspired Virginia Webb of Georgia to think about her grandmother and the work she did as a suffragist: “She made history 96 years ago, marching for a woman’s right to vote,” said Webb, “and now we [potentially] have the first woman for president.” (“A Milestone that some already take for granted,” Washington Post, July 27, 2016, page A1)
Webb’s comments got us thinking about the woman’s suffrage movement and how it paved the way for the milestone nomination of Hillary Clinton. It reminded us of women like Maud Wood Park, who led the congressional lobbying effort of the National American Woman Suffrage Association which resulted in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote.
In honor of Maud Wood Park, Webb’s grandmother, and last night’s historic presidential nomination check out Park’s essay, “How I Came to Start My Work for Woman Suffrage.”
In reading this essay, it is striking to notice how seemingly mundane moments can lead over time to important and historic accomplishments.
Many times I have asked myself and have been asked by others what it was that started active suffragists on their arduous and mostly thankless work. Certainly it was not a desire to make money, for among the small fraction of leaders and workers who received any financial compensation for their services not one could have failed to earn much more in a regular business or professional career. The great majority gave money as well as time to promote the cause.
The biographies of most of the woman's rights leaders suggest the early impulses that turned their minds in that direction.
Lucy Stone's realization of the hardships borne by her own mother, her childish indignation when she first read the biblical admonition "Thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee," and her sense of the few opportunities for girls in comparison with the numbers open to boys, explain the early beginning of her lifelong work for justice and equality for women.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton's knowledge of her father's regret that she was not a boy and her realization of her own ability, plus the incidents of the London Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840, when women delegates were not permitted to take part in the proceedings or to sit anywhere except in the gallery, account, to my mind, for her activity in the woman movement. …
Carrie Chapman Catt, too, had to earn her way through college because her father did not believe in higher education for girls, and, in San Francisco after the death of her first husband, she came to know the risks that a good-looking woman had to face in the business world. Perhaps that experience completed her decision to devote her life to the suffrage cause. …
These attempts at explanation do not mean that I believe personal considerations were all that induced these women to take up their work. In my opinion the personal experience merely turned their minds toward the fundamental injustices that handicapped all women at the time. …
In Chelsea, after my twenty-first birthday, I went out on a rainy afternoon to vote in the school election, though there was no contest in our ward and therefore but one candidate. But I was unaware or neglectful of my opportunity to vote in the so-called referendum on woman suffrage in Massachusetts, which came while I was in college.
Perhaps it was that referendum which led Mr. Gates to demand of his students in English 22 at Harvard and Radcliffe a "daily theme" on the proposed enfranchisement of women. The following day he reported that in our class of about seventy only two were in favor. And he read aloud my theme and one in opposition. In the hundreds of speeches that I was to make later on, I doubt that I ever expressed my convictions more clearly than in the brief statement: "I see no more reason for the men of my family to decide my political opinions and express them for me at the polls than to choose my hats and wear them, or my religious faith and occupy my seat in church." …
The link that bound me to suffrage work for more than twenty years was the meeting that Inez Haynes and I arranged for Miss Blackwell during the late spring of my senior year.
That meeting led Miss Blackwell to invite me to speak later in the spring at the annual dinner of the Massachusetts Woman Suffrage Association and again, the following winter, at the Suffrage hearing before the Judiciary Committee of the Massachusetts Legislature.
On the latter occasion, when a hostile member of the Committee thought he saw a chance to score by ill-naturedly questioning my remarks, I was stirred to a spirited reply. That night the newspapers carried a flattering account of the new young speaker in the suffrage ranks and thereafter I was petted and claimed by the older suffragists. Mary Page, in particular, made definite efforts from that time on to enlist me in active work for the cause.
My work for woman suffrage began and continued with organizing, at which I was fairly successful though I never had Mary Page's gift for picking the best possible leaders.
Speech making, too, was one of my frequent activities for nearly thirty years. Yet I was not a great speaker or really eloquent. However my speeches often had two good qualities: sound logic, i.e., orderly grouping of facts and arguments; complete informality, for I was frequently able to talk to an audience more readily than to individuals. My method of preparation was to list the points I wanted to make and then to go over them once or twice, but I never consulted the paper after I went to the platform. If I covered my outline I used to consider that I had done pretty well. …
If I were to estimate today the value of my services to the suffrage cause I should say that the organization of the College Equal Suffrage League was useful at the time. In Massachusetts, where much the largest portion of my time was spent, my efforts were futile for the most part; and in the Midwestern campaigns in which I helped I was only moderately useful. In Washington, in the Congressional work, I think I was of real service…
At the Richmond convention of the National League of Women Voters at the end of Miss Sherwin's first term as President one of the speakers classified three of us as follows: Mrs. Catt as the "architect;" Mrs. Park as the "builder;" and Miss Sherwin as the "administrator." The designation, "builder," was I think one to which I was entitled in a good share of my work.
Maud Wood Park, January 1943
Learn more about primary sources for women’s studies.
Source: Mary (Earhart) Dillon Collection, c.1863-1955: Series XI. Edna Lamphrey Stantial, Papers, 1893-1944, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College, in ProQuest History Vault, Women's Studies Manuscript Collections from the Schlesinger Library: Voting Rights, National Politics, and Reproductive Rights, Folder 002692-026-0784. Maud Wood Park correspondence, speeches, and other documents