American Experience

S32 E9 | CLIP

Chapter 1 | The Vote, Part 1

The hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote.

AIRED: July 06, 2020 | 0:10:03

CROWD (chanting): Sisterhood is powerful!

Join us now!

Sisterhood is powerful, join us now!

Sisterhood is powerful, join us now!

Sisterhood is powerful, join us now!

WALTER CRONKITE: 50 years ago today,

the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

gave women the right to vote.

On this anniversary,

a militant minority of women's liberationists

was on the streets.

CROWD: Free ourselves!

(crowd chanting)

REPORTER: So remember, men, if you come to work tomorrow

and your secretary refuses to do the filing,

and then go home and find

that your wife has refused to do the cooking,

don't blame them.

Remember, you gave them the vote 50 years ago.

(crowd chanting)

NARRATOR: It had been the opening act in what proved to be

an epic struggle for equality--

a crusade carried out by millions of women

over the better part of a century

to secure for themselves the right to vote,

and thereby participate in America's democracy.

MARCIA CHATELAIN: To be disenfranchised is to be told

that you do not matter,

because the right to vote

is about the power that governs your possibilities.

MICHAEL WALDMAN: The right to vote is the heart of democracy,

and if half the country doesn't have the right to vote,

you're nowhere near being a democracy.

PAULA GIDDINGS: Women would go out canvassing,

and the men would be terrible to them.

They'd say, "Are you trying to wear the pants in the family?"

And, "This is male territory,"

and, "How dare these women begin to come in

and make a difference."

(cannon booms)

MARTHA JONES: This struggle is going on

at the same time that the nation is resolving the Civil War.

So to introduce women is to disrupt a political culture

that is built on exclusion,

that is built on the notion that politics

is a white man's business.

ELAINE WEISS: It's a civil rights battle.

We don't think of it like that,

but it truly is a great civil rights battle.

Suffragists have to change the idea

of what women's role in society will be.

What is her claim on citizenship?

ELEANOR SMEAL: The textbooks when I went to school

said women were given the vote.

We weren't given anything.

We took it.

NARRATOR: On June 29, 1909,

a 24-year-old American student named Alice Paul

made her way through the streets of London

and joined a contingent of some 200 other women

headed for the Houses of Parliament.

Once there, they planned to insist on an audience

with the prime minister

and press him for the right to vote,

a fundamental exercise of citizenship,

known as suffrage,

that was then denied to women

in most of the world's democracies.

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: The right to vote is fundamental.

It's a key ingredient in letting people have equal voice

and equal power.

It gives you a way to protect yourself.

And the opposite of it-- not having the right to vote--

in some political sense, leaves you helpless.

NARRATOR: When Alice Paul had arrived in England two years earlier,

she'd had no thought

of joining the crusade for woman suffrage.

She'd come, as she put it, to "see something of the world,"

and had enrolled in a graduate economics class

at the University of Birmingham,

the first woman ever to do so.

Then, one day on campus,

she'd spotted a notice about an upcoming lecture.

The name was one she knew.

Christabel Pankhurst,

along with her mother, Emmeline,

was a co-founder of the Women's Social and Political Union,

Britain's notoriously militant suffrage organization.

J.D. ZAHNISER: Alice Paul had followed the Pankhursts

with her mother in the newspaper.

They were getting a lot of newspaper coverage in America,

and a lot of people were excited about what they were doing--

things that were so controversial

that American women could not imagine

them happening in America.

JAD ADAMS: There have been votes in the House of Commons

since the 19th century

in favor of women's suffrage,

but there's no real progress taking place.

And so, in anger at this political stagnation,

they actually start doing things

which will get them sent to prison.

ELLEN DUBOIS: They started with mass demonstrations--

demonstrations of 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 people

demanding the right to vote.

TINA CASSIDY: They were passing out pamphlets on the street.

They were standing on literal soapboxes

on the street corners of London

and explaining why women deserved the right to vote.

At the time, standing on a soapbox on a street corner

was something that only men did.

(woman speaking indistinctly, crowd clamoring)

ZAHNISER: They would go to political meetings

and they would interrupt politicians,

which was considered extremely rude.

And they were literally dragged out of these meetings.

Nothing like this had ever been done before.

The idea was to really get enough attention

in order to draw the members of Parliament,

but also the public,

into the cause of suffrage.

NARRATOR: So aggressive were the women of the Pankhurst army

that a British journalist had concocted

a twist on the term "suffragist" to identify them,

derisively dubbing them "suffragettes."

DUBOIS: Ridicule is one of the great weapons

against women's assertion,

and that's what was going on

with calling suffragists "suffragettes."

It minimized them.

It turned them into a small version of what they were.

NARRATOR: No amount of mockery in the press, however,

had prepared Alice Paul for what happened

at Christabel Pankhurst's lecture.

There were lots of male students

from the University of Birmingham there,

and they were hooting and hollering

and singing songs and throwing things.

Someone threw a mouse, a dead mouse.

And it was total pandemonium.

ZAHNISER: Alice witnessed Christabel Pankhurst,

who was no slouch on the speaking platform,

essentially being shouted down and being unable to speak.

NARRATOR: Paul would remember it as a turning point.

PAUL (dramatized): I became from that moment very anxious

to help in this movement.

You know if you feel some group that's your group

is the underdog,

you want to try to help-- it's natural.

And when I saw this outbreak of hostility,

I understood everything

about what the English suffragists were trying to do.

MARY WALTON: Alice Paul was a Quaker.

Quakers believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God,

regardless of gender, regardless of race,

regardless of religion.

ZAHNISER: Quakers believed in educating boys and girls equally,

and so she had never experienced the reality of inequality.

And she began to realize

that there was a whole other world out there

where women were not necessarily treated equally.

NARRATOR: Some months after the lecture,

Paul had written to her mother back home in New Jersey,

"I have joined the suffragettes."

Now she was marching with them to Parliament

to demand for British women the right to vote.

WALTON: Emmeline Pankhurst leads the deputation

up to the gates of Parliament.

And suddenly, they're stormed by police.

Women are thrown to the ground and they're trampled.

PAUL (dramatized): The scene was one awful nightmare.

The police grabbed the suffragettes by the throats

and threw them flat on their backs

over and over again.

Finally, when the police could not drive the women back

or control the scene,

the suffragettes were arrested.

♪ (crowd clamoring)

NARRATOR: In all, 112 women were hauled off to the police station,

"half-fainting," one observed,

"and their clothes torn to pieces."

Alice Paul was among them.

It was the first time Paul had been arrested.

But having become, as she said, a "heart-and-soul convert"

to the cause of woman suffrage--

a cause now reaching its crescendo--

this arrest would by no means be her last. ♪


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