American Experience

S32 E10 | CLIP

Chapter 1 | The Vote, Part 2

Part Two examines the mounting dispute over strategy and tactics, and reveals how the pervasive racism of the time, particularly in the South, impacted women's fight for the vote.

AIRED: July 06, 2020 | 0:09:35

(gulls squawking, waves crashing)

NARRATOR: By the fall of 1915,

there could scarcely have been an adult in the United States

unaware of the controversy over votes for women.

It had been circulating on the periphery

of the national conversation

for six decades,

and during the previous five years,

had moved decisively to the center--

a crusade of the few blooming into a mass movement,

their demand for the ballot growing ever more insistent.

Hotly debated in town halls, on street corners,

and around dinner tables the country over,

woman suffrage had divided husbands and wives,

siblings, women, one from another,

and had aroused vociferous opposition

from every quarter of American society:

industrial interests, politicians,

and not least, the states of the former Confederacy,

where the franchise was a jealously guarded instrument

of white supremacy.

With defeats far more numerous than victories,

new voices had risen to champion new, more aggressive tactics,

and the suffrage movement had splintered over strategy,

highlighting the fundamental question of what it would take

for American women to finally win the ballot.

What no one anticipated in 1915

was the lengths to which they would actually have to go.

MARTHA JONES: This is a real struggle.

It is a struggle over ideas.

Who are women, what can they be?

What can they do, who should they be?

It is a struggle over power.

Who gets to say what this nation is

and how it does what it does?

ALEXANDER KEYSSAR: The fact that there is resistance

to the expansion of democratic rights

is not uniquely American.

When people have some rights that other people don't have,

you have to convince them to share.

Not everybody's going to want to.

(car engine puttering, horn honking)

(crowd cheering)

(children chattering)

NARRATOR: On September 16, 1915,

at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition

in San Francisco,

four women-- virtual strangers--

climbed into a waiting car,

drove through the fairground gates,

and headed east

to launch a new phase in the very long struggle

for woman suffrage,

now in its 67th year and counting.

It was close to midnight when they set out.

Their final destination: Washington, DC.

(fireworks exploding)

MARY WALTON: The car takes off, very, very dramatic.

Lights and fireworks, and it's on its way.

NARRATOR: With few personal possessions,

the travelers' cargo consisted primarily of an enormous scroll

which had been gathering signatures

at the Expo for months:

a petition demanding an amendment

to the U.S. Constitution

that would enfranchise all of the nation's women at once.

Bearing it across the continent was Frances Jolliffe,

42 and a drama critic from Washington state;

poet Sara Bard Field, 33 and a native of Oregon;

and two Swedes who had volunteered

their brand-new Willys-Overland

for the trip.

(engine running)

The "envoys," as they were called,

would be taking a circuitous route,

stopping for pre-arranged rallies, receptions,

and press interviews

in 48 different cities.

Not counting unplanned detours,

the itinerary was nearly 5,000 miles.

On a good road, with the top up,

they'd be lucky to log 20 miles per hour.

WALTON: You have to imagine roads at that time.

Roads are like tracks across the prairies left by wagons.

They had to cross the desert.

There are no maps.

TINA CASSIDY: There was no interstate highway system.

There weren't streetlights.

There weren't pay phones.

There was really no infrastructure

to support a crazy trip like this.

NARRATOR: Already by Sacramento, Frances Jolliffe had had enough,

leaving Sara Bard Field alone with the Swedes,

one of whom talked incessantly.

"Like Odysseus, I have many experiences to relate,"

Field telegrammed a friend from the road:

12 miles through alkali salt pan in Nevada's Great Basin,

an experience Field described as "plowing through dust";

snow drifts so high in Wyoming

that everyone had to get out and push;

a mud hole in Kansas that swallowed the Overland

as if it were a shoe.

CASSIDY: Newspaper outlets would call in with scenes from the road.

The whole adventure of it

was really captivating for the nation.

Women were quite literally crossing

a new divide in America,

and being much more vocal and aggressive--

demanding the vote, not asking politely.

NARRATOR: The stunt was the handiwork of Alice Paul,

a 30-year-old Quaker with a PhD

from the University of Pennsylvania

and a playbook inspired by her apprenticeship

with Britain's notoriously militant suffragettes.

Having been recently ousted

from the movement's pre-eminent organization,

the more moderate

National American Woman Suffrage Association,

Paul now led the upstart Congressional Union,

a small cadre of committed activists

who shared her impatience for the ballot

and her willingness to employ unladylike tactics to win it.

CASSIDY: Women had been at this for decades,

and the movement was going nowhere.

And Alice Paul really believed that the answer

was in needing a new approach.

NARRATOR: While her one-time allies from the National Association

continued to wage the battle state-by-state,

re-enacting the by-now tired ritual

of pleading with male voters on street corners,

Paul had set her sights on the federal amendment,

and had appealed instead to female voters

from the 11 so-called free states of the West,

where women already were fully enfranchised.

As the popular humor magazine "Puck" acknowledged

with a two-page spread in its special 1915 Suffrage Issue,

the four million women of the free states

were poised to liberate their sisters elsewhere.

All they had to do was vote in solidarity with the cause.

Alice Paul's envoys would deliver that message

to Capitol Hill

and make it known to the Democrats--

who held the presidency

and controlled both houses of Congress--

that thousands of Western women were prepared

to hold them responsible

for the federal suffrage amendment.

J.D. ZAHNISER: The idea was to get the attention of the party

and convince them that women's votes

can alter the balance of power,

and persuade them to push through

the constitutional amendment.

NARRATOR: By the time the envoys' Overland reached Washington, DC,

on the morning of December 6,

four states in the East

had voted to keep women from the ballot box.

And even those suffragists who dismissed Paul as a "militant"

had begun to see the wisdom

in her demand for the federal amendment.

President Wilson received the envoys graciously.

"Nothing could be more impressive," he said,

surveying the petition.

"This visit of yours undoubtedly will make it

"necessary for all of us to consider very carefully

what it is right for us to do."

What the president did not say

was that he had already decided what was right to do.

As he'd put it to a friend just the night before,

"Woman suffrage will make

"absolutely no change in politics.

"It is the home that will be disastrously affected.

Who is going to make the home, if the women don't?"


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