Thursday, August 27, 2015

“We Demand…” Women, Suffrage, and a Century of Change

One hundred years ago, in 1915, three women drove an open car from San Francisco to Washington DC to petition Congress and President Wilson for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

Let’s stop right there for a moment. Yes it’s true, American women didn’t always have the right to vote. The framers of the constitution referenced men and never mentioned women specifically. They, and later readers, opted to interpret the language narrowly and use the omission to justify women’s legal status as little more than the cows in the barn. Women gradually chipped away at this lowly status and won greater legal rights, and the industrial revolution’s need for workers brought them into the workplace in increasing numbers, changing their relationship to the home and their families. In some states, all west of the Mississippi, women were even successful at winning voting rights through state referenda. But nationally, the US Constitution still did not recognize women’s right to vote and stiff opposition remained in the conservative eastern states, and in the racist south.

That’s the way things stood in 1915 when Alice Paul, leader of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, sent the suffrage envoys on their road trip. They weren’t the first to drive cross country, and not even the first women to do so. But it was still an arduous, uncertain journey over bad roads that were not well signed, and where, in some cases, getting lost could spell their doom.

The three women were Sara Bard Field, Maria Kindberg, and Ingeborg Kinstedt (a fourth, Frances Joliffe, was supposed to make the trip but bailed in Sacramento, not rejoining them until they arrived in New York City.) They left the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in late September, and arrived in DC the first week in December.

So why should we care about this? What makes it interesting?

First, it was a gutsy thing to do, and putting their life and limbs at risk helped symbolize women’s ability to take on the dirty work of voting (I know it sounds weird to equate driving over the Sierras by moonlight to entering a polling station but that’s just the way things were in those days.) Three women roaring through small town America in their open car helped reframe, not just for men but for women as well, what was possible for the gentler sex.

Secondly, the envoys themselves were fascinating people, and their stories deserve a closer look. Sara Bard Field was a lapsed Baptist and a divorced mother of two who supported herself through suffrage organizing and other freelance work. She was also a poet and a champion of workers’ rights. In her mid-thirties at the time of the trip, she had a lover who was 30 years her senior, attorney Charles Erskine Scott Wood. Her journey to the East deepened her love for him, even as its physical and emotional demands strengthened her and reduced her dependence on him. 

Maria and Ingeborg were Swedish immigrants and the two “Swedes”, as Sara referred to them, were fascinating as well. Then in their early 60s, Maria served as the river and Ingeborg was the mechanic (among other feats she changed 12 flat tires in the course of their journey.) Maria was mild-mannered and motherly, a midwife who had by her count delivered some 2000 babies. Ingeborg was, in Sara’s words, “a full-fledged radical, a Syndicalist (first cousin to an Anarchist) and a friend to any movement that will bring greater freedom to mankind.” She reportedly had also been released recently from some sort of mental institution, and had some anger issues. More later on all of that.

Finally, the trip helped change the tone of the discussion about women, voting rights, and the rules for proper female decorum. The banner the envoys draped over the car prior to their arrival in towns of any size read “We Demand an Amendment to the United States Constitution Enfranchising Women.”

“We Demand…”

Not “wouldn’t it be nice if” or “we respectfully request” or “pretty please.” We demand…It wasn’t the first time this banner had been used, but it was the first time many people in the West had seen it, and especially outside of the larger cities. Who were these strumpets driving into town with no male escort, and demanding things? What would they want next? What indeed…?

This trip is an attempt to uncover more of the details of this trip that have been lost to time, and to reflect on the many changes that have taken place- and that still need to be made- in the 100 years since the suffrage envoys took the first road trip for a social cause.