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IN FOCUS

In Focus: ‘The Vote’ looks back at what it took to get half of America the right to cast their ballots

Campaigning by car for suffrage, circa 1916, from "The Vote."
Campaigning by car for suffrage, circa 1916, from "The Vote."Courtesy Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections


One hundred years ago on Aug. 18 the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Or rather, as is emphasized in Michelle Ferrari’s two-part, four-hour-long substantive and illuminating documentary, “The Vote,” it wasn’t given, women took it. By the time the battle was won none of those who started it were still alive and those who finally fulfilled it had not yet been born.

A crisp, comprehensive, and engrossing example of the Ken Burns documentary style, the film revisits the history of an achievement that nowadays gets taken for granted. But the epic fight for women’s suffrage and the conflicts, compromises, frustrations, and sacrifices that it required are relevant and instructive today.

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One issue that stands out is the uneasy relationship between the women’s rights and Black civil rights movements. In the 1840s abolitionists such as Elizabeth Stanton compared the status of women to enslaved people. Not only could women not vote but, once married, became the virtual property of their husbands and had no legal status. The link between suffragists and abolitionists strengthened up to and through the Civil War. But when the Confederacy was defeated it became clear that the country could not handle both Black people and women being enfranchised at the same time. Certainly, the post-Reconstruction South would not accept doubling the Black vote in its states, especially since Black women had already proven themselves committed to and adept at making change. So in 1869 when it became clear that the long-sought 15th Amendment would extend voting rights only to Black men and not to women the suffragists’ attitude toward their former allies soured.

Ida B. Wells
Ida B. WellsCourtesy University of Chicago

The bond would revive periodically, but because a major obstacle to victory was the resistance of the post-Reconstruction, white-supremacist South, Black women were subordinated in the cause — and sometimes exploited. Tellingly, in a massive (and ultimately tumultuous) 1913 demonstration in Washington, D.C., suffragist and cofounder of the NAACP Ida B. Wells and her contingent of Black demonstrators were reluctantly allowed to march — but only at the back of the parade.

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The question of tactics also has a timely resonance now in light of the successful campaign for marriage rights and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Younger activists such as Alice Paul adopted a no-compromise position and employed more radical tactics such as civil disobedience and hunger strikes. In 1917 she and her followers were arrested for picketing the White House to compel the support of Woodrow Wilson. The details of their treatment in prison, where they were force fed and put into solitary confinement, are still shocking. Older leaders such as Carrie Chapman Catt disapproved of such militancy, advocating a more gradualist approach.

But after eight decades of frustration (and about three hours of screen time), not much progress had been made, and strategies were reconsidered. The movement had been trying to win the vote state by state; and though it succeeded in winning over some of the newer Western states, the East and South remained intransigent. Then the focus turned to the more formidable option of a constitutional amendment, which requires approval by two-thirds of both the House and Senate and three-quarters of the states.

A 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.
A 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C.U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

How this was pieced together with persistence and resourcefulness makes for a thrilling history lesson — had not the mother of a Tennessee state legislator browbeaten her son into voting for change, who knows if women would have the right to vote today?

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Part one of “The Vote” airs July 6 at 9 p.m.; part two July 7 at 9 p.m. on PBS’s “American Experience.” They can also be streamed at PBS.org and on the PBS Video App.

Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/vote.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.