100 Year Old Right
Online historical exhibit commemorates the ratification of the 19th Amendment
by Ella Bourland
Published in August, 2020
On August 18, 1920, the decades-long nationwide struggle to expand access to the ballot box celebrated a significant victory: women secured the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Michigan's state constitution enfranchised women two years prior, in November 1918. The recovered histories of Washtenaw County residents and groups who raised their varying views on women's right to vote are published nearly 100 years later in the online exhibit, Liberty Awakens.
As part of an effort by Washtenaw County historical organizations and the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area, Liberty Awakens artfully details women's suffrage as a story of social and political change. It documents the men and women who worked tirelessly against anti-suffrage sentiments, such as the one expressed by two anonymous Ann Arbor businessmen: "...women's place [is] in the kitchen or in the home where she can take care of the kitchen and babies. [Suffrage] is laziness upon the part of women, a desire to get away from home life, to spend money upon dress, to indulge their vanity, and to avoid their proper functions in the home." Suffragists pushed back that women's morals would uplift public policy and that their influence should not be limited to the domestic sphere, among other reasons.
Suffragists were not the only local politically active women at this time. Though it was well-educated, middle class white women who most often used their platforms to champion the right to vote, women with fewer social advantages also did, in addition to tackling other everyday concerns such as domestic violence, alcoholism, racism, the opportunity for work, decent housing, property ownership, and farming. Ann Arbor resident Jennie Buell (1853-1935) advocated for women's suffrage and rights through her life's work with the Grange movement-a fraternal organization aimed at advancing the social and economic needs of farmers. Using her capacity as the Grange's statewide lecturer, Buell traveled the area delivering pro-suffrage talks.
Other local women
established clubs that engaged in public life, demonstrating the idea that women had a moral sensibility and civic duty to influence policy in fields intersecting with suffrage. According to the Liberty Awakens exhibit, "In 1900, a small group of black women in Ann Arbor formed the Women's Federation of Clubs with the motto, Uplift Our Race, morally, physically and spiritually."
After winning the right to vote, Ann Arbor suffragists and local groups reoriented their mission towards educating new voters. Local historian Matt Siegfried recounts educational classes offered to encourage newly enfranchised women voters in Ypsilanti: "The 1st Ward school...was used to give civic classes to...African American women voters. There were various meetings held in the city of Ypsilanti including in the Adams School building, where a mock election took place in early 1918 for both men and women of the 1st Ward."
Today, local people and organizations are still working to empower and inform voters, as well as recognize and curb voter suppression. Ypsi Can I Share?, founded by community activist Gail Summerhill, aims to "bring information to audiences typically excluded by our government, media, and other mainstream sources," and "educate and engage people of color and others by providing basic political information so they become informed citizens."
For the curious interested in the story of women's suffrage and the subsequent rise in women's political influence, see Carolyn Jefferson-Jenkins's 2020 book The Untold History of Women of Color in the League of Women Voters.
[Originally published in August, 2020.]
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