Faculty + Staff

What you probably don’t know about how American women gained the right to vote

Historian Ellen DuBois will share little known details as she delivers UCLA’s 124th Faculty Research Lecture

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Ellen DuBois
Scarlett Freund

Ellen DuBois, distinguished professor emeritus of history and gender studies, will deliver the 124th Faculty Research Lecture on Feb. 13. The lecture is free and open to the public.

In July of 1848, 200 women came together at Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, and audaciously demanded that women should have the right to vote. That historic convention launched seven decades of determined battles, demonstrations and feats of political and legislative cunning wrought by three generations of women along the arduous path toward women’s suffrage — finally achieved in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ellen DuBois, UCLA distinguished professor emeritus of history and gender studies will share some lesser-known facts and stories from that journey on Tuesday, Feb. 13 in the 124th Faculty Research Lecture, titled “The Surprising Road to Women’s Suffrage.” The lecture — a UCLA tradition since 1925 — is free and open to the public and will be held from 3 to 5:30 p.m. in the Schoenberg Music Building.

“I originally considered titling this talk ‘Nevertheless they persisted,’” Dubois said. “This was an incredibly long battle and suffragists went through long periods of American history in which any kind of progressive social reform was impossible — periods as bleak as our own can sometimes seem.”

But the story of women’s suffrage is ultimately the story about the defense and expansion of democracy itself, which must be revered, especially when faced with new and ongoing struggles, she said.

“There was nothing automatic about it,” DuBois said. “It was a step-by-step process that should inspire us more. It should inspire us to make the same kind of commitment and hold the same kind of long-term vision.”

It is also a story about the absolute indomitable spirit of feminism, she said.

A young woman named Charlotte Woodward Pierce was the only woman who attended the Seneca Falls Convention to live to see the 19th amendment ratified, and all American women finally earn the right to vote.

The 19th amendment was originally proposed in 1878, and for decades states became the ground where suffragists made their stand. One of the lesser-known facts DuBois will share in her lecture is that women were actually already voting in some places well before 1920, and that state-by-state legislative and political maneuvering was critical to the ultimate goal. Various states, including California, amended their constitutions to give women the full vote prior to ratification. Women in California voted for president in 1912 and 1916. Suffragists learned state constitutions, how to draft state referenda, as well as inspire and recruit all-male legislatures, as well as the voting public, to the cause.

“By the time we see the federal campaign for suffrage starting up again, what was driving it was increasing numbers of women with full voting rights in both parties,” she said.

States that led the way were mostly west of the Mississippi, DuBois said. In areas controlled by Southern Democrats, there was major resistance to anything that might make it easier for African-American people to vote.

DuBois, who retired at the end of Fall quarter is currently working on her next book, a history of women’s voting rights simply titled “Suffrage,” which will come out in 2020 — just in time for the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment.

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