The Challenge

Women who wanted to vote were smart, organized, and committed. But they had to persuade men—the only people allowed to vote—to support their efforts. It took almost a century. But finally, in 1920, it happened.

While the story is decades-long, the critical period was 1900 to 1920.

“There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.”

― Susan B. Anthony, reformer and women’s right activist, 1820-1906

“In humanity, to believe in a thing means to get up and to do something.”

Ypsilanti science professor Jessie Phelps, co-founder of the Michigan State Normal College Equal Suffrage League

Washtenaw’s Suffragists

By 1900, Michigan women who owned property could vote on some bond issues and in school-related elections. But there were no local or state organizations devoted to the cause of votes for women.

By 1910 there were five:

  • Separate male and female clubs for students at Michigan State Normal College (now Eastern Michigan University)
  • Suffrage associations in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor
  • The Washtenaw County Equal Suffrage Association

These clubs brought nationally- and internationally-known suffragettes to town and members joined in local and national actions. 

Local activists included Ann Arbor’s Jennie Buell, Maria Peel, Mary Hinsdale, and Mrs. V.C. Vaughan. Ypsilanti’s leaders included Estelle Downing, Jessie Phelps, and Julia Quirk (of the Ypsilanti  Ladies’ Literary Club).

Some local men were vocal supporters of equal suffrage, notably Charles McKenny, president of Michigan State Normal College (EMU)  and P.R. Cleary, founder of Cleary College (now Cleary University). 

The National Suffrage Effort

Color signified each national organization:

  • Sunflower yellow: those aligned with Carrie Chapman Catt and the National American Woman Suffrage Association
  • Purple, white and gold: those with Alice Paul and her Congressional Union members
  • Red: those against suffrage, called “antis.”

The issue was complicated by other factors. Many saloon and brewery owners were anti.  Brewers were afraid that if women got the vote they’d use it to make alcohol illegal.

Suffragists understood the power of a parade. Three Ann Arbor women traveled to Washington, D.C.  on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s first inauguration to represent Michigan in a huge and carefully choreographed parade.

The Suffragist’s Closing Argument

The United States became embroiled in World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.” But suffragists asked, “How can this be true when half the population has no vote?”

Their question rang true. On November 5, 1918, Michigan’s men voted to give women the right to vote in state and local elections. And finally, in 1919, President Wilson called for passage of a national suffrage amendment. The amendment was passed by Congress and ratified by the required 36 states on Aug 26, 1920, becoming the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Its simple text belies the difficulties and sacrifice required to pass it:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

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