National Archives News

Records Reveal Women’s Equal Rights Struggles

By Kerri Lawrence  |  National Archives News

WASHINGTON, December 7, 2018 —  National Archives records help tell the story of American women’s fight to gain the right to vote and become full citizens, Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Steidel Wall said during a panel discussion last night at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The discussion focused on how the women’s rights movement has been shaped and changed by the systems, institutions, and individuals working against women’s equality. 

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Deputy Archivist of the United States Debra Steidel Wall was appointed to serve on the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission and provided introductory remarks at the National Archives program, “Women and the Vote: Opposition to Women’s Equality, from Suffrage to the ERA,” on December 6, 2018, in Washington, DC. (National Archives photo)

The program—“Women and the Vote: Opposition to Women’s Equality, from Suffrage to the ERA”—was the first in a series of public programs hosted by the National Archives focusing on the women’s movement, as the National Archives prepares for the upcoming 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and the opening of our Rightfully Hers:  American Women and the Vote exhibit in March 2019, as well as the launch of a traveling exhibit, One Half of the People.

Wall introduced the program and detailed how the National Archives plans to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment. She became Deputy Archivist of the United States in July 2011, previously served as the agency's Chief of Staff from 2008 to 2011, and held a variety of other management positions relating to bringing the agency’s archival holdings to the public online.

“We [will] use our records to tell the story of women's struggle for voting rights as a critical step toward equal citizenship,” Wall said. “The 19th Amendment is rightly celebrated as a major milestone made possible by decades of suffragists’ relentless political engagement. Yet it is just one critical piece of the larger story of women's battle for the vote. The exhibits will explore how American women across the spectrum of race, ethnicity, and class advanced the cause of suffrage and will follow the struggle for voting rights beyond 1920.”

Wall was recently appointed to the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission, which was  created in 2017 by Congress through the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission Act to lead national efforts to educate and celebrate the centennial of the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

“I am excited and honored to work on this milestone centennial celebrating women’s right to vote in our country,” Wall said. “I hope to use my role on the Commission to share more widely the National Archives’ records on women’s suffrage, including the original 19th Amendment that will be featured in our upcoming exhibit Rightfully Hers.

The “Women and the Vote” panelists included Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour; Marjorie J. Spruill, author of Divided We Stand; and Carol Robles-Román, co-president and CEO of the ERA Coalition. Zakiya Thomas, executive director for the National Women’s Party, moderated the discussion.

The women discussed their research on the suffragist movement and women’s rights through the decades, sharing their personal experiences and the roles they are taking to help commemorate the centennial celebration. 

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Women's rights experts discuss how the equality movement has been shaped and changed throughout our nation's history. The program, “Women and the Vote: Opposition to Women’s Equality, from Suffrage to the ERA,” was held at National Archives in Washington, DC, on December 6, 2018. From left to right: Carol Robles-Román, Elaine Weiss, Marjorie J. Spruill,and Zakiya Thomas. (National Archives photo)

“Suffrage was not just a political question,” Weiss said. “It was never just a political debate. It was for many a social and a cultural and, for some, a moral debate about the role of women in society. It was going to change private life as well as public life in...the minds of those who opposed it, and so it takes on levels of emotional meaning. It was really a precursor again to what we call the culture wars.”

The panel discussed historic posters and broadsides that “promoted fear if women were to gain the right to vote” and the “thought that it would mean the moral collapse of the nation,” Weiss added.

Roblas-Román discussed the false understanding that the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was introduced into Congress in 1923, had passed and the implications within our society then and now. The ERA is a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex. It seeks to end the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. Thirty-seven states have passed ERA bills to date.

“There is so much misinformation and disinformation about the Equal Rights Amendment in this country today that 80 percent of Americans think it already passed,” Roblas-Román said. 

The panel also discussed the role of women of color in the women’s rights movement as well as the advancement of the ERA and their hopes for passage of an ERA bill in a 38th state to amend the U.S. Constitution in the near future.  

The entire program is available on the National Archives YouTube channel. 

The National Archives’ Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote exhibit will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment by looking beyond suffrage parades and protests to the often overlooked story behind this landmark moment in American history.

“This fuller retelling of the struggle for women’s voting rights illustrates the dynamic involvement of American women across the spectrum of race, ethnicity, and class to reveal what it really takes to win the vote for one half of the people,” Wall said.

The exhibit opens March 8, 2019, in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC.