As a graduate of Oberlin College, I have always been proud that when Oberlin was established in 1833, it was the first co-educational college in the country, admitting both men and women. However, it did not initially admit men and women on the same terms: women were not admitted to the baccalaureate program until 1837. Nor was the admittance of women intended to educate women as doctors, lawyers, ministers or politicians, or to give them the vote. As Robert Fletcher states in his book, A History of Oberlin College: “Washing the men’s clothing, caring for their rooms, serving them at table, listening to their orations, but, themselves, remaining respectfully silent in public assemblages, the Oberlin co-eds were being prepared for intelligent motherhood and a properly subservient wifehood.” (p. 291). Not even the presence of Lucy Stone as a student and supporter of women’s suffrage could change the mind of Oberlin faculty in the 1850s.
The history of women’s rights throughout much of the 19th century seemed to follow this same pattern of new opportunities matched with setbacks. The right to vote came slowly. Between 1833 and 1911, women gained the right to vote in school elections in 22 states. Six states granted women full suffrage in the same time period beginning with Wyoming in 1869: the other five states are Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Washington and California. However these gains were uneven, and two years after Utah and Idaho granted full suffrage in 1896, Minnesota only granted women the right to vote for library trustees. During the same period, New Jersey, which had granted women the right to vote in its 1776 state constitution, revoked that privilege in 1844.
By 1913, after over 60 years of struggling for the vote and greater opportunities for women, the suffrage movement seemed to have stalled. The idea of a parade in Washington to coincide with President Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913 was seen as way to energize the movement. On March 3, 1913 women from around the world gathered in a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue from near the Capitol to the Treasury Building. The procession was led by a woman attorney, Inez Milholland, who was mounted on a white horse. Directly behind her were women from the countries which had already granted women suffrage, such as New Zealand. Behind them were women who had struggled for suffrage, as well as contingents of women representing various occupations, including a group of librarians led by Harriet Hifton of the Library of Congress, Copyright Division. There were also groups of college women in academic gowns. Though the march was jeered at and hindered by bystanders, it was still successfully completed and culminated with tableaus at the Treasury Building. However it took another 7 years before the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, was ratified.
This year, in commemoration of the centennial of the suffrage march, the National Women’s History Museum is helping to sponsor a recreation of the suffrage march organized by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. The recreated march will take place on Sunday, March 3rd beginning at the Capitol and proceeding down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument. Fittingly, March is also Women’s History Month – a time to commemorate the contributions of women to the United States, as well as a time to remember our struggles for equal rights.