Hundreds of families and residents turned out Wednesday night, Aug. 26, for a low-key gathering to see the Bunker Hill Monument bathed in purple, white and gold to celebrate the 100th year milestone of women winning the right to vote in federal elections – just one of several national monuments and historic sites across the country that participated in the subdued celebration.
National Parks staffers Jocelyn Gould and Kaitlin Woods said the program was called ‘Forward into Light,’ which was a nod to a banner used during a Washington, D.C., suffrage march in 1913. The event was put on by the official Women’s Vote 100 organization.
“They started this initially to get as many historical sites and buildings in the country lit up on Aug. 26,” said Gould. “They got the cooperation of many different park sites and that included Bunker Hill…All of these sites may not immediately be associated with women at first, but were lit up because there is always a women’s story associated with any historic site, including Bunker Hill.”
Other sites that participated around the country were the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Appomattox Court House in Virginia.
The purple stood for loyalty, the white for purity and the gold stood for Kansas – one of the first places that attempted to get women the right to vote.
“It was really great to see people coming out with their families,” said Gould. “There were a lot of people picnicking and people came up with their dogs. One women saw the Monument lit up from downtown Boston and walked over to see what it was all about.”
Woods has been interning for the NPS in Boston this summer, and has spent a great deal of time studying the Women’s Suffrage movement in preparation for the 100th year milestone.
In Charlestown, during the movement, Woods said there was a very active league for many years, known as the Charlestown Women’s Suffrage League. An article in Women’s Journal from 1893 listed the Town having 312 suffragists in the League.
“There was a lot of crossover between Charlestown and Boston,” said Woods. “A lot of women were involved in both places. The Charlestown Women’s Suffrage League was very active in the School Committee voting in the late 1800s.”
In 1920s Boston, the 19th Amendment was signed in a muted ceremony, and Woods said there weren’t any big parades until later in September. However, women had organized for some time to get registered to vote even before Aug. 26 so they could participate in the November, 1920, presidential election.
“The response from Bay State women was immense,” said Woods. “A lot of people around the Commonwealth made an effort to be the first people in line at the polls and overwhelmed the poll workers. Some places had to get extra people to staff the polling places. The mayor of Boston was actually working at a polling place for a little bit on Election Day.”
Among those that turned out in particular were 90 and 100-year-old women, who were celebrated at the time when the registered and, later voted. They all said they wanted to cast a vote as it might be the one and only chance they could make a vote for president. That showed the coordination of the effort, which actually had strong voter registration drives in the months leading up to August, 1920.
“Even before the amendment was ratified, they were already starting to register women voters,” said Woods. “You saw people on the same street going to register, mothers and daughters, and even a team of nurses…They were already getting prepared for some time. They had citizenship days where they would all go to Boston City Hall so women could speak to leaders of City departments to learn about them. The League of Women Voters held classes so that women would be prepared and informed. They even held practice elections so they would know how to vote.”
The Bunker Hill Monument was chosen in particular for last week’s lighting program because it was often referred to by women in Boston and around the country when they were seeking the vote.
“The Boston Women Suffrage movement included Charlestown and often drew on the principles and ideals of the American Revolution,” said Woods, who noted at the time many thought of Bunker Hill as standing for political equality, religious equality and class equality.
That day in 1920, however, was reason to celebrate and certainly changed the landscape of politics, issue-orientation and leadership in America.
“I think historians say there is no single piece of legislation that increased the voting population as much as the 19th Amendment because it immediately increased the voting public by 50 percent,” said Gould.
Woods said it is estimated that 60,000 women voted in Boston in the November, 1920, election.
“That’s pretty intense,” added Gould. “It’s a really big turn…A lot of people think a lot of women might have put Harding over the top, and it is believed they voted for him because of his stance on alcohol.”
One Boston newspaper reported, ‘Avalanche for Harding,’ on the day after the election.
One reality, though, is that it wasn’t the first time that women in Charlestown or Massachusetts had been to the polls. Though little known, women were granted the right to vote in local School Committee elections in 1879, and had been doing so since that time.
“The reason for that was that women raised children and it was believed they should be able to pick the people hiring and firing teachers and administrators that interacted with their kids,” said Woods. “They were considered informed people on this narrow issue.”
Boston women got the vote for School Committee first in 1874, and Lynn women voted as early as 1870.
In fact, Alice Stone Blackwell – the famed activist Lucy Stone’s daughter – was asked how it felt to vote after coming out of the polls in 1920.
“She said it actually wasn’t that exciting in the end,” said Woods. “She said it was more exciting to vote for School Committee in 1879. So, that moment was the more exciting moment to her, rather than 1920, which is interesting.”
In Boston, African American women were also granted the right to vote, and many took advantage of that – though there were still very severe voter suppression laws in the South at the time, preventing them from voting in 1920. Even in Boston, Woods said there were fliers sent to the African American community threatening women from there who might try to vote. It is uncertain if that deterred anyone.
Both said it is important to understand that Women’s Suffrage and women’s rights didn’t end in 1920. In fact, the Voting Rights Act in 1965 broke down many more barriers across the country, and suffrage gave birth to the Equal Rights Amendment and the Temperance Movement and maternal health laws – among other things.
One thing that didn’t happen, though, is women didn’t end up voting as a block. Instead, their vote wasn’t as predictable as many thought it might be.
“It was thought women would vote in a block and they didn’t,” said Woods. “A lot of suffragists were thinking they would have more political organizing together, but they ended up getting more involved in party politics and two-party politics. It didn’t end up that they voted together. It was good because it showed a diversity of voices and all women didn’t have to think just one way.”
To read up fully on the research done on suffrage, visit the Park’s website at https://www.nps.gov/bost/learn/historyculture/suffrage2020.htm.