‘A Moment of Disruption': Women Gained the Vote 100 Years Ago — as a Pandemic Raged

Upheavals like pandemics often lead to major societal changes

No vaccine, no treatment, no way to halt a virus’ deadly spread but quarantines and bans on public gatherings. Suffragists fighting for the right to vote 100 years ago found themselves hemmed in by the Spanish flu of 1918, their rallies and other gatherings canceled as they tried to convince lawmakers of their cause.

Coming toward the end of World War I, the deadly strain of influenza infected one-third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people as it swept the world. But the devastation helped women to achieve new economic and political power as they filled jobs left vacant by young men killed by war or illness and went on to get the 19th Amendment passed.

Historians celebrating the milestone this year during the coronavirus pandemic have a new appreciation for what those women accomplished. Susan Ware, the author of “Why They Marched,” profiles of women who worked out of the spotlight for the right to vote, said that until now she had little comprehension about what it meant to campaign as a virus killed millions. 

“It gave me great respect for the additional challenges that the suffragists faced,” she said. 

Attendees seen at the first convention of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Boston, 1909.
New York Public Library
Attendees seen at the first convention of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, Boston, 1909. The emergence of women as nurses and other professionals during the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I enabled them to push for passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

The flu pandemic killed more young men than women — 175,000 more men than women died in 1918 — and more than the war, which was responsible for only one-third the numbers, noted Christine Crudo Blackburn, of the Bush School of Government Public Service at Texas A&M University, in an essay she wrote with two others in 2018. The war allowed the virus to spread more easily as soldiers spent months crammed together in training camps, trenches and hospitals. Many became infected on packed troop ships even before they reached Europe, and when they returned to the United States they fanned out across the country, taking the virus with them, they wrote in the essay, which appeared in The Conversation and other publications.

Those deaths enabled women to move into fields that had previously been closed to them, among them manufacturing and textiles. With greater economic power, they lobbied for other rights too, including the right to vote.

 “The 1918 flu — and I think it was really due to a combination of the flu and the World War I, because that resulted in a larger loss of work age men —that really gave women the opportunity to move into the workforce,” Blackburn said. 

Their indispensable place in society transformed life in the United States during a critical period before the 19th Amendment was approved — by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified a year later on Aug. 18, 1920. By the end of World War I, women’s employment was 25% higher than it had been and by 1920, women made up 21% of the country’s employed, Blackburn and the others wrote.

Upheavals like pandemics often lead to major societal changes. The Black Death killed more than 75 million people across the globe but the world deadliest disaster also set serfs free in Europe, drove up wages for laborers still alive, up to 75% in parts of England, and increased standards of living for survivors, Blackburn and the others wrote.

One key profession for women during World War I and the flu pandemic was nursing, said Allison Lange, a history professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology and author of a new book, “Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women’s Suffrage Movement.”  They served in the Nurse Corps of the Army and Navy after the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 and volunteered for the American Red Cross, particularly women of color, she said. Their new role helped them gain support for the 19th Amendment, particularly from President Woodrow Wilson, Lange notes.

“We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Wilson asked in an address to the Senate in 1918. “This war could not have been fought, either by the other nations engaged or by America, if it had not been for the services of the women, -- services rendered in every sphere, -- not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.” 

Not all change was lasting, a lesson that could be important today when nurses again are in the spotlight.

“I don’t think we’ll end up with a monument to them at the end of this,” Lange said. 

But some progress was — the Red Cross never turned back from officially opening its ranks to African American nurses, Lange said. 

Looking back at a century, women have made dramatic inroads.

said Allison Lange, a history professor at the Wentworth Institute of Technology

Even with the passage of the 19 Amendment, many African American women, especially those living in Southern states, continued to face obstacles to voting. Poll taxes, literacy tests and other Jim Crow barriers kept them from the polls until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Battles over voting continue today.

Lange and others say it would be a mistake to underestimate what women have accomplished in the last 100 years. World War II brought other new advances for some in the workforce. During the New Deal many of the suffragists were behind the scenes, proposing reform labor and social reform. In the early stages it was not clear what would work and what would not and women were often less tradition bound and more willing to experiment, Ware said 

“It’s easy to feel in the 21st Century that things are still unequal, it’s easy to feel nothing has changed,” Lange said. “When you’re a historian looking back at a century, women have made dramatic inroads.”

Take education for example. Women received 57% of bachelor’s degrees awarded by U.S. institutions in the 2016-2017 academic year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, National Public Radio noted last year. An analysis by Pew Research of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for last year's first business quarter findings found that 29.5 million women in the labor force had at minimum a bachelor's degree, compared to 29.3 million men, NPR reported. Women, ages 25 and older, accounted for more than half of the college-educated workforce, 50.2%, an 11% increase since 2000.

Or politics. A record number of women, 127, are serving in the U.S. Congress this year, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey, increasing their percentage in Congress from 20% to 23.7% One hundred and one women are serving in the House and 26 in the U.S. Senate. 

As of June 3, 452 women were running for the U.S. House and another 45 for the Senate. The success for women during the 2018 midterm elections was concentrated among Democrats, said Kelly Dittmar, of the Center of American Women and Politics. This year, the increase is the number of women candidates is on the Republican side. Sixty percent of the GOP women are challengers. 

How the pandemic is affecting those races is not clear, Dittmar said. Are women finding it more difficult to raise money with so many people at least temporarily unemployed for example or any candidates deciding against running because of the threat of coronavirus?

“It’s hard to pinpoint any gender effect,” she said.

Lange noted the new push for the Equal Rights Amendment, first proposed by suffragists in 1923, “fought for in the 70s, lost in the 80s and now suddenly on the table again,” she said. It was short three states of the 38 it needed for ratification by its 1982 deadline. The House voted in February to extend that deadline but the vote was likely symbolic because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he is not a supporter.

Nurses marched in support of the suffrage movement, March 3, 1913, near Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. A century later, women would once more find themselves on the street to march against anti-women policies.
Library of Congress
Nurses marched in support of the suffrage movement, March 3, 1913, near Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. A century later, women would once more find themselves on the street to march against anti-women policies.
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Protesters gather outside the Capitol Building during the "Women's March on Washington" in Washington, D.C., Jan. 21, 2017. People took over cities in the U.S. the day after Donald Trump's inauguration to protest the new administration and push for gender equality.

“Having revitalized that conversation is really valuable,” she said.

By the turn of the last century, women had already begun demanding equal pay for their work, Blackburn and her co-authors pointed out. In a February 1869 letter to the editor of the New York Times, a writer noted that the 500 women in the Treasury Department made only half what their male colleagues did. 

“Many of these women are now performing the same grade of work at $900 per annum for which men receive $1800,” the writer said. “Most of them, too, have families to support; being nearly all either widow or orphans made by the war.”

Today women continue to make less than men, 79 centers for every dollar, in 2019. The gap forms early and grows through the decades, CNBC reported last year.

How will this current pandemic affect women? One key question for younger women is childcare, Lange said. Hard-hit Italy did not immediately re-open childcare, leaving women with hard choices. A study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research last found that women because of their over-representation in the service sector disproportionally account for 60% of job loss.  

Whether women will be permanently harmed or whether they will in the end benefit from the most recent upheaval is not known.

“We‘re still in those moments of opportunity,” Lange said. “We could end up in a place, a moment of disruption.”

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