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Fighting for Equality

American Experience The Vote

“In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote,” is an axiom of United States history, yet seldom has an adage more thoroughly obscured reality. Rightly regarded as a milestone for both U.S. women and democracy, the 19th Amendment was not the facile turning point it is generally perceived to be.

Millions of women voted before the amendment and millions more were prohibited from voting after, particularly African American women in the South. Nor was the ballot a favor bestowed upon women by an enlightened, progressive society. The right to vote was fought for and won –– by three generations of women and some men who, over the course of more than seven decades, not only carried out one of the most sustained and successful political movements in all of U.S. history, but were also the first to employ the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience that later would become the hallmark of political protest in the U.S.

From the moment the clamor for women’s suffrage was first raised in the U.S. in the 1840s, the question was how the vote would ever be won. Nineteenth century feminists like Lucretia Mott and Matilda Joslyn Gage were inspired by the more egalitarian societies of the Haudenosaunee, commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy. But resistance to women’s participation in the political sphere came from every quarter of U.S. society from political machines eager to maintain their power, industrial interests fearful for their profits, even many women, who were convinced that wielding the ballot would somehow diminish their influence in society. Compounding the opposition, from the late 19th century on, was the poisonous legacy of Reconstruction and the determination of the former Confederate states to preserve white supremacy, in large part by barring African Americans from the polls.

As of 1909, despite six decades of relentless struggle, suffragists could point to little in the way of progress. Just four states had extended the franchise to women; the federal women’s suffrage amendment introduced in the Senate in 1878 had virtually no support on Capitol Hill; and most in the first generation of activists had gone to their graves without casting a ballot. What had begun as a crusade of the few, however, had become a mass movement and their collective impatience was mounting.

As suffragists attempted to navigate the treacherous shoals of the national political scene, time and again principle was sacrificed in the name of pragmatism. Unfolding after the Civil War, when racism was both “a political fact and a political strategy,” says historian Martha Jones, the crusade for women’s suffrage mirrored its historical moment. When expedient, white suffragists proved willing to accommodate its pervasive and deeply pernicious politics of exclusion. The Vote engages this troubled history directly underscoring the contributions of women of color to the struggle, the challenges of coalition-building in a fundamentally unequal society, and most importantly, the significant limitations of the 19th Amendment.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

“The hard-fought campaign waged by American women for the right to vote was a truly transformative cultural and political movement, resulting in the largest expansion of voting rights in American history,” says executive producer Susan Bellows. “It’s also a story that has usually been reduced to a single page in the history books. The Vote restores this complex story to its rightful place in our history, providing a rich and clear-eyed look at a movement that resonates as much now as ever.”

“The lengths to which women had to go in their pursuit of the ballot will likely come as a surprise to most viewers,” says writer, director, and producer Michelle Ferrari. “How many people are aware that suffragists were the first Americans to picket the White House? That those women were jailed, went on hunger strikes and were force-fed by authorities? And that the techniques of non-violent civil disobedience, which we usually associate with the Civil Rights Movement, were employed first by women fighting for the right to vote?”

Dramatic and thought-provoking, The Vote is, at its core, a story about power “who has it and who doesn’t want to give it up,” says constitutional lawyer and writer Michael Waldman. “We’re still fighting over who has that power.”

American Experience The Vote

Part 1

SDPB1: Monday, July 6, 8pm (7 MT)

SDPB2: Friday, July 10, 7pm (6 MT)

Part 2

SDPB1: Tuesday, July 7, 8pm (7 MT)

SDPB2: Saturday, July 11, 7pm (6 MT)

American Masters Unladylike2020

A one-hour special and digital short film series featuring courageous and lesser-known feminists from the turn of the 20th century, who achieved many firsts, including an international pilot, astronomer, bank president, hospital founder, desegregationist, Arctic explorer, film studio executive, and artists.

SDPB1: Friday, July 10, 8pm (7 MT)

Watch the inspiring videos at

Image Credit: Library of Congress

Influential Women of South Dakota

Interviews with contemporary women and the history of our maternal ancestors.
Tuesdays in July, 12:40pm
(11:40am MT), on In the Moment on SDPB Radio and

Simple Justice: Suffrage in South Dakota

Premieres Monday, August 10, at 9pm (8 MT) on SDPB.

In partnership with PBS and WGBH-Boston, SDPB is producing a video documentary about the historic political battles over women’s suffrage in South Dakota.

“…simple justice demands that woman should have the ballot, and in this opinion, I am warmly seconded by my wife, who desires to vote, as I think all sensible women should.”

~ Maj. John A. Pickler, Faulkton. Pickler was a Territorial and State legislator and, later, a U.S. Congressman. Pickler and his wife Alice worked for many years to see suffrage measures proposed and debated.

See and hear SDPB’s stories and interviews celebrating women’s vote centennial at