Piece by piece

As Pasadena celebrates the centennial of the 19th Amendment, activists say the right to vote was but one of many big victories needed for full gender equality

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 8/22/2019

Monday, Aug. 26, Women’s Equality Day, marks the 99th anniversary of ratification of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, guaranteeing women the right to vote. 

In commemoration, two floats in the 2020 Rose Parade will celebrate the 100th anniversary and the history of the women’s suffrage movement: one produced by the city of South Pasadena, the other by a diverse group of Pasadena women and the National Women’s History Alliance, under the auspices of a nonprofit called Pasadena Celebrates 2020.

The theme of Pasadena Celebrates 2020’s float is “Years of Hope, Years of Courage,” with the tagline, “Upon Their Shoulders, We Won the Vote. Upon Our Shoulders, We Protect the Vote. We Celebrate and Build for the Future.” The theme of South Pasadena’s float is “Victory at Last.”

The theme of the 2020 Rose Parade is “The Power of Hope.” This year’s Tournament of Roses president, Laura Farber, is the third woman — and first Latina — to preside over the parade in its 131-year history.

Between 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. on Sunday and Monday, California Pizza Kitchen restaurants in Pasadena, Santa Anita, Glendale, Burbank and Studio City will donate 20 percent of their proceeds toward building the Pasadena Celebrates 2020 float.

“There are still people who have trouble with the vote,” observed Martha Wheelock, who serves on Pasadena Celebrates 2020’s executive committee. “It’s keeping it both historical and how we feel we’re guardians of it. It’s not history; it’s still going on.”

'Unbossed and unbought'

The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment will be August 2020, but Ellen Snortland — long-time Pasadena Weekly columnist, self-defense advocate, sexual assault survivor, author, playwright and filmmaker — wants to educate people ahead of time. That’s why, in addition to helping the Pasadena Celebrates 2020 float committee, she has curated an exhibit on the women’s suffrage movement in the north lobby of the Pasadena Central Library.

Martha Wheelock and Ellen Snortland

“1920 is the year we actually won the vote,” said Snortland. “People say, ‘Oh, they were given the vote.’ No, we weren’t given shit — yeah, we were given a lot of shit. It’s a big deal that women won the vote without having to kill anybody. Gandhi got his ideas of nonviolent social change from watching the women in the UK and the United States, and hardly anybody knows that. He saw them picketing and chaining themselves to the White House fence. They were just not putting up with the hypocrisy. President [Woodrow] Wilson was fighting a war to promote democracy in Europe and half of his population couldn’t vote.”

Her exhibit runs through Aug. 31 and features her personal collection, decades in the making, of dresses, books, photos, pamphlets, political cartoons, campaign buttons and other artifacts highlighting the major players and moments of the movement in the United States, as well as the UK suffragettes. Wheelock also donated some of her memorabilia with a focus on California. The exhibit will return to the library in December and March.

The exhibit pays tribute to several women and men who played key roles in the fight for women’s suffrage. For instance, one shelf displays a pair of ruby slippers, a nod to L. Frank Baum, who wrote the original “Wizard of Oz” series.

“I have been studying this long enough that I get connections that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” said Snortland. “For instance, this woman, Matilda Joslyn Gage, was one of the most radical of the radicals, and that’s why you’ve never heard of her. She said it’s the patriarchal religions that have the feet on our necks, and that was just not going to fly in her time. However, she influenced her son-in-law, L. Frank Baum, to be not only someone who was interested in having a female protagonist, Dorothy, but to be a suffragist himself who promoted women’s rights and equal rights big time. Perhaps, if it hadn’t been for Matilda Joslyn Gage, we would not have had Dorothy.”

The exhibit also pays homage to famous first political campaigns, including Victoria Woodhull, Shirley Chisholm and Hillary Clinton.

“Woodhull was completely notorious and a brilliant woman,” said Snortland. “She ran on a ticket with Frederick Douglass,” an escaped slave who became a social reformer, abolitionist, orator, statesman and writer who penned numerous autobiographies. “Of course, they didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning that, but she ran and she was important. And we have Shirley Chisholm, who was a serious contender,” Snortland said of Chisolm, the first black woman elected to Congress, who served New York from 1969 to 1983. Her signature campaign slogan was “Unbossed and unbought.” Last year, the Washington Post wrote that her “feminist mantra is still relevant 50 years later.”

'Where are the women?'

Snortland’s exhibit features the women who are considered the mothers of the US suffrage movement, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as lesser known but equally important figures, including women of color such as Sojourner Truth.

“The African-American women were thrown under the bus by not only white women but by Frederick Douglass, who was caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Snortland. “He had to make a devil’s decision, which was, ‘Do I get behind the vote for black men, or do I wait for universal suffrage?’ And he decided he needed to get behind black men, but that threw all these African-American women under the wagon, so to speak. And the white women did that, too, because the best way to control people is to have them fight each other and then the dominant class doesn’t have to deal with it.”

An important part of the exhibit features Native American women, who promulgated and practiced democracy and provided early lessons in gender equality.

“Ben Franklin and the early suffragists got their ideas about gender equality from the Haudenosaunee, commonly known as the Iroquois Confederation,” said Snortland. “They are the longest standing practicing democracy on the planet. Ben Franklin invited two leaders from the Haudenosaunee to visit Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention. They walked in and said, ‘Where are the women? You can’t create a society without women.’ They thought they were nuts.”

The exhibit also features Pasadena resident, suffragist and author Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She wrote the semi-autobiographical short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” after a severe bout of postpartum psychosis, as well as the novel Herland, considered to be the first science fiction book, about a society composed entirely of women who reproduce through parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction). She also wrote a book way ahead of its time called Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution, which inspired women to start their own businesses.

The exhibit also focuses on the substantial anti-suffrage movement, which Snortland categorized as the foremothers of the ultraconservative Eagle Forum, which was founded by anti-feminist firebrand Phyllis Schlafly in 1972.

“They were determined to keep traditional womanhood and rigid gender roles in place,” said Snortland. “They basically believed the extent of a woman’s life should be to get married and have kids. They were promulgating the idea that if women voted, their ovaries would dry up, and a lot of the women who already had eight children said, ‘Great idea! Sounds good to me.’

Piecemeal struggles and hatchetations

Snortland’s exhibit is one of many exhibits, conferences, parades and other events across the country telling different aspects of the movement’s story, including three major exhibits at the Library of Congress, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Archive Museum in the nation’s capital, all curated by women.

The exhibits, including Snortland’s, bring forward lesser known elements of the story, such as the fact that the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade was the first peaceful march on Washington. And that the temperance movement was led by women such as Carrie Nation who went into saloons and used a hatchet to break bottles and chop up bars in acts she called her “hatchetations.”

It also shows how ratification of the 19th Amendment came down to one vote in the Tennessee Legislature, the last state to seal the deal. Assembly member Harry T. Burn, who wore a red rose to represent his opposition to women’s suffrage, cast the deciding vote in favor of the 19th Amendment when, at the last minute of roll call, someone brought him an envelope. He opened it, read it, put it in his pocket and changed to a yellow rose, signifying his newfound support of women’s suffrage.

“It was a letter from his mother saying, ‘Please, let your mother vote,’” said Snortland. “By one vote, we were ratified. Unbelievable. But that’s the existential question, isn’t it: how do you win the vote if you can’t vote for yourself?”

Dr. Robyn Muncy, a historian at the University of Maryland and one of the curators of the National Archives exhibit, told The New York Times that the ratification of the 19th Amendment was not the final “triumphant culmination” of the movement, “but one landmark in a struggle for equal rights for all citizens that isn’t over yet.”

“It’s important to remember how piecemeal a struggle it was,” Muncy said. “Seeing change as coming in one fell swoop undermines us as citizens and gives us a false idea about the way change happens.”