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‘The Vote’ delves into fight for women’s suffrage

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote.

But it wasn’t an overnight win.

It was a 70-year journey as women fought for that right.

American Experience’s “The Vote” delves into the last decade of the fight leading up to the amendment. The two-part documentary airs on Monday, July 6 and Tuesday, July 7 on New Mexico PBS.

Alice Paul sews stars on flag marking state ratifications. Washington, D.C., 1920. (Courtesy of Library Of Congress)

“Voting rights have always been contested and today we continue to fight,” says writer and director Michelle Ferrari. “The fight continues on different fronts today. Social changes take a long time. The documentary was made to mark the centennial of the amendment and I didn’t want it to get sidelined by what’s happening in the world today.”

The 19th Amendment, although rightly regarded as a milestone for both American women and American democracy, was not quite the simple turning point it is generally perceived to be.

Touring the state for suffrage, circa 1916. (Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections)

Ferrari says millions of women voted before the amendment and millions more were prohibited from voting after it, particularly African American women in the South. Nor was the ballot a favor bestowed upon women by an enlightened, progressive society.

She says the right to vote was, in fact, fought for and won by three generations of American women 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 American history, but were also the first to employ the techniques of nonviolent civil disobedience that later would become the hallmark of American political protest.

“I didn’t really know anything about it,” Ferrari admits before taking on the documentary. “I majored in American history and I have a master’s degree in American history. The fact that I didn’t know about the suffrage movement speaks to how this moment in history is taught. This was a subject that was covered in women’s studies and it ought to be taught in American history.”

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 woman 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.

Inez Milholland campaigns for women’s right to vote. New York, 1912. (Courtesy of Library Of Congress)

As suffragists attempted to navigate the treacherous shoals of the national political scene, time and again principle was sacrificed in the name of pragmatism.

“The lengths to which women had to go in their pursuit of the ballot will likely come as a surprise to most viewers,” Ferrari says. “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?”

The documentary focuses primarily on the movement’s final decade and charts American women’s determined march to the ballot box.

It delves into the controversies that divided the nation in the early 20th century – gender, race, state’s rights, and political power – and reveals the fractious dynamics of social change.

Suffragists picket in front of the White House. Washington, D.C., February 1917. (Courtesy of Library Of Congress)

Ferrari worked with executive producers Susan Bellows and Mark Samels on the film. It is part of PBS Trailblazers summer programming lineup honoring the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment of women’s suffrage.

“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,” Bellows says. “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.”

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