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Celebrating my suffragist grandmother and a century of the right to vote | COMMENTARY

Suffragists Alice Paul, left, and Elizabeth Forbes, the writer's grandmother, worked together for many years to advance the rights of women. They're shown here in an undated photo provided by Forbes' family.
Suffragists Alice Paul, left, and Elizabeth Forbes, the writer's grandmother, worked together for many years to advance the rights of women. They're shown here in an undated photo provided by Forbes' family.

Women have had the right to vote for a century now, so long that it seems inconceivable to my generation that this right was not enshrined long before 1920 in our Constitution. In 2020, we can’t imagine that men would not have easily been persuaded to give their wives and daughters a right that seems so sensible and just now.

We were reminded last week, on Aug. 26 — the 100th anniversary of the formal adoption of the 19th Amendment, known as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment,” into the U.S. Constitution — how desperately hard, long fought and sometimes violent that struggle was. It took decades and the will of tens of thousands of women of all socio-economic and racial backgrounds, who didn’t always agree on tactics. Anthony, who played a pivotal role in the movement, died long before the amendment passed.

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In 1913, Alice Paul, who trained with the radical British women’s movement, founded the National Woman’s Party, the most militant faction of the growing movement. My grandmother, Elizabeth Forbes, whom I am named after, joined the party and became its treasurer, according to our family’s oral history.

In early 1919, in the midst of another pandemic, women from the National Woman’s Party began lighting “Watchfires of Freedom” in Lafayette Park outside the White House in an attempt to pressure Congress to vote on the amendment. They would read statements on democracy by the president and throw them into fires, which they tried to keep burning for weeks — on sidewalks, in urns and in caldrons — as portrayed in Inez Haynes Irwin’s book, “Up Hill With Banners Flying.” The protesting women wore purple, white and yellow banners of the National Woman’s Party, and continued to fan the flames even as police arrived to arrest them and put out the fires.

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Women had already been jailed and held hunger strikes; they were force-fed with tubes jammed down their throats. On Feb. 9, the night before a vote in Congress on the amendment, they threw an effigy of President Woodrow Wilson into flames as thousands looked on. Police rushed forward, arresting protesters and spraying them with fire extinguishers, as women tried to add more wood to the fire. Finally, police arrested and jailed more than 30 women, including my grandmother.

The next day the amendment was defeated by one vote. By June, Congress had passed it. On Aug. 18, 1920, it was ratified by 36 states and adopted on Aug. 26.

We gathered on that date last week, a Wednesday evening, around my grandmother’s simple gravestone in a small church cemetery in Glen Arm. In front of it, we placed a homemade suffrage banner, a picture of my grandmother with Alice Paul and a bouquet of flowers. Then my sister, niece and first cousin sat apart on the grass, beside the graves of two generations of our family, talking about our memories of her.

My daughter joined on a video phone call from New York as we opened a bottle of champagne and toasted Eish, the nickname her grandchildren had given her.

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Harford County resident Elizabeth Forbes is pictured with her children in the June 26, 1915, edition of Maryland Suffrage News. Forbes, one of many women throughout Maryland who worked to win the right for women to vote in the early 20th century, will be honored with a historical marker in Havre de Grace.
Harford County resident Elizabeth Forbes is pictured with her children in the June 26, 1915, edition of Maryland Suffrage News. Forbes, one of many women throughout Maryland who worked to win the right for women to vote in the early 20th century, will be honored with a historical marker in Havre de Grace. (Courtesy of Amy Rosenkrans)

I remember her warmth, her sly, half-smile when she found something amusing, her asparagus patch and particularly the way she occasionally blew into our house with her two large dogs and joined right into the chaos of a household with four small children.

I never remember her telling stories of the struggle, of how it felt to be arrested while she had three small children at home, or what my grandfather was saying about all of it. Sitting around her grave, I wished I had asked more questions and that my mother had made her tell those stories over and over again until we could relive them.

There are artifacts. I have inherited a silver dish given to her in 1925 with an inscription on the back to her from Baltimore City School high school teachers for her “hearty cooperation in establishing the principle of equal work for equal pay.”

Shortly after women achieved the right to vote, Alice Paul began writing the Equal Rights Amendment. My grandmother would work for decades for that cause. Nearly right up until her death in 1971 at age 83, she would still drive down to the National Woman’s Party in Washington, D.C., to take part in whatever the issue of the moment was, sometimes staying for several days at a time.

On the day of her funeral one of the few friends who came was Alice Paul. I remember standing in the front room in my grandmother’s Bolton Hill house next to her coffin and my mother nudging me over to meet the famous women’s rights activist. It is one of those memories that survive from my childhood in cinematic clarity.

On Election Day 2016 when we imagined the election of a woman president, I managed to get to Eish’s graveside — on the way back from interviewing Trump supporters in Harford County — to place my “I voted” sticker on her grave, just as thousands of others did on Susan B. Anthony’s grave.

In the midst of a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of this summer, the achingly slow work of the women’s rights movement seems an echo of other protests. The movements for civil rights and women’s rights have been both intertwined and sometimes conflicting since the Civil War.

Alice Paul died in 1977. Nearly a century later, her Equal Rights Amendment of 1923 still has not passed. While much progress has been made, the wage gap between men and women still exists, and families cannot be assured of good quality child care.

As we left the cemetery in the growing darkness last week, I turned and looked back on the banner on my grandmother’s grave. The National Woman’s Party’s bright colors seemed to shout out against a sea of gray stones.

Liz Bowie is an education reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Her email is liz.bowie@baltsun.com.

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