The 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920—but, according to Associate Professor of History Chad Martin, that well-deserved victory was prefaced by decades of struggle. American suffragettes, he said, often found themselves enduring imprisonment, hunger strikes, physical assault, and force-feeding. With the hundredth anniversary of women obtaining the right to vote fast approaching, Martin decided he would take the opportunity to give a symposium on the suffragettes on Feb. 12, paying close attention to the struggles they faced.
“Every year, my department has a symposium, and so every month, we have a different professor from my department give a talk,” Martin said. “When they asked me what talk I wanted to do, it just seemed like everything came together about this topic.”
During the symposium, Martin covered topics such as the important figures in the fight for women’s voting rights, the strategies the suffragettes implemented to meet their goals and the global influences on the American suffrage movement. Martin said his lecture was important, not only because it served to educate a modern audience on a historic social upheaval, but also because of the impact it can have on young people wanting to change the world.
“It’s easy for young people… to feel like they are small and insignificant, and that they can’t change the world around them because wealthy, powerful people in more important places than Indianapolis are the ones who are in charge of the world,” Martin said. “But when you start to look at the grassroots activism that went behind something like the 19th amendment … you see that change is hard, and it takes numbers. If people are willing to put their back into it and organize and work collectively, they can make a huge difference in the world.”
For senior political science major Karlee Taylor, Martin’s talk was particularly impactful because of the way it addressed that the women’s suffrage movement was not necessarily for all women. Taylor said that understanding this fact is important for modern-day conversations about women’s rights moving forward.
“I think that women’s issues are one, and as great as the women’s suffrage movement was, it did leave out a lot of people,” Taylor said. “Even these super liberal progressive movements still very much favor the white woman. So now, we’re in an era where we’re able to talk about how [the suffragettes] were still really progressive, but they really did disenfranchise a lot of other people. And I think [Martin] hit really well on those topics.”
Martin’s symposium comes amidst a series of developments regarding gender studies at the university. According to Martin, a gender studies center is set to open on Feb. 20. In addition, a gender studies minor, which was developed by Associate Professor of Sociology and Department Chair of Sociology Amanda Miller, was added to the school’s curriculum. Martin will also be teaching a new class on comparative women’s history in the fall. For Martin, it is a time of change, and change, he said, is something that can rarely be held back.
Martin said that people like Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative who was notably against feminism and LGBT+ rights, attempted to suppress the tides of change, but it was through the efforts of young activists that these attempts were unsuccessful. Schlafly, Martin said, threatened the public with her “horrific” vision of the future: the idea that women would be in the military and gays would be able to marry.
“Those were literally her arguments at the time,” Martin said. “But now we look at how society has changed just in that forty-year span of time, and you think, people like [Schlafly] were fighting against the tides of change.”
Overall, Martin said that looking back on the women’s suffrage movement was a positive experience, where he learned both about himself and about the strength of people vying together for change and equality.
“I think it’s hard to look at these women and what they accomplished and not think, people together can do great things,” Martin said. “I think it’s really important to not be cynical, and to not feel like change is impossible or that justice is something that doesn’t exist and can’t be attained, because I think history would prove otherwise.”