By Louise Bernikow
Saturday, April 1, 2006
April 1912: "Boats for women vs. votes for women."
By 1912, the generation that began the fight for women's rights has faded away and a new generation has come into its own. Prominent among them are Elizabeth Cady Stanton's daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, who heads the Women's Political Union, which brings together progressives of all kinds--including working women, union organizers, anti-poverty advocates and anti-racism activists--under one banner. Six states have voted for women's suffrage. Under the leadership of its president, Anna Howard Shaw, an ordained minister, the National American Woman Suffrage Association focuses on the state of New York.
This new generation has brought with it a new tactic: massive demonstrations that are actually pageants or street theater on a huge scale, replete with costumes and lines of marchers in disciplined formations. In the spring of 1911, 3,000 people participated in New York City; the next extravaganza is in its final stages of preparation when the unthinkable happens.
A new ocean liner reputed to be unsinkable leaves Southampton, England, bound for New York City on April 10, 1912. Three days later, the Titanic hits a glacier. "Women and children first," the law of the sea, rings out from the decks. Into a woefully inadequate number of lifeboats go those women and children, mostly first-class passengers. As word of the dimension of the tragedy spreads around the world--over 1,500 lives have been lost--the opponents of women's equality spring, perversely, into action. If chivalry is the law of the sea, if women willingly reap the advantages of being "the weaker sex," they argue, then surely they do not deserve the right to vote.
Newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic fill their pages with editorials and letters to this effect. Pressure mounts on the organizers of the planned demonstration in New York City to cancel it, if not in acknowledgement of the futility of their cause, then simply as an act of decency in the face of a national tragedy.
But the suffragists do not back down. In a rhetorical battle that comes to be known as "boats for women versus votes for women," they answer the specious arguments. Alice Stone Blackwell, niece of the 86-year-old suffrage pioneer Antoinette Brown Blackwell, says, "There will be far fewer lost by preventable accident either on land or sea, when mothers of men have the right to vote."
When the march sets off from Washington Square in early May, aunt and niece are riding in a lilac-draped carriage honoring the movement's heroes. Harriot Blatch follows a rider on a bay horse and a line of female cavalry. Thousands walk behind her, dressed in white. Anna Howard Shaw speaks to an overflowing crowd at Carnegie Hall at the end of the day.
Some tides are unstoppable. New York State approved female suffrage in 1917.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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