September 5, 2015

Labor Day, Women’s Suffrage, and Five-Pointed Stars

A little girl manufactures stockings.
We celebrate Labor Day this month, and it’s wise to note that the story of women’s suffrage dovetails with the struggle to eliminate child labor and win the right to safe working conditions and fair compensation. 

As the winds of Progressivism began their sweep across the nation in the 1890s, there were signs that American womanhood was about to shift. Women rode bicycles, and their “wheeling” outfits liberated them from corsets and heavy skirts. Middle- and upper-class women attended college, and some worked as doctors or lawyers.
Rose Schneiderman

Working class women found their voices, too. Rose Schneiderman, a Russian immigrant, made a speech rich with words that caught people’s imaginations:
What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist. . . The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.
Rose Schneiderman also believed she deserved the right to vote.

The woman’s suffrage movement grew more diverse, as women of all economic backgrounds joined hands in the struggle to win the vote. More and more, old-school suffragists began to identify with their sisters who called for humanitarian reforms in the textile factories and sweatshops where they worked. But by 1900, the women’s suffrage movement had run out of energy. Those who replaced Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were a genteel but ineffective bunch who sought to win the vote state by state.

           Then along came the youngsters – college-educated Lucy Burns and Alice Paul – suffragists who cut their teeth on the labor union movement in England, as well as Rose Winslow, a factory worker. They demanded a paradigm shift: a single constitutional amendment to grant women the vote.

Forcible feeding
           Their stories are dramatic. Paul and Winslow were arrested for picketing the White House, were jailed, and went on hunger strikes. Both endured several episodes of force feeding. Burns and 40 other suffragists were locked up in a Virginia workhouse in a night of terror when their guards attacked them. Burns was manacled to a bar so high her feet barely touched the ground.

           In the end, the young women prevailed, and the 19th Amendment to the Constitution became the law of our land. But not without the legacy of mill girls and piece workers who believed they could better their own lives by empowering all women with the vote.

Alice Paul stitched stars as states ratified the 19th Amendment.

As each state ratified the 19th Amendment, Alice Paul cut and stitched a star to a long banner marking the move toward suffrage. From Rightfully Ours: How Women Won the Vote, comes an activity showing how to make such a star with just one cut!


  1. Love your work Kerri! Almost finished reading Reporting Under Fire... another masterpiece!

  2. Great post! We owe so much to those courageous women!