Scholar details role of freedom of assembly in suffrage movement’s success

Thursday, March 5, 1998

Linda J. Lumsden, author of Rampant Women: Suffragists and the Right of Assembly, told roundtable participants Wednesday at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center how women used the freedom of assembly and other First Amendment freedoms in the suffrage movement.

Lumsden, an assistant journalism professor at Western Kentucky University, discussed the trials, tribulations and triumphs of suffragists, leading to the historic passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 26, 1920. The amendment enfranchised 20 million women, providing that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Lumsden emphasized that “the suffrage movement exemplified how the right of assembly can effect change in a democracy” through the right of assembly, a right she terms “arguably the most ancient and basic principle of a free society.”

Featuring both a slide-show presentation and the PBS documentary One Woman, One Vote, the discussion emphasized the high hurdles confronting those women who braved a sea of resistance to effect social change.

“The forgotten history of the suffragists shows how these individuals were stymied, scorned, roundly ridiculed and even spat upon” by large segments of society, Lumsden said. By using the freedoms embodied in the First Amendment, suffragists petitioned, assembled and spoke out against the inequities in their time.

The lead phrase in her book title—Rampant Women—actually came from a ridiculing remark that appeared in The New York Herald newspaper. But suffragists seized upon the moniker and appropriated into a “cool thing to be,” Lumsden told the audience.

She detailed how public officials, particularly the police, were “not very sensitive to First Amendment rights.” However, these heroines knew “the First Amendment would figure prominently in their defense.”

Even though the suffragists were usually unsuccessfully in evading arrest and avoiding jail time by invoking a First Amendment defense, “the important thing to remember is that these women used their freedom of assembly and free-speech rights to obtain social justice and change history,” Lumsden said.

“These women focused public attention on the plight of women by assembling in marches, even picketing the White House and exercising their free-speech rights. The suffragists provided a glorious example of how people must fight for freedom by using the First Amendment.”

Lumsden thanked the First Amendment Center for hosting this event 150 years after the first Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., noting it was here in Nashville where Tennessee legislators supplied the necessary votes to ratify the 19th Amendment.

“The women's suffrage movement leading up to the passage of the 19th Amendment represented the first organized civil disobedience in the United States” and provided the example for Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King,” she said. “The civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s was heavily influenced by the suffragists' use of First Amendment free assembly rights.”