Voting Has Always Been A Beginning, Not An End

Oct 2, 2015

It was October 1916. The Brooklyn Robins, later the Dodgers, played the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, making it possible to forget, for a little while, that summer was over and Europe was at war. Pittsburgh newspapers posted the scores in their office windows and so many people crowded the streets to keep tabs that City Council supposedly passed an ordinance prohibiting the papers from doing so.  

“The suffragettes saw this as an opportunity. They went to a gentleman who owned an arcade Downtown, with several floors of balconies and an atrium. And they got the newspapers to telephone them the play by plays. So they were in there providing this ongoing announcement, but in between the plays they would jump up on the soapbox and say, ‘Women should have the vote,’” said Eliza Smith Brown, granddaughter of Eliza Kennedy Smith, a Pittsburgh suffragist in the early 20th century.

Kennedy Smith and her sister, Lucy Kennedy Miller, helped form the Allegheny County Equal Franchise Federation, an organization that worked to secure equal rights for women. Their father, Julian Kennedy, was the federation’s first president.

“Which seems a little counterintuitive that they would have a man as the head [of the organization], but they realized that they needed him to get access to the people of influence. And the deep pockets,” Smith Brown said.

The sisters weren’t typical for their time: they were outspoken, unafraid to voice their opinions. They and a handful of others would make speeches on street corners, arguing for a woman’s right to play an equal role in society.

“Everybody in town was terrified of them,” said Smith Brown. “When they would appear on the threshold of City Hall the word would go out: ‘The she-devils are at the door.’”

“She was a tough lady and a demanding lady,” said Samuel W. Black, director of African American programs at the Heinz History Center. But he wasn’t referring to Kennedy Smith. He was describing another women’s rights leader, Daisy Lampkin. Lampkin was president of the Negro Women’s Equal Franchise Federation, also called the Lucy Stone Woman’s Suffrage League. As a black woman, Lampkin faced a double burden of prejudice; even suffrage was segregated.

“She was a product of her time,” said Black. “Daisy Lampkin was one of a number of black women addressing social issues that women faced at that time: suffrage rights, education, health and welfare, jobs.”

Until the 19th amendment was ratified in 1920, women merited none of those individual rights.

But let’s back up a little bit.

Women began advocating for equal rights as early as the 1840s, but the issue took a back seat with the eruption of the Civil War in 1861. At war’s end, debates about the rights of African Americans revived debate on women’s rights, said Lisa Tetrault, associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University.

“The types of demands that some suffragists are willing to make right after the American Civil War, at a moment when people imagine freedom being entirely rewritten, were really expansive and really radical,” she said.  

People agitated tirelessly for the vote, because it promised a better future, said Tetrault.

“It’s a fundamental way in which a person can control their destiny, is the way Americans imagine it. Whether it actually can accomplish that is a whole different thing,” she said.  

Reality often lags behind the law. Despite winning the vote in 1870, black men were murdered for voting. That’s the world Daisy Lampkin was born into in 1883.

“A lot of us who are born in the 60s, we like to say we were born during the revolution, the Civil Rights revolution,” said Black. “So you inherit the struggle. And Daisy Lampkin inherited the struggle for suffrage.”

After women won the right to vote in 1920, Lampkin continued to push for a better world both as vice president of the Pittsburgh Courier and field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, known today as the NAACP. She was so instrumental in the latter that she was known in the 1950s as Mrs. NAACP.

In her basement, Smith Brown turned the pages of her grandmother’s scrapbook, a huge tome documenting years of holding local government accountable and exposing officials for graft or misconduct.  

“Once they got the vote, they felt it was their duty to educate the voters (about) how government worked and sometimes how it didn’t work,” she said.

Looking back at the past can make change or progress seem inevitable, Tetrault said, but none of it happens without struggle.

There is no clear finish line.

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