Suffrage in the Time of the Spanish Flu
A hundred years ago, the last of the states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, and women won their franchise. It was a revolution decades in the making. Throughout the United States that November, they cast their votes for the Harding/Coolidge ticket or for the Cox/Roosevelt ticket, taking a great bound toward the equality that the US Constitution, now corrected, guaranteed. This was a moment in time, one in a series of moments wrought both by activists locally and forces society-wide.
Around the same time that states were ratifying the Nineteenth Amendment, the Spanish Flu was claiming the last of its victims. Fifty-million in all, the casualties of this pandemic were higher than any other in history. On top of that, there was a war going on, the First World War, itself sending more than forty-million souls to rest.
Ninety-million people, all told, would be hard to overlook no matter which way we considered them. These two events combined to change society’s structures, however, for a reason other than their grim breadth: both the war and the pandemic affected young men more than they did people in general, and as a result, they created a labor shortage of historic proportions. To fill this shortage, young women stepped up. They took jobs in factories, at shipyards, and on farms. While young men were, in droves, dying and overseas, women made up the difference in the homeland. They kept the country functional and strong when normalcy was disintegrating.
At a time when women were working in numbers that they never had before, the movement for women’s suffrage, spearheaded at the first women’s rights convention, at Seneca Falls in 1848, started to seem less radical. The question asked itself: if women were “citizen enough” to work and pay taxes, weren’t they “citizen enough” to cast a vote for their representatives in government?
A confluence of concerted effort and large-scale circumstance had shined a light on the absurdity of the status quo. As famed suffragist Alice Paul said, “I never doubted that equal rights was the right direction. Most reforms, most problems are complicated. But to me there is nothing complicated about ordinary equality.” The complexity of the times, all that raging confusion, all that dying and disruption, had lain bare the simplicity of what was right, and one by one, the states etched what was right into the law.
Disasters like war and pandemic strike, and as little as any of us can say about how or when, we can say even less of the changes they are intent to accelerate. While the women’s rights movement had been moving along for three-quarters of a century, the Spanish Flu and
World War I both served to accelerate it. Supporting the activists, the politicians on the right side of history, and the working women who said “If this, then why not that?” these global catastrophes led to something good – an America proudly and noticeably closer to her promises and her potential.