TODAY IN BADASS LADY HISTORY: Three Lesser-Known Suffragists Who Fought Every Step of the Way to the Polls

If you're NOT voting today, this is probably gonna totally guilt-trip you.
Publish date:
November 6, 2012
feminism, electoral politics, history, voting, badass ladies

Tye Leung Schulze

Tye Leung Schulze cast her vote a good eight years before the federal government adopted the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. As the first Chinese American woman in the US to legally vote in an election, she did so in San Francisco in 1912, as California had given women the vote in 1911 with the passage of Proposition 4.

Among the extraordinarily belittling and patronizing news coverage of her vote (one of which described her as “a very human little girl, one of the cleverest and prettiest children of her race that have ever grown up in America,” yes, they called her VERY HUMAN) she was quoted as saying of her voting experience:

I studied; I read about all your men who wished to be president. I learned about the new laws. I wanted to know what was right, and not to act blindly... I think it right we should all try to learn, not vote blindly, since we have been given this right...

After escaping her own arranged marriage at 14, Tye Leung Schulze had gone on to help other Chinese women break out of sexual slavery, forced marriage and prostitution. She worked as an interpreter and ultimately became the first Chinese American, regardless of gender, to work in civil service for the federal government. It was in her civil service job that, in 1913, she met and fell in love with Charles Schulze. In spite of their state's apparently liberal voting policies, the couple was forced to travel to Vancouver in Washington State to be married, as interracial marriage between Caucasians and Asians was straight-up illegal in California.

When the Schulzes returned home to San Francisco, their scandalous union resulted in powerful disappointment from both of their families, as well as both partners losing their jobs working in immigration on Angel Island. They had three children and remained married until Schulze’s death in 1935. Tye Leung continued her efforts as an interpreter and conduit for the Chinese American community in San Francisco, working at a hospital and later as a phone operator.

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell was born in 1863, the same year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, to parents who were former slaves. Terrell’s father, Robert Church, was mixed race, allegedly the offspring of his former master, and Mary’s young life was spent in a mostly white neighborhood. Robert Church had become rich dealing in real estate in their hometown of Memphis -- he was purportedly one of the wealthiest (if not THE wealthiest, often referred to as "the first black millionaire") black men in the country at the time, with a fortune of roughly $700,000. Given their economic standing, young Mary knew little of her parents' past lives in slavery, or of the pervasiveness of American racism, until she was old enough to understand the stories told by her grandmother.

Following her parents’ divorce, Mary Church was one of the first black women to graduate from college, receiving her Master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888 and studying abroad. Though her family’s wealth opened many doors for her, Terrell still found herself barred from participation in many social and political circles as a result of her race.

When Mary was explicitly prevented from assisting with planning activities for the 1893 World’s Fair because she was black, she responded by founding the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs for the purpose of better organizing women of color to fight for their civil rights, and served as its first president. In this capacity, she addressed the uniformly white National American Women’s Suffrage Association at its 50th anniversary gathering in 1898, saying,

...Not only are colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are everywhere baffled and mocked on account of their race. Desperately and continuously they are forced to fight that opposition, born of a cruel, unreasonable prejudice which neither their merit nor their necessity seems able to subdue. Not only because they are women, but because they are colored women, are discouragement and disappointment meeting them at every turn.

Mary Church Terrell was a prolific writer and lecturer for the rest of her life, and continued her work in civil rights activism right up until her death in 1954.

Alice Paul

Born to socially liberal Quaker parents in 1885, as a child Alice Paul attended women’s suffrage meetings with her mother. Paul went to England to study in 1907, where she met Emmeline Pankhurst, the radical catalyst of the British women’s suffrage movement, and got her first taste of street-level activism, participating in protests and even being arrested.

Following her return to the US, 26-year-old Alice co-founded the radical National Women’s Party and decided to directly lobby Congress for a constitutional amendment ensuring women’s right to vote. In 1913, Paul organized a massive march for women’s suffrage, assembling about 5,000 supporters, who faced a heckling crowd of hundreds of thousands of onlookers, many of whom were in Washington for the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson the following day. The crowd had to be managed by cavalry troops summoned from Fort Myer in order for the march to proceed, but by then many of the suffragists had already been attacked and assaulted while police did nothing to intervene. Over 300 marchers were said to have been injured.

In 1917, Alice organized the Silent Sentinels, a group of women who would stand in silent protest outside Woodrow Wilson’s White House every day, Mondays through Saturdays, over the next two years. Initially the protests were paid little attention, up until the US entered World War I, at which point the suffragists began to face violence both verbal and physical from their detractors. To add insult to injury, the police began to arrest the protestors -- though not their attackers -- on charges of obstructing traffic.

Eventually Alice Paul was arrested as well, and placed in solitary confinement at the Occoquan Workhouse for two weeks, with only bread and water -- literally -- to subsist on.

Paul became so weak that she was relocated to the prison hospital, where she did the last thing anyone might have expected: she launched a hunger strike. Prison officials then moved her to a psychiatric ward and threatened to have her committed to an asylum if she continued to refuse food.

But Alice Paul stood firm. Doctors began to force feed her twice daily, pouring raw eggs through a tube shoved through her nose and down her throat while she was forcibly restrained. In the meantime, her colleagues were being bound and viciously beaten by prison guards under the direct orders of the Occoquan Workhouse superintendent.

Paul later described her force-feeding experience:

Each day, I was wrapped in blankets and taken to another cell to be fed, the food being injected through my nostrils. During this operation the largest Wardress... sat astride my knees, holding my shoulders down to keep me from bending forward. Two other wardresses sat on either side and held my arms. Then a towel was placed around my throat, and one doctor from behind forced my head back, while another doctor put a tube in my nostril. When it reached my throat my head was pushed forward.

Twice the tube came through my mouth and I got it between my teeth. My mouth was then pried open with an instrument. Sometimes they tied me to a chair with sheets. Once I managed to get my hands loose and snatched the tube, tearing it with my teeth. I also broke a jug, but I didn't give in.

After five weeks in prison, Paul was released as a result of growing public disapproval of the news stories coming out of the prison, detailing the suffragists’ horrendous treatment. The Silent Sentinels protests continued, and in 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment was passed by Congress, although it would not be ratified by the necessary 36 states for another year, and many states would not ratify it for decades more -- Mississippi being the last to do so, in 1984. Paul subsequently worked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment from 1923 until it was finally approved by Congress in 1972, and she died in 1977 at the impressive age of 92.

And these are only three of the women who went to war so we could go to the polls. When you're voting today, no matter who you are, remember the women who fought for that right, and who were willing to sacrifice their comfort and safety and even their lives in order to secure democratic participation for all citizens -- yourself included.