Four hours might seem like a long time to trace the history of how America finally and reluctantly granted women the right to vote.
If so, just imagine how the passage of time felt to the women who spent close to a century trying to convince American men that they should share this foundational tenet of democracy.
The Vote, an American Experience documentary that runs 9–11 p.m. ET Monday and Tuesday on PBS, takes a scholarly, almost academic tone as it follows the generations of women who kept pushing this rock up the mountain.
It focuses on several of the central players, including Alice Paul, Ida B. Wells, Susan B. Anthony and more, and while it stays religiously with the premise that their cause was just, it doesn’t ignore some of the regrettable and less admirable side dramas that inevitably crept into the movement over the decades.
Since we know the central goal of enfranchising women was ultimately accomplished, The Vote offers no false suspense. The journey is the drama here, and what we see is an amazing tale of persistence, alongside a few reminders that neither history nor the people who make it are always clear-cut and saintly.
In the case of women’s suffrage, this inconvenient truth surfaces most jarringly right after the Civil War.
Prior to the war, the women’s movement had allied itself with the anti-slavery cause, a natural connection because here were the two largest groups being kept voiceless by the white men who ran the country.
After the war, when pressure was building for a Constitutional Amendment guaranteeing newly freed blacks the right to vote, leaders of the suffrage movement were optimistic this amendment could be inclusive enough to guarantee the same right to women.
Then the congressional leaders who were framing the amendment told women that two changes of that magnitude were more than the country was ready to accept. Given the purpose of the Civil War, they felt it more urgent to have the amendment cover blacks.
Anti-slavery and black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, who had been very supportive of women, said that if this was the only way to secure a guarantee of votes for blacks, they would be okay with putting women aside for the time being.
Suffrage leaders, not surprisingly, reacted with fury. A number of them, including Susan B. Anthony, issued statements demeaning black men, saying there was no way an uneducated former slave should be allowed to vote before the right was given to a highly educated white woman.
That sort of argument presumably didn’t help, and it would be another half century before women were invited to join the party.
The drama of those next five decades feels poignant and gripping in The Vote. There are moments of exhilaration and deep low points — including, as late as 1915, a series of state votes in which the all-male electorate resoundingly rejected the whole idea.
Much of the drama keeps circling back to that point: the infuriating behavior of men who simply liked the way things were, where they were ordained to run things and make the decisions while women were born to stay home, raise the children and have dinner on the table at 6.
This attitude sometimes took the form of superficially benign condescension, personified by President Woodrow Wilson. Other times it got uglier. When the suffrage movement organized a march in Washington in 1913, men lined the route to shout insults, physically harass the marchers and start a near-riot — while the police looked on in what was widely reported to be a sort of bemusement.
The whole larger problem began, The Vote suggests, when the all-white and all-male Founding Fathers mostly dodged the question of who should vote in a democracy. This vacuum enabled most states to simply slip into the long-standing European tradition that landed white men were the group that was created most equal and endowed with all those inalienable rights.
As years passed, all other groups had to ask those white men to share their power, which isn’t something most in-power groups are ever inclined to do.
The Vote cautiously suggests it’s encouraging that eventually blacks, women and other disenfranchised groups have won a measure of inclusion. That hasn’t meant a full-member seat at the table, but it does grudgingly acknowledge the notion that a democracy should give voice to all the people who live under it.
Sometimes determined people can move a country forward in spite of its worst instincts.