Thursday, October 23, 2008

VOTE VOTE VOTE !! A history of your right to vote

As people do better, they start voting like Republicans - unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing. Karl Rove

Two hundred years ago, you rarely were allowed to vote unless you were white, a male and owned land, which meant that in some areas, more than 85% of the adult population could not vote.

John Dorr, a wealthy member of the Rhode Island legislature, declared that it was wrong that his state’s poor were denied the vote and in October, 1841, he had a clandestine meeting with other state delegates to draft a state constitution giving the vote to ALL men over 21. Six months later the vote for governor was split down the middle: the wealthy landowners, who eventually elected their choice for Rhode Island’s elite governor, Mr. King, and the losing “People’s Party” who choose Mr. Dorr.
In June, backed by supporters (and 2 stolen cannons!), Dorr set out to disarm what he called the “illegal” new government under Governor King. Alas, his attempt was countered by 1,500 armed supporters of King’s government and defeated, Dorr was tried for treason and went to prison for 2 years, after which he was pardoned but eventually faded from public life. His cause was continued by others, and states began to drop the property-ownership requirement, though Rhode Island did hold out until as late as 1888.
By the Civil War, nearly every white man in the country could vote.

By law, the 15th Amendment gave African-Americans the right to vote in 1870, but Jim Crow snatched away the right by demanding poll taxes and literacy tests. The so-named “Jim Crow laws were state and local laws enacted mainly in the Southern and border states of the United States, between 1876 and 1965, mandating segregation in all public facilities such as restrooms, restaurants, public transportation and public schools. Those laws were finally overruled by 1965.
By law, people of African-American descent in Mississippi had been allowed to vote since 1868, however every Southern state seemed to find a way to keep African-Americans away from the voting booths. Some were forced to pay ½ a week’s salary before they could register, while white people only had to sign their name. In 1964, only 6.4% of the black population were registered to vote.

Bob Moses, a transplanted Harvard-educated New Yorker, came to Mississippi in 1961 as a civil rights worker. Helping to direct two black men to the local courthouse one day who wanted to register to vote, all three were attacked with knives and were told in no uncertain terms that the courthouse was closed for the day. At a mass meeting Moses held later, he declared: "The law down here," he said, "is law made by white people enforced by white people, for the benefit of white people. It will be that way until the Negroes begin to vote.”
Moses eventually became one of the leaders of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and headed a voter registration project, going door to door to try to get people to register to vote. Every week, SNCC workers were beaten and arrested and in 1963, bullets even tore into a car that Moses and two other organizers were in. After 4 years, the drive only yielded 4,000 new voters.
Searching for a way to both lessen violence and expose Mississippi to more national attention, Moses recruited 900 volunteers from the North for a project that became known as “Freedom Summer,” which got attention when 3 civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner (one black and 2 white men - one from my alma mater, Queens College) suddenly disappeared after being released from police custody. Their bodies were found only after J. Edgar Hoover reluctantly directed the FBI to find them. In the process, the FBI found more bodies of missing black Mississippians, whose disappearances had not attracted public attention at the time.
The following year, a tired Bob Moses moved back North, frustrated with the slow pace of progress, but that summer, with Northern liberals further up in arms about increased Southern racism, President Johnson finally signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to enforce equal access to the ballot in the South.

Though Lydia Chapin Taft became the first legal woman voter in America and voted 3 times in colonial Massachusetts between 1756 and 1768, by the 1800s women in the United States had few legal rights and did not have the right to vote. The exception was New Jersey, where women actually voted until 1807. Due to a particular phrase in NJ’s 1776 state constitution, New Jersey women were granted the vote if they owned property, since the constitution read “inhabitants,” without qualifying either sex or race. Married women, however, were not allowed to vote since they were not allowed to own property, so the law only applied to unmarried women and widows.

In 1807, women, “aliens and persons of color, or negroes” lost the vote and voting became only the privilege of only white males.
Though women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott had been campaigning for the woman's right to vote since their 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, it was generally believed that women were biologically unfit for politics. One Massachusetts journal decreed “Housewives, you do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout”.
Susan B. Anthony joined the cause 4 years later, and was eventually arrested for casting an illegal vote in the presidential election of 1872. She was tried in court and fined $100 but she refused to pay. The suffrage movement made slow progress, with Washington State being the first to give women the vote in 1910, California in 1911 and Kansas, Oregon and Arizona in 1912.
Alice Paul, a Quaker woman with a PhD was impatient. In January, 1917 she started campaigning in front of the White House with banners and at first, President Wilson was cordial, even inviting the protesting women in for tea. When the US entered WWI, the pickets became an embarrassment, and in June the protesters started getting arrested. Alice Paul was jailed in a Virginia workhouse for women with other comrades for demanding that American women be given the vote. She began a 7-month prison term, launched a hunger strike and was immediately put in the psychiatric ward and force-fed through a tube in her throat.
Wilson now had a major public relations problem on his hands and was forced to pardon all the jailed suffragettes he imprisoned. Two months later he came out in favor of a suffrage amendment to the constitution. January, 1919, the bill passed the Senate and on August 26, 1920, women were granted the right to vote.

“People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people. Of course, that is not true. Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote - a very different thing” (Walter H. Judd -congressman from Minnesota 1943-63)  

copyright © 2008 by helen uffner

Friday, October 17, 2008

Musings at our Museum cum Test Kitchen

This week, NYU’s “first year” graduate costume design students came in with Maggie Raywood, (Associate Arts Professor and Costume Shop Manager) to study our 19th century clothes; specifically, 1865, a year which they will be studying for a FULL semester as a special project. Unlike the Metropolitan Museum which they would usually go to, we allowed them to actually TOUCH our authentic items, and the students literally turned dresses inside out to inspect the age-old construction up close. They stayed for over 3 hours, eying everything from men’s and women’s outerwear to corsets and hoops. Inspecting our bloomers, they heatedly debated the age-old question: did women prefer split drawers or closed drawers, and how did they manage when they, er, had to heed nature’s call? We enjoy having schools over and having renewed appreciation for our nearly 150-year-old garments. Helen used to lecture at Parson’s School of Design and always brought authentic items ranging from 1820 to 1970 for students to inspect and sometimes try on. While the NYUers were avidly studying, our interns Jamie and Kim were equally seriously immersed in a competitive taste test of Belgian cookie spread versus Israeli chocolate spread. Jamie holds up the winner while Kim, having no patience to try and find crackers, went directly to fingers!