2019 Hazelett Forum features historic battle for women’s right to vote

Nearly a century ago, the right to vote for women in the United States came down to a fierce, six-week battle staged in Nashville, Tennessee. After 72 years of fighting, suffragists from around the country made one last push to pass the 19th amendment.

“In summer 1920, thirty-five states had ratified the 19th amendment to allow women to vote, but one more state was needed to ratify the U.S. Constitution,” said author Elaine Weiss. “If the Tennessee legislature approved it, suffrage would be the law of the land, just in time for the 1920 presidential election in the fall. If it failed in Tennessee, it could be delayed indefinitely, and suffragettes were very worried the movement would be over for their lifetimes.”

This true-history drama is the subject of Weiss’s latest book, The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight for the Vote, and the topic she discussed as this year’s featured speaker for the 2019 Hazelett Forum. The 12th annual event was hosted by the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence and supported in part through a grant from Indiana Humanities in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities. At the forum Weiss discussed how the efforts in 1920 constituted the largest expansion of the voting franchise in U.S. history, giving voice to half of the  nation’s population. But she says the victory – which still wasn’t extended to minority men and women for several more decades - wasn’t limited to voter rights.

“The 19th amendment was also a cultural shift in the roles and rights of women. It’s a change that is ongoing today,” she said. “It’s one of the defining civil rights struggles in our nation’s history, cutting to the heart of what democracy means: who gets to participate in our government? Who has a voice? When we say ‘We the people,’ who do we really mean? We’re still asking those same questions today.”

It’s one of the defining civil rights struggles in our nation’s history, cutting to the heart of what democracy means: who gets to participate in our government? Who has a voice? When we say ‘we the people,’ who do we really mean? We’re still asking those same questions today.

Elaine Weiss, author of "The Woman's Hour: The Great Fight for the Vote"

Named after local impassioned educator and philanthropist Susie Hazelett, the annual Hazelett Forum is part of the ongoing education series at the Tobias Leadership Center which is focused this year on the history of women’s rights stretching from the Civil War to WWI.

At the time of the battle for the vote in 1920, women were denied access to testify in court, to own property, bring civil suits or even have custodial rights to their own children. Considered “too fragile” to earn an education because “blood flow would be reverted from their ovaries to their brains,” Weiss explained, women were often denied education. But she says Indiana University proved to be the exception by admitting women in 1867.

“IU educated some of the leaders of the state and national suffrage movement,” she said.

In her presentation, Weiss discussed Indiana’s “fascinating but frustrating” role in suffrage, including the pioneering Hoosier women who fought against male lawmaker’s repeated rejection of the 19th amendment. In 1917 the Indiana legislature passed three suffrage bills, including one that gave women partial suffrage in presidential elections – something Weiss calls a stalling tactic.

“The bill passed and tens of thousands of Indiana women rushed to register to vote in summer of 1917. In Columbus, Indiana, the first registered women voters were African American women. In Porter County, 80% of all registered voters were women,” explained Weiss. “But then, the men who opposed women being able to vote challenged the new suffrage laws and the Indiana Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional. Women were stripped of their right to vote just days before the fall election.”

Author Elaine Weiss showcases the history of womens' rights during the annual Hazelett Forum, put on by the Tobias Leadership Center.