One-hundred years ago, my grandmothers and great-aunts would have learned the monumental news from family, friends, or a newspaper: Women had won the right to vote! I can only imagine their reactions to this news. Did they scramble to register to vote in time for the 1920 election, or were they discouraged from doing so by the cultural norms under which they had lived?
Sadly, when this news broke 100 years ago, my great-grandmother wasn’t one of the women rushing to vote. She had no choice. She was confined to an insane asylum. I imagine if she heard the news at all, it probably offered her little hope personally since being declared insane generally stripped a person of their rights to vote. But I’d like to think it gave her hope for her daughters and their generations of daughters to come.
My great-grandmother’s story inspired the creation of one of the characters in my book, Songs from the Canary Cage. Sally Junior is a fictional character whose story is quite different from my great-grandmother’s but reflects the real danger that women faced for behaving in ways that were not embraced by societal norms. This behavior could include speaking out and acting out against injustice.
Women at the turn of the 20th century had gained some rights in many states, but their wellbeing remained almost entirely subject to a male-dominated society. This not only limited their ability to earn an income, it allowed men to have them committed to mental institutions with relative ease. Such was the case with my great-grandmother, whose story is complex and fraught with conflicting accounts of what led to her involuntary confinement.
The fact remains, however, that her confinement was involuntary when, in 1912 at the age of 32, she was forced into a mental institution. The incident haunted her children and reshaped their lives.
It would be eight more years before her oldest daughters would have the right to vote. One-hundred years have passed since then, and from the lessons I’ve learned from my foremothers, I pass along these words of wisdom to all American women: