Bill Sargent: On this day 100 years ago
One hundred years ago today the 19th amendment was ratified. It was signed into law the following week. The journey to give women the right to vote was a long and hard one. It started 42 years earlier, when Senator Aaron Augustus Sargent introduced the resolution to make it happen.
But first, before going on, let’s go down a small side road: I recall the organized campaign to exclude AA Sargent from the Nevada City celebration of this 100-year anniversary because of his views on Chinese immigration. Those involved should remember congressmen and senators are supposed to represent the people who elect them. That’s what AA Sargent did. Rightly or wrongly, his constituents viewed the influx of Chinese immigrants as a threat to the employment of U.S. citizens and so he represented their views in Congress. If one is to cast aspersions, one should also include the constituents and local officials whose views he was clearly representing at the time.
Now back to our story: Keep in mind that in the late 1800s, women didn’t become involved with the suffrage movement without the support of their husbands. Aaron and Ellen Sargent were a team, working together to get women the right to vote. Without Aaron’s willingness to introduce the resolution back in 1878 and his efforts to move that ball down the field it might never have happened and we might not be celebrating its anniversary today.
At first there was little support for the senator’s resolution, but over time the tide turned. The work first started by this Republican senator was carried on by many others after his death in 1887. His resolution, having been passed by the House and Senate, was being considered by the states and was one state short of ratification. Then on August 18, 1920, the constitutional three-fourths threshold was reached when the state of Tennessee ratified the amendment and it became the law of the land.
While in the Senate, AA Sargent also introduced equal rights legislation calling for equal pay for equal work by federal workers regardless of their gender —a measure that would also eventually become law.
The senator and his wife were close friends of Susan B. Anthony and corresponded with her on a regular basis. The Sargent family donated many of their letters to Searls Library in Nevada City.
Ellen was a driving force in the women’s suffrage movement in California. But this was also a “family affair!” When Ellen paid her taxes to the City of San Francisco, her son, George Clark Sargent, sued the city on her behalf for taxation without representation. They lost the case but made their point. George also once jested that “The headquarters of the women’s suffrage movement is on Market Street but its hindquarters is in my living room!” So you can see this was a cause that involved the entire Sargent household.
In 1911, Ellen passed away, nine years before the 19th amendment was ratified. A public memorial service was held for a packed crowd of mourners in San Francisco’s Union Square. And for the first time in the history of the city, flags in both the city and across the state were flown at half-mast to honor a woman.
The effort to give women the right to vote involved many people from different backgrounds and it took over 40 years to accomplish, but it started with one Republican senator and his wife who against all odds pursued what they knew to be right.
I am proud to be their great-grandson and to share their story with you.
Bill Sargent lives in Galveston, Texas.
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