100th Anniversary of Women's Suffrage


Women’s Suffrage

Although America turned 244 years old this year, women have only been able to vote for the last 100. August 18, 2020, marks the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which extended voting rights to women. However, the suffrage movement goes back much further. Suffragists of varying social statuses, races, and age groups joined the fight over the years, including deaf women.  

Suffrage was Neither Fair nor Equal  

Suffrage means having the right to vote in a political election. In America, the path leading up to suffrage was not fair or equal. Before August 18, 1920, certain states allowed women to vote as early as 1866. Black men weren’t legally allowed to vote until 1870, thanks to the 15th Amendment. While a significant milestone, the Nineteenth Amendment did not guarantee full voting rights for all women. Men and women of color frequently faced challenges and intimidation when attempting to vote. It wasn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that discriminatory voting practices became illegal. 

When we discuss suffrage today, you might be familiar with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But many Black, Indigenous, Women of color and queer women suffragists fought for equality too! The suffrage movement would not have been possible without the support of black abolitionists, immigrants, and Native Americans. 

Overlooked Deaf Figures of the Women’s Rights Movement

In celebration of the 100th anniversary, we want to share untold stories of Deaf activists. Several deaf women fought for voting in the early 1900s. Here are a few of the [known] Deaf, DeafBlind, and hard of hearing women that pushed the limits:


Emma M. Emmertson was a Deaf suffragette who fought in the Women’s Rights Movement in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was the second deaf female student to enter the University of Utah in 1911. After graduating, she taught at the Utah School for the Deaf.
Elizabeth DeLong was the first Deaf female President of the Utah Association of the Deaf. She was elected in 1909, beating out two Deaf male candidates! Deaf women weren’t even allowed to vote in the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) until 1964!
Kate Harvey was an English suffragist, physiotherapist, and charity worker. She operated a home for women and children with disabilities. She was part of the Women’s Tax Resistance League and refused to pay taxes until she had the right to vote. She became the first person to be imprisoned for failure to pay taxes under the Insurance Act.
Justina W. Keeley dared to apply for admission to the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf (NFSD), founded in 1901. She was denied. At the time, the NSFD didn’t allow women to purchase the same insurance membership as men. The NFSD changed its policies in 1951.
Helen Kirkpatrick Watts was a British suffragette from Nottingham. She was a member of prominent women’s rights groups. Watts publicly protested for suffrage and was repeatedly jailed. She believed that action, not words, were needed in the fight for women’s rights.
Annie Jump Cannon was a suffragist and an active member of the National Women’s Party. She was also a leading expert in stellar classification. She developed a system to organize and classify stars based on their temperatures and spectral types. Astrologists use her method to this day!
Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna is famous for her novel “The Wrongs of Woman.” The book exposed the poor working and living conditions of women working in England. Her novel helped bring awareness to the importance of safety in the workplace. Her work also led to improved worker safety laws.
Ruth Benedict was the first female leader of anthropology in the United States in the 1930s. She’s the first woman to lead a professional organization. Benedict was the president of the American Anthropological Association. Additionally, she was a famous author.
Helen Keller rose to become a significant 20th-century humanitarian, educator, and writer. She was the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. She was a strong advocate for the DeafBlind. Keller campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, anti-militarism, and other similar causes.
Agatha Tiegel Hansen was the first woman to graduate from Gallaudet in 1893. (Gallaudet began admitting female students in 1887). Back then, female students could not participate in extracurricular activities without a male chaperone. Agatha advocated for more freedom for female students. Thanks to her activism, Gallaudet permanently revoked the social ban on female students.

Blanche Wilkins (Williams) was a deaf African American advocate, author, and educator.  Wilkins was the first black deaf woman to serve as a member of the executive committee for the National Association for the Deaf’s 6th Convention in 1899. Black deaf people couldn’t become voting members of NAD until 1965. She was also published in the famed deaf newspaper, The Silent Worker.  

Photo Credit: Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf Archives

Petra Fandem Howard was a deaf suffragette and writer. In 1915 she went to work for the Minnesota Labor Bureau for the Deaf, the first of its kind in the country. She worked in vocational rehabilitation for the deaf for over 40 years. She also served as president of the Minnesota Association of the Deaf, on the Gallaudet College Alumni Association Board of Directors, and other deaf organizations. 


NOTE: We acknowledge that this list doesn’t include many BIPOC deaf stories. During this period BIPOC, especially disabled BIPOC stories weren’t widely shared. Thanks to many of you, we are learning new stories and adding them to our list! Please continue to share BIPOC deaf women stories with us by contacting us at share@csd.org or direct message us on social media @ThisIsCSD. 

EDIT: We have recently learned of Blanche Wilkins and Petra Fandrem Howard and have added them to the blog!

The Suffrage Movement was Just the Beginning

It wasn’t until the civil rights era that marginalized groups’ voting rights were equally protected under the law. Despite this, women continued to face many barriers and discrimination. For example, did you know that women couldn’t divorce until 1969 or practice law until 1971? Women couldn’t even run in marathons until 1973!

Even today, the “glass ceiling” still exists. Women continue to combat workplace discrimination and pay inequality. To this day, the United States does not have comprehensive maternity leave and job security for women. Despite this, women attain higher education levels than men; they makeup nearly half of the U.S. Workforce and occupy almost 20% of elected positions in the United States. 

One hundred years ago, women gained a voice in government. Today, they are leaders in government – deaf women too!  

The number of women in politics has grown significantly. From Susanna Salter, the first woman mayor in the country in 1887 to Kamala Harris, the first African American and Asian American to run for Vice President in 2020! The Nineteenth Amendment opened the door for women to hold office. The Americans with Disabilities Act opened the door for deaf women to participate in politics too! 

In 2014, Marisa Salzer was elected to the city council of Montesano, WA. She advocated for disability access during her tenure. She ultimately resigned due to lack of accommodations and internal pressure. Amanda Folendorf became the first female deaf mayor in the United States in 2018. She governed the city of Angels Camp in California and is running for reelection in 2020. Find out more about Amanda here.  

At the state level, deaf women have been appointed to lead entire divisions and departments. For example, Anne Urasky is the Director for the Division for the Deaf, DeafBlind, and Hard of Hearing within Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights. Elizabeth Hill is the director of a similar unit for the State of New Jersey. 

The United States Federal Government has implemented regular hiring practices for people with disabilities since the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Since then, many deaf women held prominent positions within federal agencies. Here are just a few examples of deaf women leading in federal agencies today. Roberta Mather serves as Senior Advisor for Employee Communications Director for the U.S. Department of State; Brianne Burger serves as the Director of Special Institutions at the U.S. Department of Education, and Kirsten Poston serves as a Disability Program Manager for the Department of Education.  

Deaf women have made it to the White House too! The Obama administration is famous for hiring two deaf women to serve in the oval office. Leah Katz-Hernandez served as the Receptionist of the United States. Claudia Gordon, the first black deaf attorney in the United States, served as Public Engagement Advisor to the Disability Community. 

We need more Deaf and BIPOC Women Represented in Government.   

We can change that. Here’s are some steps you can take today: 

Register to vote. To learn how to register in your state, visit Rock the Vote.

Follow SignVote.org for news and resources on the 2020 election in ASL. Subscribe to their newsletter to get the latest updates to your inbox.

Vote for women.  

Run for public office. There are many organizations dedicated to increasing the number of women in government. In 2018 alone, over 500 women ran for office across the United States. Learn how you can get started here:


She Should Run She Should Run is a nonpartisan organization that inspires women to run for office. Its current goal is to get 250,000 women to run for office by 2030.
Vote Run Lead trains women to run for office and win.
Get Her Elected is an organization composed of over 3,400 volunteers who donate their skills—from marketing to editing to speechwriting—to progressive women candidates running for office.
Running Start is a nonpartisan nonprofit that trains young women to run for public office.
The Victory Institute is the not-for-profit arm of the Victory Fund, which works together to provide unique training tools and resources to elect LGBTQ candidates to office. This year alone, more than 200 LGBT candidates are running for office across the country.
Higher Heights for America is working on getting more black women elected.
Ignite International is one of the largest nonpartisan organizations that connects and provides resources for the next generation of leaders in middle school, high school, and college to fuel their political ambition and prepare them to run in the future.

For Deaf-specific resources, check out:

  • Deaf in Government is a national nonprofit organization whose purpose is two-fold. It serves as an employee support group for Federal employees who are either Deaf or Hard of Hearing and as a resource organization for the nationwide government.
  • The Deaf Political Action Committee (DPAC) is the Deaf community’s first PAC. Its purpose is to raise funds for political candidates and send a Deaf representative to Congress (and any other legislative body). DPAC also seeks to bring Deaf people together for political activism and encourage unregistered people to register, get involved in the political process, and vote. Find your local branch here.

Deaf representation in government is growing. We look forward to the increased representation of deaf BIPOC and queer women in the future. And with your support, there will be! Do you know of other deaf suffragists or women in politics? Comment on our social media pages @ThisIsCSD. 

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