Pandemics tend to disrupt the status quo in more ways than one. That was certainly true of the 1918 Flu pandemic. It was considered one of the deadliest in history, killing around 50 million people worldwide. Nearly a hundred years ago, the U.S. was in the middle of two other battles, World War I and the Suffrage Movement. This year will mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
In some ways, the pandemic helped propel women to the front of American society, proving that they were just as capable of casting a ballot as their male counterparts.
Learn the surprising connection between the 1918 Spanish Flu and the Women’s Suffrage movement.
The 1918 Pandemic
The Spanish Flu, as it came to be called, was first reported among the military during WWI. Soldiers on the frontlines soon became deathly ill. Cramped living conditions, poor hygiene, and lack of protective equipment helped the virus spread like wildfire abroad and within the U.S. It soon morphed into a public health crisis. The country was in the middle of two wars, one abroad and the other at home. The virus disrupted the growing domestic economy, bringing business to a halt across much of the country.
Women soon started playing a bigger role in the American life. They assumed positions in the labor market, with their male counterparts overseas, and performed everything from medical care to motorcycle repair. Women became invaluable in factories, production lines, and medical facilities as they helped the U.S. weather this unprecedented crisis. Posters soon appeared all over the country, urging women to sign up or volunteer for the Red Cross and the Women’s Land Army.
The Rise of the Suffrage Movement
Before 1918, only a few states had laws in the books that allowed women to vote in local elections. American women were taking cues from the British Suffragettes, who had recently won the right to vote in the U.K. They began to organize in groups and lobby for their rights as American citizens. However, the pandemic complicated this approach.
If you could attend a suffrage rally back in 1918, it probably would’ve looked a lot like 2020, with people sitting four feet apart, wearing face coverings, and preaching proper hygiene. Women continued to rally and protest safely for their right to vote, despite the risks going on around them.
Some women saw the pandemic as a threat to the movement, but others saw it as an opportunity to create change. Instead of traditional campaigning efforts, they used the moment to showcase their patriotism and contribution to the national effort. As the pandemic continued, women began using petitions to galvanize support for their cause instead of holding mass rallies. These groups also recruited women for the national effort.
At the time, men would often counter the suffrage argument by saying women lacked the intelligence and acumen to participate in the country’s electoral process. But the pandemic and WWI essentially dissolved this argument. Women proved they could roll up their sleeves and participate in the workforce just as effectively as men. This showed that they had the intelligence to cast a ballot and choose the next leader of the country.
The pandemic also opened the door for more women of color. It was all hands on deck for able-bodied Americans, which led to the demise of some race-based restrictions across the country. Before the pandemic, only white women could join the Red Cross and the Army Nurse Corps. However, 18 African American nurses enlisted in these organizations in 1918, giving hope to a new generation of women.
From National Crisis to Success
These tactics ultimately paid off. The Suffrage Movement quickly gained steam after women started working on the front lines of the pandemic and the labor market.
President Woodrow Wilson even took up the issue in the Senate in September 1918. “This war could not have been fought…if it had not been for the services of the women—services rendered in every sphere.”
Women eventually earned the right to vote in 1919 after a year unlike any in American history. Historians often overlook women’s role during the pandemic, focusing on the war effort instead. It’s unclear if women would have still won the right to vote in 1919 without the pandemic, but it surely helped their cause.
Pandemics often force us to re-evaluate the status quo. The coronavirus could lead to a range of positive changes for women and the country, such as mandatory paid sick leave, equal pay for equal work, and more protections for front line workers.
2020 is sure to be an historic election year as Americans try to cast their ballots from a distance. If women were able to win the right to vote in the middle of a deadly pandemic, we can uphold our democracy amid times of crisis.