100 years ago today: Women, minorities and the law

Many of the rights that women in the \”western\” world consider unquestioned and unquestionable are comparatively recent and thus, one might argue, have shallow roots and might be less secure than one might presume.

Consider this headline on the first page of The Washington Herald on October 16, 1911. \”Court may have women for jury\” with the subhead \”Suffrage victory affects McNamara Case.\” The reader is told that given the recent passage of the women\’s suffrage amendment,[1] \”Eminent legal authorities hold that women of the State are now on an equal footing with the men. so far as jury service is concerned,\” and given the fact that the court may find it difficult to seat a jury of men women \”may be peremptorily summoned.\” The ruling of the judge that \”there was nothing to prevent a woman serving on a jury.\” came after a \”demand by Mrs Johanna Engelman that she be given a place in the jury box.\”

It may seem strange to us today that even after the suffrage there were questions about whether women could serve on juries and it is clear from the text of the article that they would be only if men could not be found. This clarifies one of the basic underlying issues that made women\’s fight for the vote and other legal rights so difficult–women may have been seen as citizens for the purposes of paying taxes and apportioning congressional seats, but they were not seen as completely, fully functioning adult human beings in the eyes of the kyriarchy. Thus rights and duties which one might imagine would have flowed automatically from the passage of suffrage did not.

The same page of The Washington Herald also gives one a rather frightening insight into the treatment of and attitude toward African-Americans in 1911 and includes a laudatory piece about a lecture on eugenics that was schedule to be given by Willet M. Hays [2] at the local YMCA.

The offensively jocular page 1 article about \”Charles Charles\” attempting to rescue a beleaguered elderly African-American woman gives the reader a sense of just how \”free and equal\” life was for African-Americans in Washington D.C. in 1911. On page two of the same paper one finds the article Will Celebrate Freedom: Washington Negroes to Commemorate Abolition of Slavery just about the article Veterans Will Convene: Confederates of Virginia meet at Newport News tomorrow. The placement of the two pieces seems an appropriate commentary on the reality of their lives–whenever African-Americans gather to exercise their theoretical rights they need look over their shoulders for the men who are still celebrated and honoured for having attempted to deny them those rights.

And, of course, The Herald\’s Page for Every Woman includes the requisite advice and criticism of mothers without which few family newspapers ever went to print.


[1] At the state level. The 19th amendment, which gave American women the right to vote, was not ratified until 1920. &#8617

[2] Not the Hays of the Hays Code. &#8617

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