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A Transnational Struggle for Women's Rights

The campaign for women's suffrage was a global movement, drawing on ideas linked not only to the American Revolution, but the French, Haitian, Mexican and Russian Revolutions as well. The women in the Westside lived in what historian Gabriela González has described as a transborder culture, where residents were immersed in the politics and culture of both the United States and Mexico. They engaged in a transnational struggle to achieve women’s full citizenship rights.

In the United States, the struggle for women’s suffrage began at the first women’s rights convention in 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York. Members of the convention advocated for a number of civil and social rights, but the right to vote was the most controversial, and the one resolution not passed at the convention. Nonetheless, the convention launched many new efforts to gain women's voting rights.

Along with the national effort to get a federal amendment to the Constitution, each state had its own effort to change voting laws. In Texas in April 1913 more than 100 persons from seven Texas cities met in San Antonio and revived the Texas Woman Suffrage Association with San Antonian Mary Eleanor Brackenridge as the state association’s president. Even though the number of local organizations grew within the state, the movement continued to struggle because Texas lacked a two party system, and anti-prohibitionists, led by Governor James Ferguson, were strongly opposed to women’s voting rights. Suffrage advocates also faced an organized anti-suffrage movement. The Texas Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, a branch of the national organization, was established in March 1916 in Houston. This organization, like other anti-suffrage organizations in the country, believed that women did not belong in the political sphere. In Texas, anti-suffragists also represented women’s suffrage as a threat to white supremacy, arguing that it would result in the domination of the black race.

In this political context, Texas’ suffrage organizations chose to support white supremacy, excluding black members. Texas became the ninth state in the nation and the first in the South to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, but women of color did not fully benefit from this victory. The poll tax, literacy tests and whites-only primaries effectively disenfranchised women of color.

We can also see how these debates over women’s suffrage are represented in San Antonio’s most widely circulated Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa, which was sold all over South Texas and in communities of Mexican emigrés elsewhere in the United States, Central and South America. In the paper we see editorials that both support and condemn women’s suffrage. In one article in January 1915, in anticipation of well known American suffragist Helen Todd’s visit to San Antonio, the editors offer a translation of some of the arguments of the National Woman Suffrage Association. “Los Porques del Sufragio de las Mujeres'' is a list of eleven reasons why women should have the right to vote. Some of these reasons note how women are similar to men: they should have the right to vote because they are wage workers; they are subject to the same laws, make the same financial contributions to the government, and suffer from bad government just as much as men. Other arguments are based on the idea that women have particular qualities and responsibilities that demonstrate the importance of their voting rights, including their responsibilities as mothers, and need to raise their children well. They have high morals, and are interested in the public good. La Prensa also included opinion pieces that argued against women’s suffrage. The February 1916 article “Lecturas para el Pueblo: La mujer Mexicana” offers an argument against women’s suffrage based on traditional notions of culture and femininity. The author praises mujeres mexicanas for their nobility, moral uprightness, and their willingness to make great sacrifices for their country (Mexico), but notes that their primary responsibility is to be good wives and mothers. The article defines women’s rights as Anglo and modern, and thus, against the values that Mexicanas should uphold. Thus, like English-language newspapers at the time, La Prensa reflected the internal debates over women’s rights within San Antonio’s Spanish-speaking community.

The struggle for women’s suffrage in the United States intensified at the same time that Mexico was in the middle of a long struggle to overthrow a dictator. San Antonio’s Westside became a refuge for families fleeing the violence, and a place to organize a revolution. Francisco Madero, the first president of Mexico after the ousting of dictator Porfirio Díaz, issued the call for rebellion from San Antonio. The Westside also became a center for the revolutionary magonista movement, the name for people who shared the beliefs of independent journalists Jesús and Ricardo Flores Magón. They spoke out against the Díaz dictatorship, and formed the Partido Liberal Mexicano, the major political organization of Mexican and Mexican-American intellectuals who supported the Revolution. They also founded the newspaper Regeneración, based in Los Angeles. The status of women also became an issue in revolutionary politics. Ricardo Flores Magón spoke of the humiliation and degradation of women under current tradition, and sisters Teresa and Andrea Villarreal contributed articles on women’s rights in the newspaper. The Villarreal sisters published their own newspapers in San Antonio, the feminist newspaper La Mujer Moderna and the revolutionary El Obrero. Journalist Jovita Idár, who moved to San Antonio after her marriage, also spoke out for women’s suffrage in her father’s Laredo newspaper La Crónica.

When the Nineteenth Amendment was officially adopted into the United States Constitution on August 26, 1920, women achieved an important milestone in their struggle for full citizenship rights. This victory was incomplete, as poor women and women of color in the United States would continue to be disenfranchised. Women suffragists in Latin America would spend several more decades struggling before they would achieve voting rights as well. Yet this is an important benchmark to celebrate in the ongoing struggle for women’s liberation.