The struggle for women for the right to vote, a fundamental right that should never have been questioned or denied in the first place, does provide a textbook case of how social workers frequently need to act with regard to advocating on their and their clients’ behalf. Hopefully, however, it won’t take social workers over a century to prevail in their efforts. That it did take women so long to secure the right to vote – a right finally attained in 1920 – is one of this country’s enduring embarrassments – along with the histories of slavery and civil rights for minorities – does serve as a lesson in perseverance and organization. The women’s suffrage movement began in the early 19th Century, and occurred parallel to the anti-slavery movement through the Civil War years, when slavery was finally abolished. During those years, and beyond, women had to organize their efforts and remain vocal and persistent until they finally attained a right they should have enjoyed with the country’s founding in the 18th Century.
When drawing from the history of the women’s suffrage movement, then, one should focus on the efforts to maintain a cohesive, organized effort towards attainment of the goal, and to be willing to agitate and lobby on one’s behalf with those institutions authorized to make the decisions that affect one’s life and work. The leaders of the suffrage movement, like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Caroline Severance, and many others, all understood that their cause would not advance absent a sustained deliberate effort at lobbying powerful men towards their side. That their cause was just was insufficient to ensure success. Towards that end, they organized conferences and conventions such as the 1848 Seneca Falls convention in New York that helped to rally additional women, and men, to their cause. These women knew that remaining silent and deferential would result in failure. The status quo would not change without consistent and concerted efforts on their part.
Social workers, particularly under the umbrella of the National Association Social Workers (NASW), carry out the kinds of activities that helped the women’s suffrage movement. The NASW, with its headquarters in Washington, D.C., a short walk from the U.S. Capitol, exists to advocate on behalf of its members, and maintains an active agenda focused on influencing public policy. In fact, its annual conference in Washington, D.C. concluded two days ago, following a series of workshops and discussions focused on myriad aspects of social work and child welfare. That the annual conference occurs in the nation’s capital is, of course, no accident; like the women who agitated tirelessly for the right to vote a century ago, the NASW recognizes the need to retain an active presence near the centers of public policy and law for the federal government.
In conclusions, then, the main organization representing social workers and their interests already exists, and utilizes the kinds of tactics used by Susan B. Anthony and others to advance their agenda. Organization, cohesion and unity of message are the common denominators, and the activists of today definitely learned from those who came before them.