By: Michele Levandoski, Archivist, School Sisters of Notre Dame North American Archives
The women’s suffrage movement began in the mid-19th century and for more than 70 years, American women lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied and practiced civil disobedience, including imprisonment, in an attempt to achieve the right to vote. By the early 20th century, many states had given women either full or partial voting rights, but women in the suffrage movement wanted a constitutional amendment that would grant universal suffrage.
On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. Two weeks later the Senate followed and in August, Tennessee voted to ratify the amendment, securing the two-thirds of states needed to amend the Constitution.
After World War I, various countries in Europe also began giving women the right to vote. The General Superior, Mother Mary Bruno Thoma, had to decide if Sisters would be allowed to break the rules of enclosure in order to vote.
The SSND rules and constitution provides clear guidelines on the rules of enclosure. The purpose of enclosure was to keep Sisters secluded from the outside world to “maintain the Conventual Regulations and the spirit of the Institute, and to avert all that, which from without, might imperil the salvation of each individual member.”
Sisters were not permitted to “cross the threshold of the Convent door, except in case of duty [e.g. going to church or school], to assist at Mass on Sundays and Holydays when they cannot have the holy Sacrament offered in their chapel.” Sisters were also instructed not to accept invitations, “make no visits, be it to clergymen or other persons, and avoid all necessary intercourse with the outer world.”
On January 5, 1919, Mother Mary Bruno wrote a letter to the Sisters, granting permission to break the rules of enclosure in order to vote. She wrote: “Concerning the election, we are informing you, that for going to the polls, religious are dispensed from the enclosure and may wear secular clothes, if that seems advisable.” She suggested the Sisters, if possible, to be accompanied to the polls by “some good person.”
She also advised, but did not force, Sisters to vote for the party that supported teaching religion in schools. She also dictated that the Superior of each house “make sure that all Sisters are well informed about the procedure of voting and which ballot to hand in.”
On November 2, 1920, more than 8 million American women, including the School Sisters of Notre Dame, voted for the first time. Evidence of this momentous event can be seen in the house chronicles. A Sister at St. Michael, Minnesota wrote: “On Poor Soul’s Day the 6 Sisters went to the Town Hall for the first time to cast our votes.”