Fighting for a Woman’s Right to Vote:
The History of the 19th Amendment
The woman suffrage movement in America began before the Civil War. Little did they know how long and bitter and brutal the fight would be. The 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote was not nationally ratified until August 26, 1920. It had taken 72 years.
The Suffrage movement in the U.S. began in 1848 as an offshoot of the anti- slavery movement. It solidified as its own separate movement after the 15th Amendment extended the vote to African-American men, but not to any women. In 1869, two suffrage organizations were founded: The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. The two groups had varying views on how to achieve the right to vote, but finally joined forces in 1887 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
In the 1870s, the first attempt at a proposed Amendment (then the 16th Amendment) failed to pass and appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court fell on deaf ears. The national suffrage leaders knew they had to do more. Their response was to initiate a grassroots campaign in each state to obtain state suffrage amendments. The thinking was that if enough congressmen began to support women’s rights on a state level, a federal suffrage amendment, approved by Congress, would soon follow.
By 1890, the leaders of NAWSA realized that to be successful they would need to “bring in the South.” This was a troublesome proposition. Many white southern men viewed the anti-slavery movement and women’s movement with the same contempt. Men, and even some southern women, felt women should stay in their traditional roles as “southern ladies,” allowing men to rule wisely on their behalf. This would be a battle they would continue into the next century.
The Voices of Women for Women
The most vocal and well-known activists of the early efforts were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820 into a Quaker family with long activist traditions. In her lifetime, Anthony worked as an abolitionist, educational reformer, labor activist, temperance worker and suffragist. Her work in the temperance movement taught her that women needed to vote in order to be heard by politicians and to influence public policy. She met Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1851 and attended her first women’s rights convention in Syracuse in 1852.
The two women joined forces. They believed the Republican party would reward them for their help in garnering support for the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. But they were wrong.
Anthony campaigned through the 1860s and 1870s. In Rochester in 1872, she was arrested for a crime. She had dared to vote. In 1877, Congress laughed at the 10,000 signatures she had gathered on petitions. In 1900, at the age of 80, she retired as President of NAWSA and in 1904 presided over the International Council of Women in Berlin. She went before every congress from 1869 to 1906 to ask for passage of the suffrage amendment. Anthony died in 1906, 14 years before the 19th Amendment passed–the amendment also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton served as president of the National Suffrage Association and as the first president of NAWSA. After serving 20 years for the cause, she resigned in 1892 at the age of 77. In her resignation speech, “The Solitude of Self,” Stanton stated that as an individual human, a citizen and a partner to man, a woman deserves the “solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. …Nothing strengthens the judgement and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility. Nothing adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty; the right to an equal place, everywhere conceded… .”
Nothings adds such dignity to character as the recognition of one’s self-sovereignty… Elizabeth Cady Stanton
In the south, Nellie Nugent Somerville and Belle Kearney joined the struggle to convince fellow southerners that a federal amendment allowing women to vote was not a threat to the south.
In the north, some suffragists questioned why illiterate and immigrant men could vote while intelligent, literate women could not.
In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt became head of the National Woman Suffrage Association. She developed a two-prong political strategy called the “Winning Plan” that went after both state laws and ratification of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Alice Paul took a more confrontational approach. In 1913, she organized a protest of 5,000 women to march up Pennsylvania Avenue on the day of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration–the first time it had ever been done. (Pictured below, is Inez Miholland in the parade of March 3, 1913.)
Two years later some 40,000 men and women marched in a suffrage parade in New York–the largest parade ever held in the city. And in 1917, Alice Paul and her supporters picketed the White House, six days a week, day and night, through sun, rain or snow. They carried signs that read:”How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty” and “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage.” Some chained themselves to the White House fence.
Political Tennis Ball
By the early 20th century, efforts to convince individual states to grant voting rights to women had achieved some success. Women already had full voting rights in 15 states–most of them west of the Mississippi. Wyoming, a territory where men outnumbered women 6-to-1, passed a woman’s voting bill as early as 1869 in the hopes that it might attract single women to balance out the gender difference, while driving the population to the threshold needed for statehood. Plus, the Republican governor needed to support women’s rights in the same way his party had supported African-American voting rights.
Unfortunately, this was not a national trend. Many states, particularly those in the south, opposed the passing of the 19th amendment on many grounds. Some southern politicians were still in opposition to the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which, respectively, provided voting rights and civil protections to African-American men. Ratifying the 19th Amendment, they argued, would suggest that they approved of these earlier amendments, (which they were required to pass before being allowed back into the Union), and thus supported interference in state’s rights. Plus, women weren’t intellectually qualified to vote anyway.
State-by-state passage also had opposition within the suffrage movement itself. Some believed that “no” votes at the state level diluted national support of the amendment.
President Woodrow Wilson held off his public support of the amendment until the result seemed inevitable.
A Long, Treacherous Path
Women endured terrible hardships in the name of equality. Susan B. Anthony was struck down in the street. Alice Paul’s picketers were physically attacked. In 1917, almost 170 picketers were arrested on the charge of obstructing traffic and sentenced to up to 6 months in a cold, damp jail.
Over 30 of those prisoners went on hunger strikes and were force fed through tubes. In 1918, an appeals court struck down the convictions.
Many of the prisoners went on a “Prison Special” tour in February and March of 1919, where they went across the country in their prison garb speaking on their mistreatment in prison.
Pictured right is Abby Scott Baker. Pictured below is a photo of suffragists Catherine Flanagan (left) and Madeleine Watson (right) of the militant National Woman’s Party being arrested as they picket outside the White House.
Victory at Last
It would be 72 years before the first rumblings of voting rights for women would finally result in the 19th Amendment’s ratification, when the state of Tennessee became the 36th and final state to ratify.
The first time all women in America could voice their voting power was the Presidential election of 1920. Even so, two states did not allow women to vote in the fall election. One of the states was Mississippi. In fact, Mississippi did not officially ratify the 19th Amendment until March 22, 1984.
“The State Where Women Voted Long Before the 19th Amendment”; Christopher Klein; August 26, 2015; history.com
“Suffragist”; National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House; susanbanthonyhouse.org
Mississippi Women and the Woman Suffrage Amendment; Marjorie Julian Spruill and Jesse Spruill Wheeler; Mississippi History Now: An Online Publication of the Mississippi Historical Society; mshistory now.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/245/mississippi-women-and-the-woman-suffrage-amendment
“The Solitude of Self”: Stanton Appeals for Women’s Rights; History Matters; history matters.gmu.edu/d/5315
“August 20, 1920 – Women’s Suffrage Victory – 19th Amendment Becomes Law”; Jone Johnson Lewis; About.com
“The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage: New Arguments and New Constituencies: 1880-1920”; digital history.uh.edu
Map reproduction from the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library (posted on history.com)