Today we mark the 97th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving women the right to vote.
Ratified on August 18th, 1920, the amendment was certified into law by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby on August 26th, 1920. This marked a final victory for the woman suffrage movement in the United States.
But did you know that the movement had been going on since the 1800s? That’s right. The very first convention in support of a woman’s right to vote took place in Seneca Falls, New York in July 1848. That’s 72 years before the amendment giving them the right to vote was finally signed into law! The event was organized by abolitionist and women’s rights activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. More than 300 people were at the Seneca Falls convention, which not only advocated for the right to vote, but also other rights that women were denied: equal access to employment and education, equality in marriage, custody over her own children. At that time, a married woman couldn’t even own property, and she had no legal claim to any money she earned herself! The convention met to discuss these issues and bring awareness, even adopting something they called the “Declaration of Sentiments”, which was modeled after the Declaration of Independence. It stated, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal…”
Photo of the late Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton:
Unfortunately, the convention failed to impress many people, being ridiculed in the press. Some political delegates who had been open to the idea of women’s suffrage renounced their support in light of the bad press.
Soon after, with the country being thrown into the Civil War, women’s suffrage was nearly pushed aside. Women were too occupied trying to do their part for whichever cause they supported, Union or Confederate. National attention turned more towards the abolition of slavery. But from this abolitionist movement came many of the women famous for their role in women’s suffrage. For example, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton formed The National Women’s Loyal League to promote the abolition of slavery. In fact, Susan B. Anthony had been involved in the abolitionist movement for some time, even allowing anti-slavery Quakers to meet on the family farm, sometimes joined by activist Frederick Douglass. She arranged meetings, made speeches, distributed leaflets and put up posters for the cause, which was sometimes met with hostility and armed threats. Effigies of Susan B. Anthony were hanged and even drawn through the streets.
After the Civil War ended, two factions of women’s rights advocates sprang up, both in 1869. The most notable was The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), founded by Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. This faction focused on acquiring a federal constitutional amendment. And while it supported abolition and the right for black men to vote, the faction opposed the 15th Amendment which would give the vote to black men, because it did not include anything in it giving women the same right.
The second faction was called the American Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, also both abolitionists. Their aim, however, was geared more towards getting individual states to pass some kind of rights for women to vote in state elections first. They disagreed with the NWSA in that they believed the 15th Amendment should not include women’s right to vote. They believed the two should be separate issues and were afraid the 15th Amendment for black men would not pass if women’s right to vote was added to it.
Photo of Susan B. Anthony:
Despite the stagnation from the war and the opposing factions, that same year, 1869, saw the very first victory for the movement.
Wyoming Territory officially gave female residents 21 and older the right to vote! When Wyoming Territory was admitted to the union and became a state in 1890, that right remained.
Three short years later, in 1872, another interesting development for women occurred. A woman named Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for president of the United States. She was a member of the Equal Rights Party and ran with abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass for Vice President. Unfortunately, many of her views made her unpopular, too radical for the day. She supported such causes as legalized prostitution and “free love,” which was the right for a woman to love, bear children with, and/or divorce any man at anytime. After she published an article in which she told the tale of an alleged adulterous affair between a popular minister, Henry Ward Beecher, and a woman named Elizabeth Tilton, she was arrested on obscenity charges and spent election day in prison. Needless to say, she did not get the vote.
The first women’s suffrage proposal to the United States Congress was actually put forth as early as 1878. Congress formed committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to debate the issue and to study it, since it had become such an important topic. The proposal put forth actually managed to reach the Senate floor in 1886, but in the end, it was defeated.
American women, however, responded with determination. In the late 1880s and 1890s, more and more middle-class women began to involve themselves in volunteer work for women’s clubs, professional and temperance societies, and also participating in local civic organizations and charities. By doing so, they made themselves known, bringing to light the fact that they weren’t just sitting in their kitchens cooking and looking after babies. Women could be part of and help big causes. As they expanded their sphere of influence, the suffrage movement gained momentum.
To add more fuel to the fire, the NWSA and the AWSA, former opposing factions, actually merged in 1890, deciding it was better to join forces. The organization dubbed itself The National Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and began to lobby heavily for women’s right to vote on a state-by-state basis. Within 6 years, the NAWSA began to see results, with Colorado, Utah, and Idaho becoming some of the first to follow Wyoming in giving some kind of voting rights to women. There’s a lot of speculation as to why the more western states were the first to do this. Some say it was because there weren’t very many women in those states and they wanted to draw more women west, hoping the right to vote might entice them. Another theory was that men and women were more equal out west since women had to be more “masculinized” out there just to survive.
At the turn of the century, the women’s movement lost two of their most important advocates, Elizabeth Stanton in 1902, and Susan B. Anthony in 1906. Both women died without ever seeing the 19th amendment added to The Constitution.
Even though the loss of these women was saddening, they had inspired so many women by that time, both young and old alike, that the movement became even more active. Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, began introducing parades and pickets, even marches for women’s rights, to raise more awareness. Not all responses were good, however. On the day before President Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated in 1913, a suffragette parade in the nation’s capital was overrun by protesters. Hundreds of women were injured during the violence the protesters started.
Suffragettes Picket White House:
During that same year, 1913, another faction sprang up, founded by a woman named Alice Paul.
She called her organization Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Later, in 1916, the organization changed its name to the National Woman’s Party when it began to really take hold. Alice Paul, born into a Quaker family, had grown up believing their principle that men and women were created equal. Alice Paul had spent some time in England and had witnessed many of the more militant tactics that the women there were using to gain the right for British women to vote, and so employed some of those kinds of tactics back home in the U.S. She held numerous demonstrations and organized women into holding continuous pickets at the White House. While the NAWSA focused on individual states, the National Woman’s Party went after the Democratic party and Woodrow Wilson in particular, accusing them of purposely keeping women from the vote. These picketers were dubbed “Silent Sentinals” by the media because the women didn’t shout or even really speak, just stood in front of the White House with signs such as, “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” and “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?”
Alice Paul’s headquarters (Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage):
The National Woman’s Party came under fire, however, when the United States entered World War I in 1917 because the party continued to picket the White House during wartime, something the majority of the United States found unpatriotic and offensive. The Silent Sentinels even began to hold up signs referring to President Wilson as “Kaiser Wilson” and burn copies of Wilson’s speeches. This attracted angry mobs who attacked the picketers more than once. Finally, in an effort to end the violent situation, the chief of police issued warnings to the women, saying they would be arrested and fined if they continued to picket the White House. This, however, backfired.
Arrests began for “obstructing traffic” with only 3-day sentences at first. But after awhile, in November of 1917, when these short sentences did nothing to stop the picketers, the women were imprisoned for 60 days at a time instead. These longer sentences were carried out at Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, where the women sent there were welcomed with an initial brutal beating. And the brutality didn’t stop there. The women endured rancid food and harsh living conditions. They were even denied visitors and medical care. Many of the incarcerated women, in protest, went on hunger strikes, led by Alice Paul, herself. In response, they were placed in solitary confinement and were violently force-fed.
When word got out about the mistreatment of these women, the public was appalled. They demanded the release of the suffragettes and eventually the Court of Appeals made the decision that every one of the women who had been arrested for picketing the White House had been arrested illegally, convicted illegally, and imprisoned illegally. They were released and their records wiped clean, although the mistreatment they had suffered was never legally addressed.
It was addressed by the public, however. Sympathy for these women and what they had gone through spurred support for the cause of women’s suffrage. In 1918, Carrie Chapman Catt, a leader in the NAWSA, after a long campaign achieving success in nearly two dozen states for individual state laws regarding enfranchisement for women, managed to influence President Woodrow Wilson enough so that he switched his stance on a woman’s right to vote. Where previously he had been opposed, he now supported, tying suffrage to the important role women played in helping the war efforts in World War I. He even addressed the Senate, himself, in favor of a new proposal. Once again, the proposal was shot down by the Senate, though this time with a very small margin, failing by only 2 votes.
In Montana, however, during the same time there was another interesting development. In 1917, two years after Montana joined other states in enfranchising women, a woman named Jeannette Rankin ran for Congress. A Republican candidate, she actually won the election and was sworn in as Representative Jeanette Rankin on April 2nd, 1917. She became the first woman to serve in Congress, even before those of her sex had the national right to vote!
Two years later, in 1919, came the proposal that finally became law. Representative James R. Mann, a Republican from the state of Illinois, put forth the Susan Anthony Amendment which would grant women the right to vote. With the extensive women’s rights movement behind it, the amendment passed the House on May 21st by a vote of 304 to 89. Then, two weeks later on June 4th, at long last, the Senate passed the Amendment with a vote of 56 to 25, only 2 votes over the required two-thirds majority. Victory in Congress at last!
The states still had to ratify the amendment, however, before it could be fully signed into law. Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin were the first, ratifying the 19th Amendment within days. By June 1919, three more states had ratified, and then by March 1920, a total of thirty-five states had approved! Just one more to go and the two-thirds majority required for full ratification would be met.
The 19th Amendment was met with hostility by some of the states, however. Some of the southern states were vehemently opposed: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland. All of these states flatly rejected the amendment, refusing to acknowledge it.
So it all came down to one state….Tennessee. Everyone waited for the vote with bated breath. Would Tennessee follow its southern sister-states and reject the amendment? It almost did. Representative Harry T. Burn was the swing vote, a 23-year-old from McMinn County. At first he was going to vote against the amendment, but on the morning of the vote, he received a note from his mother. In it, she wrote, “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet.” At the end of the note, after praising the suffragist leader Carrie Chapman Catt, she added, imploring, “…be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.”
Thankfully, Harry T. Burn was a smart man who listened to his mother. He voted in favor of the amendment on August 18th, 1920. The 19th amendment was officially ratified! It was signed into law eight days later on August 26th, 1920.
A few months afterwards, elections took place in November of 1920, and for the first time, women gathered across America, more than 8 million of them total, and cast their first official US ballots. A proud and amazing day in our history.
So today, let us remember the brave women who stood up for themselves, working tirelessly to secure a bright future for women in the United States. And let us be thankful for the freedoms and opportunities women in this country have today. While there is continual room for improvement in some sectors, we have came a long way to be where we are!
Author - Sarah Mann Title photo base image credit: iamsdawson Equality For All via photopin (license)