Women’s Suffrage in the U.S.: The Long Fight for Passage of the 19th Amendment
"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on the account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The 19th Amendment is a simply written article to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees all American women the right to vote. In 1919 the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the amendment, and the article was ratified and became a law on August 26, 1920.
Women had lobbied for voting rights, or suffrage, for many years before the amendment was made a law. Beginning in the mid-1800s, women suffrage supporters started lecturing, marching, lobbying, picketing, and writing to advocate for voting rights. Some of the more notable suffragists were Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott.
Stanton and Mott organized the first Women’s Rights Convention in July of 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. Stanton, Anthony, and Mott all spoke at this groundbreaking event, which The Liberator, a weekly abolitionist newspaper, described as both “novel” and “startling.” At Seneca Falls and at many public rallies, leaders of the suffrage movement advocated that the right to vote was a basic legal premise to which all American women should be entitled.
Speakers at the Women’s Rights Convention brought forth a number of inequities that existed for women in American society, and those injustices were conveyed in the meeting’s Declaration of Sentiments. Reading much like the Declaration of Independence, this historic statement laid the foundation as to why the two-day event was taking place:
The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.
He has compelled her to submit to laws in the formation of which she has had no voice.
He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men—both natives and foreigners.
Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides.
He has made her, if married, in the eye of the law, civilly dead.
He has taken from her all right in property, even to the wages she earns.
He has made her, morally, an irresponsible being, as she can commit many crimes with impunity, provided they be done in the presence of her husband. In the covenant of marriage she is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming to all intents and purposes, her master—the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty and to administer chastisement.
In addition to the work of these well-known white suffragists, women of color were fighting for voting rights while also crusading for racial equality. Women such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Mary Church Terrell are still not mentioned in every U.S. history textbook—and many black suffragists were ignored by those most often heroicized in women’s history. Black women were essential to the suffrage movement’s progress; however, they faced their own set of hurdles as seen in this Baltimore Sun article published just a few weeks after the 19th amendment was ratified:
SOUTH PLANS TO KEEP VOTE FROM NEGRO WOMEN.
States Will Move in Their Own Way Partially to Nullify 19th Amendment.
WHITE SUPREMACY THE AIM.
…That the negro women of the South will find themselves disenfranchised notwithstanding the Nineteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, is a political fact which is taken for granted in Southern circles here. Although Republican politicians profess astonishment over the possibility, it is suspected that they are not at all surprised to find a determination on the part of Southern whites to dominate the government of their States.
As a matter of fact, notice was served informally, but none the less forcibly, upon the equal suffragists by Southern Senators and Congressmen at the time the Anthony amendment was pending before Congress, that if the measure should be submitted and ratified the South would take decisive steps at the earliest practicable moment nullify it so far as it applied to 4,000,000 negro women in the Southern States.
Many Americans had a negative response to the suffrage movement; they felt that an amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote would cause a radical turn for the worse in U.S. society.
In 1914 the Anaconda Standard, a Montana newspaper, published a piece titled "Women Suffrage Will Change Sex Relations." The article quoted this opinion of local attorney E. B. Howell from a recent speech to his state’s Equal Suffrage League.
“I may be somewhat old-fashioned, but I believe in the notion that men and women have different spheres, and that government belongs to a man’s sphere. I believe in the country being governed by statesmen and not stateswomen. In her home a woman may shine as a queen, but she cannot do so in politics.
“Do you think that women by temperament are fitted to meet the opposition and sometimes the abuse that men must meet who take an active part in politics? Men fight each other in politics and go home arm in arm. Are women fitted by temperament to do this? Are they not disposed to make much of trivial differences and cherish grudges? Would they not be disposed to answer the man who oppose them in politics by saying ‘You are no gentleman?’”
With the passage of the 19th Amendment, the face of the American electorate changed forever. During the signing ceremony, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby remarked:
The day marks the day of the opening of a great and new era in the political life of the nation. I confidently believe that every salutary, forward and upward force in our public life will receive fresh vigor and re-enforcement from the enfranchisement of the women of the country.
Learn more about how U.S. newspapers covered a century of the American suffrage movement in Early American Newspapers, Series 1-16, 1690-1922.