Women's Suffrage

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By the time the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified in the summer of 1920, the struggle for women's suffrage in United States had occupied the better part of a century. Suffragists had participated in and had been influenced by most of the major issues that had engaged the American political imagination during that period. On two occasions the toil of suffragists seemed on the verge of reward until war preoccupied political consciousness; in the subsequent desire on the part of the electorate for society to return to normal, empowering women with the franchise appeared too likely to destabilize established patriarchal structures. Through unremitting effort, however, incremental gains in individual states accumulated until more than half of the female population had at least achieved the right to vote for presidential electors. At that point, the major parties found it prudential to reconsider the possibility of enfranchising women. The Suffrage Amendment, which had stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1887, finally passed both houses of Congress in 1919. Bloc opposition from one-party states made the ratification effort equally laborious, if not as lengthy, as the process of winning over Congress. Thirty-six ratification campaigns later, American women were at last able to vote for their national representatives in 1920.


In the early years of the republic, conditions were not propitious for the exercise of citizenship by women. They were not permitted to own property in their own names, schools were unavailable to them, and they were not allowed to address a public assembly. They were, legally, femmes couvertes: that is, their rights were subsumed under their father's or their husband's. The Declaration of Independence stated that "all men are created equal," a gendered formulation that women would not challenge for more than half a century.

Seeds of change began to germinate in the 1820s, but they could not flower into a formal suffrage movement until conditions developed that could encourage women's full exercise of citizenship. In 1821 Emma Hart Willard (1787–1870) founded the first endowed school for girls, and others soon followed. Public schools gradually began to include girls. Oberlin College became the first coeducational institution of higher education in 1833 and awarded its first degrees to women eight years later. Mount Holyoke, the first four-year college exclusively for women in the United States, was founded in 1837.

The rapid industrialization of America in the early decades of the nineteenth century provided new economic opportunities and challenges for women. Young women from agricultural areas moved into mill towns to increase family income before becoming farm wives themselves, while spinsters, widows, and orphans found independent means through factory labor. By the 1830s, however, more work for less pay became a common managerial response to manufacturing competition and the labor surplus brought about by rising immigration. Women found the incentive to form worker associations to fight for better working conditions and higher wages. They also testified before legislative commissions in the hope of obtaining stronger legal protections. Genuine economic gains combined with increased self-confidence and organizing skill to empower working women.

The "Cult of Domesticity" flourished in America's social climate during these same decades. A conservative response to increasing industrialization, it emphasized maintaining separate spheres for male and female activity; men would strive and struggle in the ruthless economic sphere and at the end of the workday return to the sanctuary of home and family presided over by a spiritually superior wife. Paradoxically this overtly repressive domestic ideology eventually produced women's first organized political activity outside of the labor movement. The Great Awakening that took place in mainstream Protestant churches at this time forged a connection between spiritual and social welfare. As the designated guardians of spiritual values, women under the influence of the Great Awakening felt called to participate in its various initiatives for social reform, most especially in the abolitionist movement. The first National Female Anti-Slavery Society convention brought together delegates from twelve states in 1837. These activities developed political and organizational skills that would be essential to the suffrage movement.

Meanwhile, women challenged the political process to preserve the sanctity of domestic life on other fronts. The ability for a married woman to retain control of the assets she brought into marriage would protect her family in the event that her husband became incapacitated for work by injury or disease and would prevent a dissolute spouse from wasting the family's substance. Mississippi became the first state to pass a Married Women's Property Act in 1839. The first convention devoted exclusively to the issue of women's rights took place in Seneca Falls, New York, during the summer of 1848. The convention developed a Declaration of Sentiments in phrases that paralleled the language of the Declaration of Independence. The participants in the Seneca Falls conference resolved to circulate tracts, petition state and national lawmakers, enlist the support of the clergy, and make use of the mass circulation press to advocate for their cause. The first women's rights convention to call itself "national" took place in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850; national meetings occurred regularly after that.

At the Seneca Falls convention, leadership positions were given over to men because the women who initially put forth the call felt insufficiently prepared to take on such public roles. Soon enough, however, the same frustration with being patronized that women abolitionists felt galvanized a female leadership cadre in the women's rights movement. Under the guidance of such women as Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), Paulina Wright Davis (1813–1876), and Lucy Stone (1818–1893), the campaign for a broad spectrum of women's rights achieved numerous successes in the 1850s and 1860s.

Initially suffrage did not claim a prominent place among the rights that women sought. Legal reforms, educational opportunities, legal protections, and economic issues seemed more important. Indeed, when the state of Indiana passed its Married Women's Property Act, the women campaigning for it specifically denied that their political activity would lead to their seeking the vote. But when it became clear that rights granted by any one legislature as the result of strenuous campaigning could be rescinded at a later legislative session, suffrage became recognized as "the right protective of all other rights." If women could vote, they could remove legal impediments to assuming equal opportunity and responsibility with male citizens.


The onset of the Civil War slowed the impetus of the women's rights movement, but "war work" provided women with opportunities to hone skills they would need later on. The Women's Sanitary Commission organized field hospitals and convalescent homes for which the military had failed to plan. Prior to the war, direction of the women's rights movement had come primarily from the intellectual elite of the Northeast; the war had the effect of diversifying its leadership as genteel southerners and pragmatic midwesterners became empowered by the success of their "war work."

When Emancipation was proclaimed in 1863, the energies of female abolitionists could be fully redirected to the cause of women's rights. African American abolitionist leaders like Harriet Tubman (c. 1820–1913) and Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883) became important figures in the suffrage movement at this time, as newly emancipated African Americans formed civic organizations to "uplift the race." Recognizing a common goal among white women, black women, and black men, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony joined with W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) in founding the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 to pursue universal suffrage.

The passage of the Fourteenth (1867) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments to the Constitution greatly complicated the achievement of suffrage for women. While the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed protection against unjust state laws to all American citizens, it specifically defined "citizens" and "voters" as "male"; subsequently the Fifteenth Amendment extended the franchise to black men only. These developments caused a split in the women's suffrage movement. Stanton and Anthony led a radicalized breakaway from the American Equal Rights Association called the National Woman Suffrage Association, which argued that those Reconstruction-era amendments should be rescinded in favor of a single amendment guaranteeing universal suffrage. The remnant of the original group reorganized as the American Woman's Suffrage Association, under the leadership of Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910). The latter group recognized the need for specific federal protections for blacks in the post–Civil War South and advocated the amending of individual state constitutions to gain the franchise for women.

During the 1870s women's suffrage advocates undertook a strategy called the "new departure," an effort to extend the Fourteenth Amendment's citizenship clause to women, which precipitated a series of court actions. The judiciary consistently blocked these efforts. The Supreme Court of the District of Columbia held that while women might be citizens under the Constitution, not every citizen is a voter. Even the negative argument that nothing in the Constitution specifically denies women the right to vote gained no traction in the courts. Susan B. Anthony was convicted of a federal felony for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant. Sojourner Truth was turned away from the polling booth during the same election but was not arrested. Finally, a "new departure" case reached the Supreme Court of the United States in 1874. Minor v. Happersett affirmed the right of the individual states to grant or deny the franchise, except in the narrow instances set forth in the Fifteenth Amendment, because "the United States has no voters of its own creation."

Women's failure to achieve suffrage through the courts left three options open to them, all dependent on the electoral process: amendment of the federal Constitution, amendments to the constitutions of the individual states, or achievement of municipal suffrage, the type of voting deemed most appropriate to their domestic sphere. Progress on these fronts was painfully slow. In the fifty-two years between the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the ratification of the Nineteenth, women undertook 56 popular referendum campaigns on the issue, 480 campaigns to get state legislatures to submit state constitutional amendments to their voters, 267 campaigns to get state political party conventions to include suffrage planks in their platforms, and 19 campaigns in the national congress. The first Woman's Suffrage Amendment was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1871; its text remained unchanged when both House and Senate finally passed it in 1919.


The Women's Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, legitimized female political activism on the grounds that temperance laws would protect the sanctity of the family. The drive for temperance and the drive for suffrage naturally moved in tandem, as women who had previously not realized the value of the ballot for themselves became interested in electing temperance candidates or passing a temperance amendment. As a consequence, distillers, brewers, and distributors of alcohol became a potent opposition to women's suffrage, supporting anti-suffrage candidates, buying negative publicity, and even buying votes. The corruption of the political process by other elements of big business during the Gilded Age stymied progress toward a number of social reforms coveted by women, as purchasable legislators blocked reform bills at both the state and national levels.

In contrast to the impasse confronting women's suffrage in the established states, the developing territories of the western frontier readily granted the franchise to women. This willingness stemmed generally from the desire to increase representation in sparsely populated areas and to attract a higher number of female citizens where males outnumbered them by ratios as high as six to one. In some territories the motives for giving the women the ballot were more narrowly partisan. Nativists in several territories sought female votes to offset the ballot power of black or Hispanic constituents, while in Utah the Mormons anticipated that granting the franchise to their wives would increase their political influence. Although these conditions for obtaining the vote could not be replicated elsewhere, the legal fact of women's suffrage in the western territories provoked keen interest among women and considerable controversy within state legislatures.

The existence of women's suffrage in the western territories created a constitutional dilemma for those who opposed it. If territories that had given women the right to vote were admitted to statehood with such laws intact, they would set a dangerous precedent for all the other states that had resisted such an extension of the franchise. On the other hand, if the Congress of the United States used its power to rescind territorial constitutions in order to require abrogation of women's suffrage as a condition of admission to the Union, this violation of states' rights would also set a dangerous precedent. Conservative unease was sharpened when two former territories, Colorado and Idaho, approved granting the vote to their female citizens after being admitted to the Union. In both those states, support for women's suffrage by the Populist Party played a significant role. The fear that a wave of political populism would sweep women's suffrage statutes into many additional states subsided when financial upheavals, precipitated in part by the Populist demand for "silver coinage," tarnished the political luster of the party. Nevertheless, the association of women's suffrage with populism underscored the perception that suffrage advocates were political radicals. When Stanton published The Woman's Bible in 1895, this impression was further reinforced. The book, which paired scriptural passages with commentary demonstrating how the Scriptures were oppressive to women, ignited such a firestorm of criticism that the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA, which had been formed by a merger of the NWSA and the AWSA) felt compelled to distance itself from its longtime leader.

Meanwhile, despite the assertion in Minor v. Happersett that "the United States has no voters of its own creation," various extensions and withdrawals of the franchise by the federal government had already eroded the powers reserved to the individual states to determine which of their citizens could vote. The Constitution recognized the right of naturalized citizens to vote, and these former immigrants swore allegiance to the United States rather than to a particular state of residence. In 1887 the Dawes Act granted full rights of citizenship, including the franchise, to Native Americans who had accepted government allotments and paid taxes in various states and territories. In that same year the Edmunds-Tucker Act disenfranchised the women of Utah on the grounds that polygamy so degraded Mormon women that they were incapable of voting independently.

These federal actions had complex effects on the fortunes of woman's suffrage at the national level. On the one hand, they reintroduced the hope that an amendment to the federal constitution could be used to secure the vote for women. On the other, they led to a reification of racist politics that alienated African American suffragists from their white counterparts. Many native-born American women were indignant that the vote was granted to "foreigners" and "savages" (a term also applied to Mormons on the grounds of their polygamy) before female descendants of the original colonists had obtained it. For a time the National Woman Suffrage Association found a dubious common cause with southern white supremacists, arguing that woman's suffrage would offset the baleful influence of black, Native American, and immigrant voters. They argued that a generation of America's finest men having perished on the battlefields of the Civil War, it was more appropriate to replace their votes with those of their cultured mothers, wives, and daughters than with votes from men who had no education or popular tradition of democracy to guide them. Legislators who feared giving the vote to black women were assured that the total of white votes to be gained by granting universal suffrage in their states would exceed by several hundred thousand the number of black male and female votes combined. This descent of suffrage activists into the tawdry realm of racist realpolitik marked a low point in the history of the campaign.


The period that suffragists would later call "the doldrums" ended when a new generation of reform-oriented politics commenced after 1910. The Democratic Party broke a long-standing Republican hegemony in a series of congressional election victories that culminated in taking the White House for Woodrow Wilson in 1912. During the same period, the rise of the Progressive Party and the Socialist Party applied pressure on traditional politics from the left. As party competition sharpened, the potential votes of women began to seem like a more valuable commodity. In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive (Bull Moose Republican) Party became the first national political party to include a woman's suffrage plank in its platform. From 1910 to 1914 seven additional states adopted at least a limited form of women's suffrage. Illinois added new value to women's ballots in 1913 when that state's legislature granted women the right to vote for presidential electors. Combining Illinois's twenty-nine electors with the sixty-nine from the states with full equal suffrage, women suddenly had a significant voice in presidential politics. Moreover, Illinois's decision to allow women to vote for municipal officers enabled them to vote in Chicago, the second-largest city in the United States.

As momentum built toward a federal women's suffrage amendment more strongly than at any time since the onset of the Civil War, suffrage proponents again took their case to Congress and successfully lobbied President Wilson to announce his support for it. Prior to 1912 anti-suffragists had concentrated on defeating state referenda and amendment proposals, but now the first nationally organized female opposition to the women's vote emerged. The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage drew behind-the-scenes support from the liquor industry, urban political machines, southern congressmen, corporate capitalists such as railroad directors and meatpackers, and even some Catholic clergy.

At the same time a more militant advocacy of women's suffrage emerged in emulation of the Women's Social and Political Union in England. From 1913 onward the Congressional Union—later known as the Women's Party—engaged in hunger strikes, pickets of government offices, and other acts of civil disobedience. These high-profile actions helped publicize the suffrage campaign, but they also engendered resistance on the part of legislators who felt bullied by such aggressive female behavior. The Women's Party achieved its greatest impact from sympathy generated by journalistic accounts of brutal police repression of their demonstrations, including force-feeding the hunger strikers.

The 1914 endorsement of a national suffrage amendment by the National Federation of Women's Clubs demonstrated that mainstream American women did want the vote. The women's club phenomenon had begun in the 1880s, uniting small groups of women in educational, cultural, and civic activities. By the time its National Federation endorsed suffrage, it represented more than two million women, both white and black. Women's clubs and mass-circulation women's magazines were major forces for creating a sense of community and common purpose among the widely dispersed constituency for women's suffrage.

In 1916 the NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947) formulated a three-pronged "winning plan" for obtaining the franchise. It required mobilization of enormous forces that would simultaneously campaign for state suffrage amendments in places like New York where conditions seemed ripe for them, lobby legislatures in the equal-suffrage states to send resolutions to Congress in favor of a national suffrage amendment, and pressure the legislatures in the remaining states to directly grant women the right to vote for presidential electors. Chiefly middle- and upper-class women had the free time and means to respond to this call, which had the effect of muffling working-class and minority voices. The NAWSA fielded leadership teams in every state. If an important legislative committee vote on some aspect of women's suffrage was announced anywhere in the country, suffragists could direct a stream of communication and personal attention to the site within hours.

Such an effort required enormous financial resources. Raising money for political action was a chronic problem for suffragists, since women were either underpaid or dependent on spousal income. In 1914 an extraordinary legacy provided a significant war chest to the NAWSA. It came from Miriam Leslie (1836–1914), widow of the magnate who published the immensely popular Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. She had legally changed her name to "Frank Leslie" in order to continue publishing the paper after his death, and by the time of her own death she had amassed a considerable fortune. "Mrs. Frank" willed $2 million to Carrie Chapman Catt for support of the women's suffrage campaign. Although the bequest was bitterly contested by distant relations (Leslie had no direct descendants), the NAWSA eventually received more than $500,000 to use for education and propaganda.

The successful effort to secure a state constitutional amendment enabling women's suffrage in New York gave a huge boost to the national campaign. Once women obtained the vote in America's two largest cities, a seismic shift in national sentiment seemed underway. Suffragists felt even more heartened when the state of Montana elected Jeanette Rankin (1880–1973) as the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives.

The onset of war once again undercut the momentum toward a federal statute that would enfranchise women. But after the Armistice, American women again took their case directly to the White House (members of the NAWSA lobbied the staff while the members of the Women's Party chained themselves to the fence) and convinced President Wilson to call a special session of the Sixty-sixth Congress to pass the Suffrage Amendment in May 1919.


The endgame of the women's suffrage campaign involved complex stratagems in the U.S. Congress. In the House, a custody fight over the resolution developed when the Republican-dominated Judiciary Committee wanted to report it out to the floor before the newly constituted Women Suffrage Committee had a chance to mobilize support for it. Next, suffrage opponents in the House scheduled the vote on the resolution for the day before the vote on the Prohibition Amendment. Since congressional opponents of prohibition feared that women would vote to ratify it if given the franchise, they would probably have made a preemptive strike against women's suffrage; fortunately, representatives who supported enfranchising women succeeded in getting the vote postponed. Ultimately the resolution seeking a constitutional amendment to grant women suffrage cleared the House by just one vote.

The first effort to pass a similar resolution in the Senate initially had to be withdrawn by its sponsors when they foresaw that it would not receive a majority vote. Meanwhile, both House and Senate easily passed a bill permitting the legislature of Hawaii to extend the franchise to the women of that territory. The embarrassing contrast between the senators' willingness to enfranchise the women of Hawaii with their reluctance to do so for American women spurred a second, successful Senate vote on the suffrage resolution. Finally the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was presented to the states for ratification.

In passing the Prohibition Amendment, Congress had provided that it would expire if not ratified by two-thirds of the states within seven years. No such deadline had been imposed on the Woman's Suffrage Amendment, but a groundswell of popular sentiment arose for assuring women the franchise in time to vote for president in the 1920 elections. Only eleven state legislatures were scheduled to meet in regular session in time to achieve this outcome. These states promptly ratified the Nineteenth Amendment. Although only a third of the number required to put the amendment in force, these states nevertheless contained more than half the U.S. population at the time. This popular mandate for suffrage became the basis of a drive to persuade other states to move quickly. Another massive campaign began to convince at least twenty-five additional states identified as pro-ratification to schedule special sessions for the purpose.

Local politics and economics proved the chief obstacles to the success of this crusade. Many states, in particular those that had already enfranchised their female citizens, did not wish to bear the expense of calling a special legislative session that provided no direct benefit to them. Suffragists responded by rallying their forces to convince state legislators to forego their per diem, and those living in state capitals offered their homes in lieu of hotels to reduce the cost of travel. Regionalism played a part in the foot-dragging. States in the Far West had to be pressured into mobilizing to ratify an amendment that would grant to women in eastern states a right that women of the West already had. The appeal to federalism seemed less likely to succeed in the states'-rights South than in the West, so that nine of the formerly Confederate states were not extensively lobbied to ratify. Only the border state of Tennessee ultimately voted for the amendment. Antifederal behavior was not limited to the South, however. In Delaware, the one-party legislature was so committed against ratification that women campaigned to unseat suffrage opponents. The governors of Connecticut and Vermont refused to call special legislative sessions, despite a majority of legislators in both states petitioning that they do so, because those legislative majorities came from the opposite party. In the internecine disputes between branches of government or among party factions, women's suffrage was an issue easy to bargain away.

Mirroring the outcome in Congress, the state senate of Tennessee ratified the Woman's Suffrage Amendment by a single vote. Meanwhile Connecticut's governor had convened a special session on condition that it adhered to his exclusive agenda, but the legislature defied his directive and voted to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Once the validity of the Tennessee vote was confirmed, however, it eclipsed the revolt of the Connecticut legislature. Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify, producing the necessary twothirds majority to bring the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution into force. Through heroic efforts, the suffragists' self-imposed deadline had been met; all American women over twenty-one years of age became eligible to vote in the presidential election of 1920. The NAWSA dissolved, its work done at last. It reconstituted itself as the League of Woman Voters for the purpose of creating an informed female electorate.

Although the achievement of the franchise was a monumental triumph for American women, it did not immediately produce a flood of women-centered legislation. The postwar "return to normalcy," like its Civil War predecessor, slowed the impetus for further reforms. Young women turned their energies to dismantling social strictures rather than penetrating political structures during the Roaring Twenties. The Great Depression drove many women out of the labor force and higher education, undoing decades of incremental improvement in those areas. World War II brought about a surge in women's paid labor as well as volunteer work, but the return of the troops and the postwar recession sent them back home again. It was not until the 1960s that some of the same social forces that had given birth to the suffragist movement generated another major drive to achieve a full range of rights for women.

See alsoFeminism; Reform; Temperance


Primary Work

National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection. Library of Congress. Available at www.libraryofcongress.gov.

Secondary Works

Baker, Jean H., ed. Votes for Women: The Struggle forSuffrage Revisited. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Edwards, Rebecca. "Pioneers at the Polls: Woman Suffrage in the West." In Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited, edited by Jean H. Baker, pp. 90–101. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Fischer, Gayle Veronica. "The Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Woman Suffrage in the United States." Journal of Women's History 7, no. 3 (1995): 172–200.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Right'sMovement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959.

Kraditor, Aileen S. The Ideas of the Woman SuffrageMovement 1890–1920. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

O'Neill, William. Everyone Was Brave: The Rise and Fall ofFeminism in America. Chicago: Quadrangle, 1970.

Sneider, Allison. "Woman Suffrage in Congress: American Expansion and the Politics of Federalism, 1870–1890." In Votes for Women: The Struggle for Suffrage Revisited, edited by Jean H. Baker, pp. 77–89. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Zink-Sawyer, Beverly A. "From Preachers to Suffragists: Enlisting the Pulpit in the Early Movement for Woman's Rights." Special issue. ATQ 4, no. 3 (1990): 193–210.

Joanne B. Karpinski

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Women's Suffrage

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Women's Suffrage