This month marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment. Years of struggle were necessary for the right to vote to be extended to members of both sexes. Years of struggle remained to guarantee it for all.
Since the United States of America declared its existence in 1776, its citizens have been in search of a more perfect union. Those words, immortalized in our Constitution, are a guiding beacon to those who have and will extol our country to live up to its highest ideals.
Holding those words dear, activists across the decades and centuries have fought to ensure the right to vote for all. Even while slavery remained legal in this country, people dreamed of the day in which every person would submit their own ballot.
Women of every race and men of color began making strides toward universal enfranchisement as early as the 1820s. Some extensions in voting rights had already been made. Though the Constitution made no specific stipulations about those who could vote, most states had originally settled on the restriction of voting rights to men who owned property or could afford a poll tax.
By the early 1800s, states had begun lessening the property or wealth requirements. Vermont, which had briefly made a stand as its own independent nation, had even extended the vote to all men, regardless of race
As of 1856, all states had abolished property requirements for the vote, although some still required a minimum state tax or poll tax. Even as these advancements continued, agitators were calling for further action.
Abolition and the Suffrage Movement
Anti-slavery sentiment in the United States precedes its official recognition as a nation. But in the 1830s and 40s, as nations around the world banned slavery or saw slaves revolt in mass numbers, that sentiment became more widespread.
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For many suffragettes, the fight for abolition was where they discovered the utility of organizing, protesting, writing, and reaching out to like-minded people.
Despite not being allowed in key leadership roles, women like Susan B. Anthony, Sarah Parker Remond, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott joined the American Anti-Slavery Society. But in 1840, when women were not allowed to participate in the World Anti-Slavery Convention, those women split off to form their own society. This moment galvanized the women’s fight not just for abolition, but also for their own equal and unabridged rights.
Inspired by the convention, early feminists like Mott and Stanton began dreaming of a women’s rights convention—and soon put their dreams into action.
Temperance and the Suffrage Movement
Although the Temperance Movement in the US is commonly associated with the early 20th century and the passing of the 18th Amendment, women had begun organizing in the hopes of encouraging temperance in the same period as the early abolitionist movement.
Both the call for temperance and the call for abolition were greatly informed by the Second Great Awakening, a church-led call for a more perfect society led by morally upright citizens. Though the Second Great Awakening also found expression in abolition, its (usually white) Evangelical roots lent itself most firmly to the ideas of individual moral reform so easily seen in abstaining from liquor.
Although men were the primary targets of the Temperance Movement in both the 19th and 20th century, women were the ones leading the charge. Compelled both by the wish to curtail what was seen as a sin and to keep their homes a calm and pleasant oasis, women began the Teetotaler movement.
The growth of the suffrage movement out of temperance may not, to modern eyes, seem like an exact fit—after all, these women were frequently deeply religious and calling for a return to morality and family norms. Would they also be the women who called for the advancement out of the home and into the voting booth?
They would, and they would rely on some of the same gender norms to support their call for the vote. After all, a nation led astray by alcohol and war and men’s business must need a woman’s calm, guiding hand.
The Seneca Falls Convention
These two movements and the ever-growing population of early feminists coalesced at the Seneca Falls Convention. Women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had honed their leadership and speaking skills in temperance, while the Grimké sisters wrote books and spoke before audiences of men and women for abolition.
These women and a cohort of Quakers (Lucretia Mott, Jane Hunt, Martha Coffin Wright) became the planners, speakers, and facilitators of the Seneca Falls Convention.
On July 19, 1848, a crowd of women—and a few children and men—arrived at the Wesleyan Methodist Church to begin the Seneca Falls Convention.
Despite the fact that the Seneca Falls Convention is now cited as a key step towards women’s suffrage, its organizers did not originally intend to include the right to vote amongst their concerns and demands. Some, like key leader Lucretia Mott, even argued against including the call in their Declaration of Sentiments.
Mott’s argument centered around her perception of all politics as a corrupting influence, contaminated by slavery and moral compromise.
But Frederick Douglass, one of about 40 men and the only African American present at the gathering, gave an supporting women’s right to vote—and convinced his fellow attendees to firmly claim their ground.
The Suffrage Movement After the Civil War
After two decades of outreach and growth through the 1840s and 1850s, suffrage took a backseat as the nation descended into the Civil War. With so many suffragists’ roots emanating from abolition, there’s no surprise that slavery’s—and the war’s—end became the first focus.
But the 14th and 15th Amendment were proposed and put to the vote, the movement with a seemingly solid foundation suddenly cracked. Many women’s rights activists, appalled that black men would be given the right to vote before white women, suddenly centered around women’s suffrage as the key goal of the movement—a goal that had been nearly dismissed by the Seneca Falls Convention attendees only 20 years ago.
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This crack became a schism, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony campaigned explicitly against the 15th Amendment, while Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass argued that it was still time to focus on the freedoms of Black people in America.
Stanton and Anthony founded the National Woman Suffrage Association three months after the 15th Amendment was proposed to Congress. Though some Black women, like Sojourner Truth and Mary Ann Shadd Cary, supported the NWSA, many African Americans felt understandably abandoned by this split.
Meanwhile, Stone and followers were organizing into the American Women Suffrage Association, which was founded six months after the NWSA in November 1869. Although the AWSA took the stance that the vote for Black men should come before white women, they were more conservative than the NWSA, which excluded men and agitated for a federal guarantee of women’s right to vote. The AWSA, instead, focused on individual states in their quest to gain suffrage and allowed men in their leadership ranks.
Once the 14th and 15th Amendment had passed, members of the NWSA attempted to vote, claiming that the 14th Amendment gave all citizens the right to vote—and as white women were already considered citizens, they had the right to vote.
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Susan B. Anthony put this idea to the test in 1872, and was promptly arrested for her pains. Meanwhile, the AWSA was continuing its less flashy work and finding some success. Wyoming and Utah began allowing women to vote in the 1870s, though Utah’s suffrage would be repealed in 1887 as a side effect of the , which prohibited polygamy.
Around this time, the NWSA and AWSA realized that their separation was hindering the overall goal of both organizations and began discussion to merge once more. The NWSA had been submitting a bill to Congress to ratify women’s suffrage annually since 1878 without success, and although their headline-grabbing antics made the movement more visible, even the 1872 presidential candidacy of Victoria Woodhull couldn’t make suffrage a reality.
So, hoping to meld the state and local groundwork of the AWSA with the confrontational moves of the NWSA, the two merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890. Stanton, formerly of the NWSA, became president of the NAWSA, and Stone, formerly of AWSA, its chair.
The Fin de Siècle
Although merging associations was meant to revitalize the women’s movement, the 1890s were a decade of stagnation for the march towards suffrage. The NAWSA cycled through multiple leaders. As they struggled to regain their feet, a woman on the rise, Carrie Chapman Catt, noticed the growth of women’s clubs across the nation.
Women’s clubs, though frequently explicitly apolitical, were becoming a key way for white and African American women to engage with their communities and make change on a local basis. Primarily middle class, these women met regularly to discuss ways to support their community. As the new century approached, many of those clubs found themselves facing a firm fact—to really improve their communities, they needed a political voice.
Anthony retired from the NAWSA in 1900 and appointed Catt to the presidency. Catt immediately began reaching out to prominent women’s club members to encourage them to vocally support the women’s suffrage movement. Although Catt would resign from the NAWSA before seeing it, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs endorsed women’s suffrage in 1914.
During the final decade of the 19th century, a new enemy of suffrage arose—the brewers of America. Thanks to the women’s rights movement’s roots in temperance and prohibition, the Liquor Dealers’ League and local brewers feared the end of their livelihood should women achieve the vote.
Even as women agitated for the vote and social forces agitated against their voices, Black men were being forcibly disenfranchised thanks to the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow laws. Poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests became the norm in Southern states and spread across the rest of the country as well.
So often excluded from the conversation around suffrage, some Black women founded their own organization to attempt to extend civil rights for African Americans and win suffrage for women. In 1896, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin founded the National Association of Colored Women to address the needs of Black women specifically. Key reformers like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Dr Anna J. Cooper joined the mission, which .
The Movement Regains Ground in the 20th Century
By the dawn of the 20th century, the was a recognized phenomena, who called for social growth and change. From the unexpected impact of the bicycle on women’s rights to the new spectacle of women’s marches and street corner speeches, the new woman of the new century was willing to be uncouth to achieve her goals.
In the second decade of the century, a new militancy arrived. Alice Paul, freshly returned from England, became a key figure in the US fight for the vote. British suffragettes had been willing to put their bodies at risk for the right to vote for years—Paul had even been jailed and force fed as part of her activism.
Paul and Lucy Burns began planning the Woman Suffrage Procession in 1912. They drew between 5,000 and 10,000 marchers to D.C. Women filled the streets the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in a staggering show of support.
But even as supporters of women’s suffrage were awed by this moment around the country, factions within and without the movement once again threatened to tear it apart.
Internally, white Southerners protested the attendance of Black women. After initially reserving space in the parade for the NAACP and the NACW, Paul was convinced to separate white marchers from Black marchers with a section of male Quaker marchers. Ida B. Wells was even asked to resign her position as an Illinois delegate, at the front of the parade.
Externally, police failed to protect the protestors from counter protestors. Though response was generally positive, hostile viewers heckled marchers and intimidated individuals while the crush of people sent 200 people to local hospitals for injury.
The courage of the marchers in the face of abuse was turned into a positive by Paul, who claimed that if women could not be protected in the streets by their government, their need for a voice in its creation was all the stronger.
The Final Shift
Since the merging of the NWSA and the AWSA, the NAWSA had focused on individual states’ ratification of suffrage, with increasing success. By the time of the Woman Suffrage Procession, Washington, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona had enfranchised women fully. Other states allowed women to vote in certain types of elections, like those of the school board or municipal elections.
In 1912, the Progressive Party endorsed suffrage. Thanks to the ongoing efforts around the country, women’s suffrage was a key national conversation by the mid 1910s. Carrie Chapman Catt, back at the head of the NAWSA, recognized that it was time to make a change.
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The moment to focus on states was over—it was time for a fresh push for a federal response to the suffrage question. Catt dispersed funds to promote women’s suffrage via newspapers, reports, and speakers. Meanwhile, Alice Paul’s newly founded National Women’s Party took the fight directly to the White House.
For the first time in US history, the White House was picketed. The National Women’s Party began picketing in January 1917. Women were attacked by bystanders, arrested, and sent to prison. Paul was once again in prison, where she started a hunger strike and was repeatedly force fed. As was her goal, this practice was covered widely and derided by people around the country.
The NAWSA also recognized another opportunity in the the US entrance into World War I. Women were moving into traditionally male industries—and the NAWSA supported the war efforts, hoping to be seen as a vital part of the US political conversation.
Just over a year later, President Wilson called for the passing of the suffrage amendment, specifically highlighting the work that women were undertaking as part of WWI as a key reason to extend enfranchisement.
In the following elections, anti-suffrage senators lost re-election bids and three states passed ballots enfranchising women. 16 states now extended women the full franchise. The tide had arrived.
The annual vote on a suffrage amendment arrived in February 1919. The Susan B. Anthony Amendment passed Congress’s vote in May 1919 and was sent to the states for ratification. 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified the amendment by March 22, 1920.
On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee General Assembly voted to approve the amendment. The 19th Amendment became law that day, extending the franchise to women across the country.
The State of Suffrage After the 19th Amendment
Although women had at long last won the right to vote, decades of struggle remained for Black and Native American women. Native Americans were not considered citizens until 1924, and even after the Indian Citizenship Act, many states refused the vote to Native people.
In 1962, Utah became the last state to guarantee voting rights for Native people—but many still faced the access issues created to keep Black voters from exercising their rights.
Throughout the early and mid-20th century, poll taxes, intimidation (up to and including lynching), literacy tests, and other inconsistently applied measures prevented non-white citizens from casting their votes. Until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, people of color faced significant barriers. Even now, underfunding poll stations and voter ID laws threaten the right of Americans to vote in certain areas of the country.
Today, barriers against universal suffrage still exist. Many homeless citizens (an estimated 550,000 people) cannot vote. Some states refuse the right to vote to any citizens with a felony record. And though residents of Washington, DC vote in national elections, they have no voting representative in Congress. The search for an ever more perfect union continues.
Additional sources: University of Rochester, Crusade for the Vote, National Park Service.