In 1920 women secured the right to vote. 

Overview

  • The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. It declares that “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 account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
  • The amendment, which granted women the right to vote, represented the pinnacle of the women’s suffrage movement, which was led by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
  • In their decades-long struggle for female enfranchisement, women’s rights advocates met with strong opposition from anti-suffrage activists.

The women’s suffrage movement

The women’s suffrage movement has its origins in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first women’s rights convention ever held in the United States. Approximately three hundred activists, female and male, gathered to discuss the condition of women and to devise strategies for achieving social and political rights for women. Though women’s suffrage was a topic of debate at the convention, it was not the main goal of the movement at this early stage, and the convention’s resolution demanding women’s suffrage was the only resolution that was not passed unanimously.1^1
The first women’s suffrage organizations were created in 1869. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Blackwell founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). These two rival groups were divided over the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed African American men the right to vote. The AWSA supported the Fifteenth Amendment, while the NWSA opposed it because it did not include suffrage for women. In 1890, the two competing organizations were merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
During the 1870s, suffragists (women’s suffrage activists) began attempting to vote at polling places and filing lawsuits when their attempts were rejected. This drew attention to the women’s rights movement, particularly after Susan B. Anthony was arrested and put on trial for voting in the 1872 presidential election. Suffragists hoped that the lawsuits would work their way up to the Supreme Court, and that the justices would declare that women had a constitutional right to vote. In 1875, the Supreme Court, in Minor v. Happersett, rejected women’s suffrage, ruling that the US Constitution did not confer the right of suffrage to anyone.2^2
After the Supreme Court ruling, leaders of the women’s rights movement adopted other strategies for securing universal suffrage. Activists began organizing a drive to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The National American Woman Suffrage Association launched a campaign to achieve victories at the state level, in the hopes that if enough states allowed women the right to vote, federal legislation would follow. These efforts were so successful that by the time of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, over half of all states had already granted limited voting rights to women.3^3
Map of women's voting rights in US states before the Nineteenth Amendment. Most western states had full suffrage for women, most Midwestern and New England states had limited suffrage for women, and most states on the Eastern seaboard had no suffrage for women.
####Map of voting rights for women in the United States before 1920. Before 1920, women had full or limited voting rights in more than half of US states. Map adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

Opposition to women’s suffrage

Though the movement for women’s suffrage was well-organized and gaining momentum by the early twentieth century, it met with strong opposition from some sectors of US society. Brewers and distillers were opposed to female enfranchisement because they assumed that women would vote for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, while businesses that employed children feared that women would vote to eliminate child labor.
Anti-suffrage organizations sprang up all over the country to oppose the drive for female enfranchisement. Anti-suffrage activists were not just men; indeed, many upper class women joined the movement, arguing that politics was a dirty business that would sully the moral and spiritual authority of women.4^4

The Nineteenth Amendment

In January, 1878, Republican Senator Aaron A. Sargent of California formally introduced in the Senate a constitutional amendment to guarantee women the vote. The bill languished in committee until 1887, when it finally went up to a vote, and was defeated. Not until 1914 was another constitutional amendment for women's rights considered, and again rejected, by the Senate.
Photograph of Carrie Chapman Catt.
Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association during the successful campaign for woman suffrage. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The following year, Carrie Chapman Catt, who had succeeded Susan B. Anthony as head of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900, launched an effort to link the drive for female suffrage to the US war effort in the First World War. Though many of her fellow suffragists were anti-war pacifists, Catt made the controversial decision to support the war and to thereby portray the women’s suffrage movement as patriotic. The effort was a success; in his 1918 State of the Union address, President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for female enfranchisement.
On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote to all US citizens regardless of sex. The Nineteenth Amendment represented a major victory and a turning point in the women’s rights movement.5^5

What do you think?

Why do you think African American men gained the right to vote decades before women did?
How do you think the Nineteenth Amendment affected minority women?
Consider the map of women's voting rights before 1920. Why do you think so many western states permitted women to vote before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment?
Which strategies of the women’s rights movement were most effective? Why?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on the Seneca Falls Convention, see Sally McMillen, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
  2. Ellen Carol DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 10.
  3. Corrine M. McConnaughy, The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 2-3.
  4. For more on the anti-suffrage movement, see Anne Myra Benjamin, Women Against Equality: A History of the Anti-Suffrage Movement in the United States from 1895 to 1920 (Raleigh, NC: Lulu Publishing Services, 2014).
  5. For more on the women’s rights movement, see Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1996).
Loading