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The Right to Vote: History

"And here, in this very first paragraph of the Declaration, is the assertion of the natural right of all to the ballot; for how can the “consent of the governed” be given if the right to vote be denied? "

-Susan B. Anthony, April 3, 1973

About the Suffrage Movement

"U.S. women gained the vote in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The woman suffrage movement had its origins at the 1848 Seneca Falls, New York, convention for women's rights. For the next 72 years, women organized, petitioned, marched, and passed state referenda measures in their efforts to become fully enfranchised voters.

For a brief time, New Jersey did not have restrictions against women voting after 1776. If a person owned at least 50 pounds’ worth of property, had been a resident for at least one year, and was over 21 years of age, the person was qualified to vote, whether male or female. Because the U.S. Constitution stipulated that anyone who could vote for the most numerous branch of state government could also vote in federal elections, it meant that women could also vote for members of Congress and the president. In 1806, New Jersey changed its constitution, and no woman in the United States could vote because New Jersey women had been the only female voters in the country. The New Jersey experience was an anomaly and did not precipitate the suffrage movement.

The suffrage movement emerged from the abolitionist movement, in which women found their actions limited and their efforts constrained. Frustrated with the social and political restraints placed upon them, some women leaders in the abolitionist movement came to believe that unless they had full citizenship rights, their ability to effectively work for the end of slavery would remain marginal.

The 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London highlighted the limits of women's effectiveness for two women in particular. Lucretia Mott, a U.S. delegate to the convention, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had recently married and had accompanied her husband to the convention, found themselves and other women banished from the meeting floor and relegated to a balcony. While in their forced seclusion, Mott and Stanton resolved to hold a convention on women's rights, but it took eight years for them to act on their decision. The meeting finally took place in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 and concluded with acceptance of the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which included a controversial demand for woman suffrage. The idea of women voting was so radical that some of those who had voted for it during the convention soon reconsidered and asked that their names be removed as signers of the declaration. At a time when married women had virtually no civil, legal, or political rights, the demand for woman suffrage became the basis for ridicule that was intolerable for women less courageous than Stanton.

Stanton, however, persevered, even though her freedom to lecture on women's rights was limited by her responsibilities to her husband and her family, which was young and growing. Although her family responsibilities did not lessen, her effectiveness was greatly enhanced when Susan B. Anthony joined her crusade. A single woman, Anthony had become involved in the temperance movement and the abolitionist movement, lecturing and organizing on behalf of the two reforms. When the two women combined their skills—Stanton developing strategies and writing speeches and articles and Anthony organizing and occasionally delivering the speeches—they made a formidable team for woman suffrage. Of the suffrage leaders in the 19th century, Stanton and Anthony became the most notable.

During the years of the Civil War, the women's rights movement moved into the background as the emancipation of slaves and the abolition of slavery moved to the forefront. When Congress considered the proposed Fourteenth Amendment after the war, however, Anthony and Stanton renewed their organizational efforts and began working to change the proposal. The amendment included the word male in its definition of citizens, which Anthony and Stanton protested, arguing that abolitionists and suffragists had pledged to support citizenship for women and freed slaves. After Congress approved the amendment with the word male in it, Anthony and Stanton opposed its ratification. The two women were further outraged when Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment guaranteeing suffrage for freed slaves and did not include women.

Republican leaders insisted that including women in either amendment would have jeopardized its passage, probably because Republicans, the party in power, knew that they could rely on the freed slaves to support them at the polls out of gratitude for ending slavery. Adding women to the voting lists, however, would have increased the numbers of Democrats as well as Republicans. Abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips and others argued that African Americans needed the protections offered by the amendments more than did women. Describing the time as “the Negro's hour,” they argued that women needed to be patient and wait.

Instead, Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869 to work for women's rights, including woman suffrage. Suffragist Lucy Stone, who did not agree with Anthony and Stanton, responded by organizing the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) the same year. The AWSA accepted the argument that African American men faced a greater and more urgent need for the guarantees of citizenship and enfranchisement. It supported state constitutional amendments for woman suffrage.

The woman suffrage amendment was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 1868, in both chambers in 1869, and a dozen more times between 1875 and 1888. In 1887, the Senate voted on it but defeated it. Also on the federal level, in 1875 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to state laws preventing women from voting in Minor v. Happersett.

Women first gained voting rights in the West. In 1869, the Wyoming territorial legislature debated a bill introduced by a member who believed in women's right to vote as a part of citizenship. Without a suffrage campaign, the legislature approved the measure as well as others permitting women to serve on juries and hold public offices. Anthony responded to women's enfranchisement by encouraging women to move to the territory. When Wyoming applied for statehood, Congress considered rejecting it because members feared it would encourage woman suffrage elsewhere. The territorial legislature responded with a telegram telling Congress that it would stay out of the Union for 100 years before it would join without woman suffrage. Wyoming entered the Union as a suffrage state.

Utah's territorial legislature enfranchised women in 1870 in the hope that doing so would help preserve and protect Mormon traditions. Legislators also hoped that it would counter some of the bad publicity the territory had received about polygamy, which the Mormon Church officially rejected in 1890. When Utah became a state in 1896, its constitution included voting rights for women.

In Colorado, male voters considered woman suffrage in 1877 in the first general election after statehood. Susan B. Anthony and others campaigned in mining towns, saloons, and hotel dining rooms—anyplace they could find an audience. The opposition, however, insisted that if women could vote, married women would argue with their husbands, and single women would never marry. The measure was defeated. Colorado women gained voting rights in 1893.

By 1890, the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association had merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), with Elizabeth Cady Stanton serving as its first president. Despite the successes in the West, the suffrage movement entered a period of stagnation between 1896 and 1910—no new states granted women suffrage, and the federal amendment was dormant in Congress.

Opposition to the amendment, however, was developing. Opponents argued that the concept of women voting threatened the sanctity of home, marriage, and family; could alter the structure of society; and defied nature. Contending that women's role was to mold children and that men's role was to protect women and children, they asserted that women had a different but equal status in the family with men. The arguments against suffrage also included racism, with anti-suffragists stating that black suffrage posed dangers to society and that adding African American women as voters increased the threat. Some proposed limiting suffrage to exceptional citizens, basing the definition on race and class. Another approach expressed concern that if women were voters, they would be less involved in charitable work.

Suffrage leaders worked to invigorate the movement by experimenting with new techniques, organizing at the precinct level, and developing the support of society women with the expectation that they would bring increased acceptability to it. In addition, the movement gained an organizational ally when Frances Willard became president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).

In 1912, Alice Paul, who had been active in the British suffrage movement, joined NAWSA and chaired its Congressional Committee. Paul brought a more militant approach to the U.S. suffrage movement, attracted publicity to it, and raised large sums of money for it. She organized a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., timed to coincide with President-elect Woodrow Wilson's arrival for his inauguration on March 3, 1913. Instead of greeting Wilson at the train station, the crowds that had been anticipated watched the spectacle of thousands of women marching through the capital. Later that year, Paul separated from NAWSA and formed the Congressional Union, which in 1917 became the National Woman's Party. In 1914, Paul used another strategy from her British experience: vote against the party in power to punish them for not passing the amendment. She told women living in states where they had voting rights to vote against Democrats, regardless of whether the individual candidate supported woman suffrage or not. Fewer Democrats than had been expected won that year. However, in 1916, when she used the same strategy and called upon women to vote against Democratic president Woodrow Wilson, he won in 10 of the 12 suffrage states.

When Carrie Chapman Catt, who had been president of NAWSA from 1900 to 1904, accepted the presidency for a second time in 1915, she reorganized the association, introduced the “Winning Plan,” and reinvigorated the suffrage movement at the national level. Catt changed the focus of NAWSA from educating the public to convincing state and federal politicians that suffrage was inevitable. She formed a national press bureau and a publicity council, recruited campaign directors, and established a professional congressional lobby. In two years, NAWSA grew from 100,000 members to two million members. In part, the ambitious program Catt developed was possible because a wealthy benefactor had willed $900,000 to Catt to use for suffrage.

U.S. entry into World War I in 1917, however, created new challenges for suffrage leaders, most of whom were pacifists. Despite their opposition to war in general, Catt and other suffrage leaders pledged their support for the U.S. effort in World War I and served on federal war-related agency boards. NAWSA financially supported several hospitals in Europe, and its members worked for the Red Cross, took non-traditional jobs to free men for fighting, and sold war bonds. The lobbyists suspended their congressional work and toured the states, lecturing on suffrage.

The Woman's Party began picketing the White House in 1917, carrying signs with messages such as “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” On one day, a riot erupted in which bystanders attacked the pickets and tore their banner, and two of the pickets were arrested for blocking the sidewalk. Catt opposed the attempts to embarrass President Wilson into supporting woman suffrage, but the pickets indirectly helped her by casting her and NAWSA as moderate and giving her increased access to the president.

In January 1918, the House of Representatives voted 274 to 136 in favor of the suffrage amendment, but when the Senate voted on it in October, it failed to pass by two votes. In response to the defeat, NAWSA initiated a campaign to defeat four senators who had voted against it. That November, two of the senators NAWSA had targeted lost their re-election bids as women voters demonstrated their political clout.

In early 1919, the Senate again defeated the suffrage amendment, but in the spring the House again passed it, and less than a month later the Senate passed it and sent the amendment to the states for ratification. By September 1919, 17 states had ratified the amendment, but 36 states were needed before the amendment could be added to the Constitution. NAWSA conducted ratification campaigns in several states, and by August 1920, 35 states had ratified. They needed only one more state.

Tennessee seemed an unlikely choice to target for ratification but appeared to be the best option of the states that had not ratified the amendment. The governor called the Tennessee legislature into a special session beginning August 9, 1920. The Tennessee state Senate quickly passed the amendment, but the Tennessee House of Representatives was divided and became the focus of intense lobbying. After two weeks of debate, the voting in the House began with every indication that the amendment would be defeated with a tie vote. Earlier in the day, the youngest member of the House, Harry Burn, had voted for a motion to table the amendment, which would have killed it. Burn had told his mother, a suffragist, that if ratification needed only one vote, he would vote yes. When the speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives called his name, Harry Burn voted yes. By that one vote on August 18, 1920, 72 years of campaigning came to an end. On August 26th, the secretary of state signed the proclamation certifying final adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, and 26 million U.S. women gained suffrage rights.

For African American women in the South, however, ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment meant far less than it did for women of European descent. Racism had haunted the suffrage movement since the late 1860s, when the controversies over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had erupted. NAWSA shunned African American women who supported the amendment, fearing that association with them would make it more difficult to gain congressional passage and ratification of it, even though black women and men supported woman suffrage more than white women and men. In addition, NAWSA leaders believed that if black women were admitted to the organization, white women in every region of the country would object, hurting NAWSA's fundraising efforts and public image and causing dissension among members.

In 1916, both the Democratic and the Republican platforms called for state action on suffrage, in deference to Southern racists. Several Southern states had passed laws that denied African Americans their right to vote, and they wanted to continue that exclusion. They feared a federal amendment would involve federal enforcement and result in both African American women and men gaining full suffrage rights. Northern suffrage leaders, including Carrie Chapman Catt, used racist rhetoric in their speeches, especially to Southern audiences. She claimed that white women needed the vote to overcome the votes of African American and immigrant men.

For example, in 1919, an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) attempted to join the NAWSA and through its membership demand suffrage protection for African American women. They sought protection by adding congressional enforcement of the suffrage amendment in an effort to subvert Southern states’ intentions to disenfranchise black women. The NAWSA refused to admit the NACW, fearing that the enforcement provisions it wanted would hamper ratification of the suffrage amendment. The suffrage amendment passed without the protections the NACW had sought. Between 1920 and 1940, Southern states, comprising 75 percent of all African American women, disenfranchised black women. Southern black women did not gain full suffrage rights until the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the passage of the Voting Rights Act and other measures in that decade.

For African American women living in the South, passage of the Nineteenth Amendment accomplished far less than for white women. African American women and men continued to be disenfranchised by state laws, including literacy tests that acted as barriers to voter registration. As early as 1921, black women appealed to the League of Women Voters and the National Woman's Party for assistance in eliminating these barriers. Those groups responded by insisting that the problems were race issues and not women's issues and did nothing to help remedy the problems.

African American women continued to work for voting rights, attempting to register themselves and their families, neighbors, and friends. Although often threatened with violence and frequently the targets of violence, and despite their persistence and dedication, African American women were generally overshadowed by the greater visibility given to African American men."


Suffrage. (2013). In S. O'Dea, From suffrage to the Senate: America's political women : an encyclopedia of leaders, causes & issues (3rd ed.). Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing. Retrieved from