The 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. This year will mark the 100th anniversary of a milestone that came with challenges and struggles, beginning in the mid-19th century and being initiated by women suffrage supporters aiming for radical change.
A women’s suffrage amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878. The amendment was proposed and denied every year for 41 years until its ratification.
The 19 Amendment granted women the right to vote, and reads:
“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 the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The women’s suffrage was well known for the fight in women’s right to vote. However, some women were able to vote even before the amendment’s ratification.
In New Jersey, single women who owned property could vote as early as 1776 and through the early 1800s. It wasn’t until 1807 when New Jersey changed its law to only permit white male taxpayers to vote. In general, women’s right to vote and own property varied by the state as early as 1771.
When Wyoming was a territory in 1869, Councilman William Bright proposed a bill that granted women the right to vote. Women were able to vote beginning in 1869 and continued to do so through the territory’s process of becoming a state. While threats of becoming a statehood loomed in the air as some members of Congress did not approve of Wyoming’s voting decision, voters from the territory declared that Wyoming would be a state with equal voters or no state at all. In 1890 Wyoming became the 44th state and the first to include women’s right to vote. Wyoming was also the first state to have a female governor.
After Wyoming was the first to give women voting rights in 1869, other states and territories followed suit. These states include Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Oregon (1912), Montana (1914), Nevada (1914), New York (1917), Michigan (1918), Oklahoma (1918) and South Dakota (1918).
The 19th Amendment had a long journey before its ratification in 1920. The amendment also nicknamed the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” was named after a prominent women’s suffrage leader, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906).
Anthony and fellow women’s suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) in 1869. That same year, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The NWSA aimed at various reforms to enhance women’s rights within society, while the AWSA aimed specifically at women’s right to vote. However, what differentiated an organization from the other was agreement on the 15th Amendment. After the Civil War, the 15th Amendment became a controversial topic within women’s suffrage. Some, such as the NWSA, believed the 15th Amendment should not be ratified until women were included, whereas the AWASA believed the ratification of the 15th Amendment was a small step in the right direction for women. In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
As organizations grew to promote women’s suffrage, the tension among supporters and antis, those against women’s right to vote, also grew. Supporters of the 19th Amendment were sometimes jailed or abused for their involvement. Susan B. Anthony was arrested in 1872 for voting in the presidential elections. In November 1917, some 32 women known as “silent sentinels” picketing outside the White House, were arrested and sent to Occoquan Workhouse. Known as the Night of Terror, women were abused and mistreated. Alice Paul, a leader in the movement and founder of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), was force-fed after refusing to eat and was sent to a psychiatric ward. Further accounts of the Night of Terror were published in a book by Doris Stevens in Jailed for Freedom.
As World War I came to an end, the discussion of women’s right to vote resurfaced. President Woodrow Wilson initially believed a women’s right to vote should be handled by the states. However, in 1918 Wilson came to endorse women’s right to vote, justifying women had participated in the war effort and it was time to recognize their worth. The amendment was approved by the House of Representatives but fell short of two votes in the Senate.
Eventually, the 19th Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920. The last vote for ratification fell into the hands of a Tennessee representative named Harry T. Burn. Burn’s had planned to vote against the ratification but changed his mind after receiving a letter from his mother.
While the initial ratification of the 19th Amendment was in 1920, it eventually took over 60 years for the remaining 12 states to ratify the amendment with Mississippi being the last state to do so in 1984.
After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, more than 8 million women voted in the November elections of that year. However, even after its ratification, many women were still unable to vote. Literacy tests and poll taxes, to name a few, were implemented at the time by states to prevent many Black Americans from the polls. Native Americans and Asian Americans, male and female, were not considered citizens and therefore could not vote until 1924 and 1952 respectively. It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which strengthened people of color the right to vote.
While the 19th Amendment granted any American citizen the right to vote regardless of sex, gender equality became the next topic of discussion for the women’s suffrage movement.
Alice Paul introduced the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on behalf of the NWP which would eliminate legal gender-based discrimination in the United States. The House and Senate approved the proposal in 1970 and 1972 respectively. However, the bill failed to pass among the states and has not been passed since.