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STANDARDS

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.3, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.7, WHST.6-8.8, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.3, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.7, RI.6-8.9, RI.6-8.10, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • Individuals, Groups, and Institutions • Civic Ideals and Practices

FLASHBACK

How Women Won the Vote

A century ago this summer, American women gained the right to vote. The road to the ballot box was a relentless battle that spanned generations.  

As You Read, Think About: What strategies did women use to win the right to vote in the U.S.?

During the presidential election of 1872, more than 150 women across the United States attempted to break a law they believed was unjust. 

In Connecticut and Ohio, women tried. In Battle Creek, Michigan, Sojourner Truth, a well-known abolitionist who had escaped slavery, tried. And in Rochester, New York, about a dozen women tried—and succeeded in—breaking that law. One of them, a former teacher named Susan B. Anthony, was arrested and put on trial for her offense.

What was her crime? She had dared to vote at a time when it was illegal for women in the U.S. to do so.

It happened during the presidential election of 1872: More than 150 women across the United States tried to break a law they believed was unjust.

Women tried in Connecticut and Ohio. Sojourner Truth was a well-known abolitionist who had escaped slavery. She tried in Battle Creek, Michigan. And in Rochester, New York, about a dozen women tried. They succeeded in breaking that law. One of them was a former teacher named Susan B. Anthony. She was arrested and put on trial for her offense.

What was her crime? She had dared to vote at a time when it was illegal for women in the U.S. to do so.

Anthony, one of the pioneering activists in the decades-long fight to secure voting rights for women, was found guilty and fined $100—which she refused to pay. Her arrest was a turning point in the campaign for women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. After her trial, many Americans were inspired to join Anthony in her cause, including a new generation of women who would take up the crusade. 

Still, it would take nearly 50 more years of arrests, jailings, and demonstrations—including picketing outside the White House—to achieve change. Finally, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, was added to the U.S. Constitution.

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of that key date in U.S. history. Yet it does not represent a century of voting rights for all women. It would take several more decades after the 19th Amendment was ratified before many women of color gained access to the ballot box. And even today, while record numbers of women are enrolled in college, have high-powered jobs, and hold seats in Congress, many people say more work needs to be done in the fight for women’s equality.

“The 19th Amendment was a victory in terms of recognizing women as fully participating citizens,” says Lisa Tetrault, a women’s history professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “That was a huge barrier to strike down, but the work isn’t over.”

Anthony was one of the pioneering activists in the decades-long fight to secure voting rights for women. She was found guilty and fined $100. Anthony refused to pay the fine. Her arrest was a turning point in the campaign for women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. After her trial, many Americans were inspired to join Anthony in her cause. They included a new generation of women who would take up the crusade.

Still, it would take nearly 50 more years of arrests, jailings, and demonstrations to achieve change. The protests included picketing outside the White House. Finally, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution. It guaranteed women the right to vote.

This summer marks the 100th anniversary of that key date in U.S. history. Yet it does not represent a century of voting rights for all women. It would take several more decades after the 19th Amendment was ratified before many women of color gained access to the ballot box. Today, record numbers of women are enrolled in college, have high-powered jobs, and hold seats in Congress. Even so, many people say still more work needs to be done in the fight for women’s equality.

“The 19th Amendment was a victory in terms of recognizing women as fully participating citizens,” says Lisa Tetrault. She is a women’s history professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “That was a huge barrier to strike down, but the work isn’t over.”

What You Need to Know

©Minnesota Historical Society/Corbis via Getty Images

A group of women register to vote in Minnesota in 1923.

Nineteenth Amendment Added to the U.S. Constitution in August 1920, it says: “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.”

Nineteenth Amendment Added to the U.S. Constitution in August 1920, it says: “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.”

“Remember the Ladies”

Women’s rights in the U.S. were being debated as early as the American Revolution (1775-1783). In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, future president John Adams, at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. She urged him to “remember the ladies” in any new laws that he and other leaders wrote. 

Yet women had no voice in the government that the Founders formed. The U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, did not guarantee all citizens the right to vote. Instead, it gave each state control over elections. At first, most states allowed only property-owning white men to cast ballots. At the time, a lot of people—many men and even some women—believed that women were unfit to participate in government. Some worried that if women could vote, they would neglect their families for politics. 

Women’s rights in the U.S. were being debated as early as the American Revolution (1775-1783). In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, future president John Adams. He was at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. She urged him to “remember the ladies” in any new laws that he and other leaders wrote.

Yet women had no voice in the government that the Founders formed. The U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, did not guarantee all citizens the right to vote. It gave each state control over elections. At first, most states allowed only property-owning white men to cast ballots. At the time, a lot of people believed that women were unfit to participate in government. That included some women as well as men. Some people worried that if women could vote, they would neglect their families for politics.

A Complex Beginning 

Women’s suffrage started to gain public support in 1848, thanks to the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. There, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the first official call for women’s right to vote.

The suffrage movement that followed grew out of the campaign to abolish slavery. During the Civil War (1861-65), many suffragists, including Stanton and Anthony, worked closely with African American abolitionists like Truth and Frederick Douglass toward that shared goal.

After the war, slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment. Now suffragists had a new mission: getting the vote for black men and all women. 

But in 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed black men the right to vote. This created a bitter division among suffragists. While many suffragists supported the 15th Amendment, others, including Anthony and Stanton, were furious. They insisted that black men should not have received the vote before white women.

“It was one thing to oppose slavery but a very different matter to support the equality of African Americans,” says Tetrault. “Many white people at the time who opposed slavery just thought slavery was evil. That didn’t mean they thought of African Americans as their equals.”

Anthony and Stanton recommitted themselves to women’s suffrage. They even drafted a suffrage amendment, which was sent to Congress in 1878. But neither woman would live to see such an amendment pass.

Women’s suffrage started to gain public support in 1848. That was thanks to the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. There, the suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton made the first official call for women’s right to vote.

The suffrage movement that followed grew out of the campaign to abolish slavery. During the Civil War (1861-65), many suffragists, including Stanton and Anthony, worked closely with African American abolitionists like Truth and Frederick Douglass. They all shared that goal.

After the war, slavery was outlawed by the 13th Amendment. Now suffragists had a new mission. They wanted the vote for black men and all women.

In 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment. It guaranteed black men the right to vote. This created a bitter division among suffragists. Many suffragists supported the 15th Amendment. But others, including Anthony and Stanton, were furious. They insisted that black men should not have received the vote before white women.

“It was one thing to oppose slavery but a very different matter to support the equality of African Americans,” says Tetrault. “Many white people at the time who opposed slavery just thought slavery was evil. That didn’t mean they thought of African Americans as their equals.”

Anthony and Stanton recommitted themselves to women’s suffrage. They even drafted a suffrage amendment that was sent to Congress in 1878. But neither woman would live to see such an amendment pass.

Racism in the Movement 

Library of Congress

By the early 1900s, suffrage was a key issue for many women in the U.S., including those who took part in the Woman’s National Baptist Convention.

During the early years of the suffrage movement, African American women worked alongside white women to secure voting rights for all Americans. But after black men were guaranteed the right to vote under the 15th Amendment, that relationship began to splinter. No longer welcome in some of the larger suffragist organizations, black women formed their own groups, including the National Association of Colored* Women (NACW) in 1896. Through this organization, African American women campaigned for suffrage and other rights.

When African American women were welcome to join their white peers in suffrage events, they often faced intense discrimination.

For example, during a large suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913, event organizers told black women they had to march in the back of the parade. Ida B. Wells, a prominent journalist and NACW member, ignored the order. She defiantly marched with a group of white women from her home state of Illinois.

Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, the fight for the right to vote ended for most white women. But African American suffragists continued their work to secure and protect voting rights for both women and men of color.

During the early years of the suffrage movement, African American women worked alongside white women to secure voting rights for all Americans. But after black men were guaranteed the right to vote under the 15th Amendment, that relationship began to splinter. No longer welcome in some of the larger suffragist organizations, black women formed their own groups, including the National Association of Colored* Women (NACW) in 1896. Through this organization, African American women campaigned for suffrage and other rights.

When African American women were welcome to join their white peers in suffrage events, they often faced intense discrimination.

For example, during a large suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., in 1913, event organizers told black women they had to march in the back of the parade. Ida B. Wells, a prominent journalist and NACW member, ignored the order. She defiantly marched with a group of white women from her home state of Illinois.

Following the passage of the 19th Amendment, the fight for the right to vote ended for most white women. But African American suffragists continued their work to secure and protect voting rights for both women and men of color.

*Colored was once a standard term for African Americans, but is now considered outdated and offensive.

The Fight Continues

By the turn of the century, a new generation of women had taken up the battle for the vote. Some of these suffragists, such as Carrie Chapman Catt, focused on achieving women’s suffrage one state at a time by lobbying individual politicians. By 1914, women could cast ballots in 12 of the then 48 states. (This included Wyoming, which became the first state to permanently allow women to vote, in 1890.) 

Other suffragists, meanwhile, took a more radical approach. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, founders of the National Woman’s Party, led thousands of women in parades in U.S. cities to draw attention to their cause. They also picketed in front of the White House, demanding that President Woodrow Wilson support them.

By the turn of the century, a new generation of women had taken up the battle for the vote. Some of these suffragists, including Carrie Chapman Catt, focused on achieving women’s suffrage one state at a time. They did that by lobbying individual politicians. By 1914, women could cast ballots in 12 of the then 48 states. (This included Wyoming. In 1890, it became the first state to permanently allow women to vote.)

Meanwhile, other suffragists took a more radical approach. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were founders of the National Woman’s Party. They led thousands of women in parades in U.S. cities to draw attention to their cause. They also picketed in front of the White House. The protesters demanded that President Woodrow Wilson support them.

In these and other demonstrations, suffragists were pelted with food and harassed by angry mobs. Many women were arrested and jailed, and some were even beaten by guards.

Meanwhile, despite their forward-thinking efforts regarding the right to vote, some suffrage organizations excluded black people. African American women were often forced to create their own groups, in which they too could fight for the vote—despite the increased barriers they faced. (See “Racism in the Movement,” above.)

In these and other demonstrations, suffragists were pelted with food and harassed by angry mobs. Many women were arrested and jailed. Some were even beaten by guards.

But at the same time, some suffrage organizations excluded black people. That was true despite these groups’ forward-thinking efforts for the right to vote. African American women were often forced to create their own groups. They fought for their own right to vote, despite facing tougher barriers. (See “Racism in the Movement,” above.)

Women Get the Vote 

The tide finally started to shift in suffragists’ favor in 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I (1914-18). As men went to fight, women took over their jobs on railroads and in factories. 

Women’s value to society was suddenly undeniable. Now President Wilson also endorsed women’s suffrage. In 1919, Congress passed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee women the vote.

But as with all amendments, three-fourths of the states had to ratify it. Some Southern states were opposed, but by August 1920, 35 states had approved the measure—one fewer than the 36 required. Finally, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. It was signed into law on August 26.

Women across the U.S. took to the streets in celebration. And in the election that November, millions of women cast ballots for the first time.

The tide finally started to change in suffragists’ favor in 1917. That was when the U.S. entered World War I (1914-18). As men went to fight, women took over their jobs on railroads and in factories.

Women’s value to society was suddenly undeniable. Now President Wilson also endorsed women’s suffrage. In 1919, Congress passed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would guarantee women the right to vote.

But as with all amendments, three-fourths of the states had to ratify it. Some Southern states were opposed. But by August 1920, 35 states had approved the measure. That was one fewer than the 36 required. Finally, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. It was signed into law on August 26.

Across the U.S., women took to the streets in celebration. And in the election that November, millions of women cast ballots for the first time.

Bettmann/Getty Images

People across the country celebrated the passage of the 19th Amendment.

More Work to Be Done 

While the 19th Amendment was a huge victory for women, it didn’t break down voting barriers for everyone. For decades after, millions of African American women—and men—particularly in the Jim Crow South, were blocked from casting ballots. (White lawmakers often added obstacles such as difficult literacy tests and high poll taxes to keep black people from voting.)

Many people of color would not be able to fully exercise their voting rights until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination at the polls. And even today, some barriers to voting remain, such as prohibiting former felons in some states from voting.

Still, women have come a long way since getting the right to vote. Today, women consistently cast more ballots in most elections than men. And they hold about a quarter of seats in Congress—a record high. 

Overall, however, they are still under-represented in public office. The inequality doesn’t end there. Although women make up about half of the U.S. workforce, they earn, on average, about 80 cents for every $1 that men earn for similar work.

That’s why, many people say, there is still more to be done in the struggle for women’s equality.

“We often remember social movements as having triumphant finishes,” Tetrault says. “One obstacle was struck down in 1920, but the fight isn’t over.” 

The 19th Amendment was a huge victory for women. But it did not break down voting barriers for everyone. For decades after, millions of African American women and men were blocked from casting ballots. That was particularly true in the Jim Crow South. (White lawmakers often added obstacles to keep black people from voting, such as difficult literacy tests and high poll taxes.)

Many people of color would not be able to fully exercise their voting rights until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed. It banned racial discrimination at the polls. And even today, some barriers to voting remain. For instance, some states ban former felons from voting.

Still, women have come a long way since getting the right to vote. Today, women usually cast more ballots in most elections than men. And they hold about a quarter of the seats in Congress—a record high.

But overall, women are still under-represented in public office. The inequality does not end there. Women make up about half of the U.S. workforce. But on average, they earn about 80 cents for every $1 that men earn for similar work.

That is why, many people say, there is still more to be done in the struggle for women’s equality.

“We often remember social movements as having triumphant finishes,” Tetrault says. “One obstacle was struck down in 1920, but the fight isn’t over.”

Write About It! Choose a woman mentioned in the article or one of the sidebars to research. Write an essay about her life, including the challenges she faced in the fight for suffrage.