Over the course of 72 years, thousands of determined women circulated countless petitions, and gave speeches in churches, convention halls, meeting houses and on street corners for suffrage. They published newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines. They were harassed and attacked by mobs and police. Some women were thrown in jail, and when they protested with hunger strikes they were brutally force-fed. Still they persevered. Finally, on August 26, 1920, they won their goal with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Most history textbooks note the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, but few tell the dramatic story that led up to it, or mention the dedicated efforts of the women who planned and participated in the long struggle for this most basic right. That victory must become part of every American's understanding of our history and our democracy.
The passage of the 19th Amendment had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the first Women's Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York. The issues of women's rights had been raised previously by Ernestine Rose, Frances Wright, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, and Margaret Fuller at public meetings and in the press, often in connection with other social reforms. But the two-day Seneca Falls convention was the first time people came together to work specifically for women's rights. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, two of the convention's organizers were anti- slavery activists. They had been disillusioned by their abolitionists experiences, for even the most liberal men concerned with social change still treated women as second-class citizens.
Seneca Falls: Calling for the Vote
The convention in Seneca Falls was attended by over 300 people, mostly women. At its conclusion a "Declaration of Sentiments," modeled after the Declaration of Independence, was adopted along with a set of resolutions calling for women's educational opportunity, equality under the law, and right to vote. Calling for the vote was considered by far the most radical of the ideas endorsed.
Similar conventions were held throughout the country during the next twenty years. For many people, these gatherings were the first opportunity to hear women speaking with ease on a public platform, exploring and discussing serious issues with each other, strongly and confidently demanding their rights as women.
The Challenge of the 15th Amendment
Before the Civil War, the issue of women's rights was closely associated with abolitionists concerns and other social reforms. After the war, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was passed, including a definition of "citizen" that many activists hoped might be interpreted to extend voting rights to women. However, the 15th Amendment, proposed shortly thereafter, granted Black men the vote but continued to exclude all women. Many dedicated women's rights advocates felt they could not support the amendment. This caused a deep rift within the equal rights movement, with most male and female reformers supporting passage of the 15th Amendment while others opposed it on the grounds that it would make winning the vote for women even more difficult.
Two Themes Emerge
The difference between the two woman suffrage organizations that were formed in 1869 is best summed up by this passage from Eleanor Flexner's book, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Organized by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell and others, "the American Woman Suffrage Association believed that [the vote] could be won only by avoiding issues that were irrelevant and calculated to alienate the support of influential sections of the community. Its leaders had no interest in organizing working women, in criticizing churches, or in the divorce question, certainly as matters of public discussion. While paying only lip service to the principle of a Federal Woman's Suffrage Amendment, they concentrated their practical work for the franchise within the several states." By contrast, the National Woman Suffrage Association, under the leadership of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, "...continued to regard women's rights as a broad cause in which the vote might be of primary importance but other matters were also important."
In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested when she and fifteen other women tested New York laws by voting in a national election. Her trial attracted a great deal of attention, providing an effective means to publicize the cause of women's rights. Anthony, now a well-known figure, spent the following years traveling across the country lecturing and organizing for women's rights and the vote, as did Stanton, Truth, Stone, and others.
Many exhausting campaigns were waged in state referenda elections, with only a few minor victories by the turn of the century. After 20 years of constant pressure on Congress and the continued efforts of both organizations the suffrage movement had gained a great deal of respectability.
During this time, too, differences between the two suffrage organizations diminished, with the more conservative elements of the large and better-organized American Woman Suffrage Association taking priority. In 1890, the two merged to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Still, the next 15 years brought little success for the movement. No new states were won, and the national amendment seemed no closer to passage than when it was first introduced to Congress in 1878. Interest and enthusiasm were at an all-time low.
Alice Paul returned from Britain in 1910 with many new ideas and strategies from observing the British suffrage efforts. Together with Lucy Burns and several other women she took over the NAWSA's Congressional Committee and sparked new life into the issue of a Constitutional Amendment. Within two months the Committee had organized a parade of over 5,000 women to be held the day Woodrow Wilson was to arrive in Washington, D.C. for his presidential inauguration. On that day few were at the train station to greet Wilson. To his surprise, the crowds were all on Pennsylvania Avenue watching the suffragists!
The "Winning Plan"
Several victories in western states gave new life to the state campaigns in the next few years. Under the "Winning Plan" drafted by its president Carrie Chapman Catt, the NAWSA continued to engage in state-by-state campaigns while lobbying President Wilson to support woman suffrage at the federal level. The National Woman's Party, led by Alice Paul, put constant pressure on Wilson and Congress for passage of the suffrage amendment.
During World War I, the National Woman's Party stepped up its efforts to get media attention for the cause. Borrowing tactics from their British sisters, they switched from petitioning to silent picketing of the White House. The anti-Wilson banners they displayed soon attracted hostility from onlookers, and violence against the pickets frequently occurred. Many women were arrested, held illegally, and treated badly in prison. But the pickers showed no signs of letting up, with more women always standing by to take up the banners of their arrested friends.
The NAWSA disapproved of these activities and took great pains to disassociate itself from the National Woman's Party. Nevertheless, the arrests brought embarrassment to Wilson's administration and publicity to the suffrage cause. They are thought by many to be responsible for increased Congressional activity regarding the federal amendment.
A Quiet Victory
On May 20, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the woman suffrage amendment. Many factors were involved. Primary among them was the changing role of women in the workforce during World War I. Their participation brought them a new social position, and made their continued disenfranchisement preposterous.
On June 4, 1919, the Senate finally passed the Amendment. The fight once again shifted to the states, with approval from thirty-six states needed for ratification. Final ratification came with the vote of the Tennessee legislature on August 24, 1920. Two days later, without fanfare, the Secretary of State signed the 19th Amendment into law.
In 1971, at the behest of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), August 26 was first designated as Women's Equality Day, an annual commemoration of the suffrage victory and a reminder of women's continuing efforts for equality.
copyright 1994 National Women's History Project