August 18, 2020 is the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment which made it illegal to deny citizens of the United States the right to vote on account of sex. For the purposes of this discussion we’ll be defining women as those who are cis-gendered to only focus on the past. We all know we have strides to make as it relates to our folk who exist outside of the binary.
Text of the 19th Amendment
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.
Women’s Suffrage Backstory
Women’s suffrage has existed – in various forms – in societies long before the contemporary movement in Western society started. In the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also known as the Iroquois Nation) female elders had the right to cast deciding votes in their councils. The Tainos society was matrilineal and women rose in ranks as high as caciques (chiefs – not just a poorly named bra line!) and could make decisions for the groups. In Medieval Europe the Catholic Church granted certain head nuns, called abbesses, the ability to sit and vote at national assemblies. Women in Sweden had the conditional right to vote during the Age of Reason from 1718–1772.
In 1756 Lydia Taft was the first legal woman voter in the colony of Massachusetts, she voted on at least three occasions. In what we know as New Jersey women unmarried white women who owned property could vote between 1776 and 1807. During the time when Sierra Leone was a British colony, all heads of households could vote which included ethnic African women. In 1840 the Kingdom of Hawai’i allowed suffrage regardless of sex, however because of a 1852 amendment they stripped rights away from women.
Despite what I was taught, women’s suffrage was not first conceived of in the late 1800s. This was something that existed before that time and had been taken away in a lot of different types of societies in the world. Guess I’m part of today’s lucky 10,000.
Abolition to Suffrage
The roots of the women’s suffrage movement really began in the Abolitionist Movement which started as an American political movement in 1831. Quaker women and their supporters worked alongside enslaved Black people and in 1837 the Anti-Slavery Convention of American women happened. This brought together women who were active in the political sphere in a way not commonly seen at the time. Because of the egalitarian nature of the Quaker religion, it was almost like a two-fer, come for the freedom of enslaved peoples, stay for the tea and discourse on women’s influence in politics.
In 1840, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met in London at the World Anti-Slavery Convention and when they came back to the United States they decided to continue to pursue the cause of Abolition and women’s suffrage hoping to use their voices as upwardly mobile white women to persuade others to the fight. In 1848 the Seneca Falls Convention took place, which was among the first gatherings to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women“.
The first day of the Convention was ladies only, but the second day men were included as well and they passed the Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled after the U.S. Declaration of Independence it stated, in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed […] certain inalienable rights […] that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis mine)
In 1850 the National Woman’s Rights Convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts. This was the first national co-ed gathering where people discussed ideas like equal wages, education, women’s property rights, temperance and women’s suffrage. This was held on an almost annual basis until the Civil War, when most activists turned their focus to Abolition. Not Susan B. Anthony though! She tried fruitlessly to convince fellow activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Lucretia Mott to continue to focus solely on women’s rights, especially women’s suffrage, but was not successful.
Let’s take a moment to take a broader look at the lives of BIPOC people in the United States during this time as well as this informs the white women’s suffrage movement and the ambivalence BIPOC felt for the 19th Amendment.
For Black folk the situation was varied, but in an almost universally bad way. In 1857 the Scott v. Sanford decision came down from the United States Supreme Court. Dred Scott, an enslaved man born in the United States filed suit in Missouri court for his freedom claiming that his residence in free territory made him a free man. The majority held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be an American citizen and therefore did not have standing to sue in federal court.
This decision was monumentally important because, among other things, it meant that because enslaved people weren’t citizens, they weren’t protected by any rights granted under the Constitution. The ripple effects of this case led to Abraham Lincoln taking office, the North becoming worried about the disproportionate impact that the Southern states had in the government (most of the Supreme Court judges on this particular bench were pro-enslavement) and set the pieces in motion for the Civil War.
The story for Native Americans was equally horrifying. In 1851 Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act which created the reservation system and forcibly moved Native peoples to live on lands that were not their own and prohibited them from leaving said land without previous permission. In a stunning sequel in 1871 Congress passed another Indian Appropriations Act which stated that the United States no longer recognized any Native nations as independent nations. This also directed all states, governmental agencies, etc. to treat Native people as individuals (instead of citizens of an independent state) and further designated Native peoples as “wards” of the federal government and not citizens of the United States.
For Latinx and Asian people the thread is a bit more nebulous. Most demographic data coded people as either White or Black. So depending on how you presented to others, you could be a Mexican who became a United States citizen because of the annexation of Texas as a state in 1845 and be white. Or you could be a Chinese immigrant in California in 1850 who was coded as white. Similarly, you could be a Karankawa from what is now known as Corpus Christi, TX and could be coded as Black, it was a capricious categorization of people that led to us having an incomplete picture of what was going on for Latinx and Asian people during this time.
Civil War and Beyond
After the Civil War is when the women’s suffrage movement got spicy. In 1865 the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment was ratified. This amendment ended slavery, except for those drafted into military service and as a punishment for crimes (please see the entire prison-industrial complex). While this put something in the rule books, it didn’t mean much to formerly enslaved in the South because persistent discrimination effectively kept them as second class citizens. In 1866 the American Equal Rights Association was founded by Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The goal of the AERA was to get white women and Black men the right to vote.
In 1868 the 14th Amendment was ratified. This created birthright citizenship in the United States and made Black people, but not Native Americans, citizens of the United States. This overturned the heinous Dred Scott decision and expanded the civil and legal rights of citizens by protecting them from infringement by the states as well as the federal government. The next amendment that was being introduced and discussed in Congress was the 15th Amendment and this is where the Abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements are starting to have fraught discussions about the intersection of race and sex and who “matters” more. Notably, but perhaps unsurprisingly, all conversations excluded BIPOC women in their entirety. Sojourner Truth commented on this in 1867:
“I feel that I have the right to have just as much as a man. There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored women; and if colored men get their rights, and colored women not theirs, the colored men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as it was before.”
In May 1869, Frederick Douglass argued that the AERA should support the ratification of the 15th Amendment and in response Susan B. Anthony claimed “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work or demand the ballot for the Negro and not the woman.” Hard pass.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton also read a speech peppered with racist stereotypes about formerly enslaved Black men, immigrants, just….everyone.
“Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a monarchy and a republic, who cannot read the Declaration of Independence or Webster’s spelling book, making laws for…Susan B. Anthony,” she said at the convention. “[The amendment] creates an antagonism everywhere between educated, refined women and the lower orders of men, especially in the South.” (Emphasis mine)
This outright racism caused the AERA to split into two different groups. Anthony, Stanton and others formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) with the goal of expanding the vote to only white women through federal legislation. Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe and Henry Blackwell formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) which focused on a state-by-state approach for women’s suffrage and didn’t object to the passage of the 15th Amendment.
Supreme Court Break
In 1872 a member of the NWSA, Virginia Minor, went to register to vote in Missouri. She was predictably denied and Minor sued the ward registrar, Reese Happersett, in the St. Louis Circuit court, the same court that decided Dred v. Scott before it went to the US Supreme Court, what’s up Missouri!?
In Minor v. Happersett Minor argued that the state was prohibiting her from voting which was her right based on the 14th Amendment. The Missouri Supreme Court argued that the purpose of the 14th Amendment was meant to extend voting rights to the newly freed slaves, giving Black people “the right to vote and thus protect themselves against oppression….” The court continued by saying that “There could have been no intention [in the amendment] to abridge the power of the States to limit the right of suffrage to the male inhabitants.” This was quickly appealed by Happersett to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a unanimous decision the The Supreme Court stated that the “…Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone,” because suffrage was not coexistent with citizenship. This left it to the states to decide who could and couldn’t be excluded from voting by themselves and did not, like the Minors and countless women across the nation hoped, consider the ability to vote part and parcel of citizenship in the United States.
Temperance Movement & Other Endorsements
“Moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.” was the guiding principle of the women (and men) involved in the temperance movement. Frances Williard became president in 1879 and was intersectional before we had a word for it. They perceived alcohol as a cause and consequence of larger social problems rather than as a personal weakness or failing and with Frances at the helm the motto of the WCTU became “do everything”. What did that mean practically? It meant that they saw all reform as inter-connected and that the social problems that impacted society were not singular issues that could be separated from the larger tapestry of life. In 1868 the WCTU delivered a petition with 200,000 signatures to Congress of people who were in favor of universal suffrage.
The WCTU was instrumental in passing the 18th Amendment and was one of the first organizations to keep a lobbyist in Washington D.C full time. When they turned their considerable power towards women’s suffrage it was not something to be scoffed at. Soon after, other large organizations like the Grange (a farmer’s organization) and the American Federation of Labor formally endorsed women’s suffrage and submitted petitions to Congress in support of the universal suffrage.
As it related to race, the WCTU advocated for Black and White Unions but one of the members, Amelia Bloomer, campaigned against racism within the movement (what an accomplice), and some Black women did eventually get positions of prominence. Frances Harper, a poet and social activist, was effective at recruiting Black women to the cause and was eventually appointed to a position of leadership within the national office.
In 1878 the text of what would become the 19th Amendment was submitted to Congress by Senator Aaron A. Sargent a Republican from California. He was a women’s suffrage advocate who used his privilege as a white male to help the cause. This allowed Stanton and other women to formally testify in front of the Senate committee where it was being considered for its approval. Sadly, it sat in committee until 1887 and then died when it was brought to the Senate for a full vote (16 for, 34 against) but the language that was submitted by Senator Sargent was substantially the same as what was eventually ratified. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it amirite?
Reconciliation and the Dawn of a New Century
By the 1890s the scene before both members of the AWSA and the NWSA brought forth the stark reality that they would need to, once again, combine forces to bring this over the finish line. After what I imagine was some intense brokering, the AWSA and NWSA merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Black women realized that there wasn’t enough space for them at the table and decided to make their own club in 1896, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Frances E.W. Harper, Josephine St. Pierre, Harriet Tubman, and Ida B. Wells Barnett were founding members. While Black men had the right to vote, Jim Crow laws, segregation in the South, and hurdles to the ballot effectively made the 15th Amendment moot. When challenged in the Supreme Court via the case Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court found that segregation didn’t violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. NACW argued that by giving Black women the right to vote, they could use their collective power to uplift the Black community as a whole.
In 1900 Carrie Chapman Catt succeeded Susan B. Anthony as the president of NAWSA and instituted the “Winning Plan” for women’s suffrage. She had a federal and state strategy that included action on multiple levels. Stalled at the federal level, NAWSA planned a women’s suffrage parade on Washington D.C. in 1913 and she faced resistance from younger recruits like Alice Paul and Lucy Stone who wanted to use more militant methods to gain suffrage. Paul and Stone eventually split off and created the National Women’s Party where they picketed the White House during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, they were called the Silent Sentinels.
The women’s suffrage parade gathered Native women, Black women, and Asian women together with white women and participants were estimated at between 5-10 thousand participants. Before the parade even began there were white women saying “Ewww, I don’t want to march next to Black women.” and then there was Ida B. Wells Barnett who told them all essentially to kiss her ass, because she was marching with her state and she wasn’t going to get relegated to the back of the parade. The crowd was estimated at somewhere around 500,000 people and some of the men along the route were vicious and beat, harassed, intimidated, and participated in general fuckery with the women marching and the police did – shockingly – nothing to stop them.
World War I and Ratification
In 1914 America joined World War I and some in the women’s suffrage movement used the influx of women joining the workforce to argue that these women who were in visible roles like mechanics, ambulance drivers, nurses, etc., were clearly deserving of the right to vote. Other groups like the National Women’s Party used the war to say that it was ironic that women were living in a country which fought for democracy abroad, but couldn’t give half of its population a voice to participate in democracy at home.
In 1917 Senator Sargent reintroduced the 19th Amendment again (his third time) and the following year the Woodrow Wilson faced a difficult midterm election where he would have to tackle women’s suffrage head on. He was swayed on the issue and appeared to support it (he knew where his bread was buttered) and actually addressed the Senate about it directly. He used the fact that women were in the labor force for the war as justification for this amendment. Between 1918 and 1919 the amendment was voted on and defeated five times. Finally in June of 1919, Southern Democrats abandoned a planned filibuster of the amendment and it passed in the Senate with 56 voting for and 25 against.
Once it was passed in the Senate it was time for the states to ratify the amendment (for how the Constitution gets amended and why it’s so difficult, please listen to this handy explanation). NAWSA and NWP got on it immediately and within a few days, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan ratified the 19th Amendment because their state legislatures were still in session. Predictable southern states proved the most difficult to get to ratify the amendment as they tied issues of the vote to race. They didn’t want Black women to vote and then empower Black men to vote. They relied on their state sanctioned racism to ensure that whites remained in positions of power and anything that threatened that was anathema. It finally came down to Tennessee, who finally ratified the 19th amendment on August 18, 1920 and white women were given the freedom to vote in every election since.
Post-Ratification to Today
Native Americans didn’t receive the right to vote until 1924 when President Calvin Coolidge passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 finally conferred citizenship rights to Native Americans but only if they denied their tribal citizenship. The point of the law was cultural genocide and forced assimilation. It wasn’t until 1948 when Miguel Trujillo, Sr. a former Marine who fought in World War II sued New Mexico for not allowing him to register to vote. New Mexico’s state constitution barred Native Americans who lived on reservations from voting. Trujillo won his case and created a precedent to sue to get the right to vote. This did not stop states from instituting other laws and requirements that continue to bar and/or restrict Native Americans from voting.
Black, Asian and (some) Latinx people were systematically disenfranchised until the 24th Amendment stated that the ability to vote could not be “denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax”. This was bolstered by the Black women led Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 through Shelby County v. Holder which has led to more restrictive voting requirements and voter suppression in the form of voter ID laws and signature match laws.
Puerto Rican women were given the right to vote in 1929, but it was limited to only literate women until 1935. There is also the issue of bilingual voting material which was not provided in a substantial way until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Additionally Latinx women on the mainland faced harassment, intimidation and poll taxes similar to their Black counterparts.
Asian women faced barriers because of national immigration laws which prevented them from obtaining citizenship in this country. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act) in part, eliminated barriers that were set up to exclude Asian-American and Pacific Islander immigration to the United States and eliminated laws preventing Asians from becoming naturalized American citizens. However voter suppression and dilution like gerrymandering aim to once again restrict the voices of the people and ensure that certain demographics – *cough*white men*cough* – are kept in power.
- This is an abridged history and you should definitely read more about it. I learned things writing this that I never knew before and I consider myself fairly “awake” as The Youth™ say.
- White Suffragists do not deserve your undying devotion and adoration.
- BIPOC women fought just as hard and for longer for their vote and voice.
- Women’s suffrage is not static. We didn’t get it in 1920 and that’s it. Be sure you’re politically engaged and looking at the laws in YOUR area that are attempting to restrict the vote and ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is most impacted by this, seemingly, benign laws?
- What are BIPOC organizations saying about this law?
- Who isn’t involved in the conversation at all and how can you lift up their voice?
- Vote in the 2020 election and make sure that all the work our foremothers put forth was not in vain. Just don’t give Susan B. Anthony’s tombstone your “I Voted” stickers, ok? Unless you’re a white lady than I guess, go off?
Resources for More Information