Although the extension of voting rights to women marked a political victory, it did not bring about the social change that many women’s rights activists had hoped.
In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law. This prohibited the federal government and states from denying people the right to vote because of their gender, thus granting women the right to vote for the first time. This victory for women’s rights was the culmination of a movement that had begun over 70 years earlier.
The Roots of Suffrage
The issue of women’s rights was first brought to the national stage by the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in New York. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, this convention included 260 women and 40 men. One hundred attendees signed the “Declaration of Women’s Rights,” which was closely modeled after the Declaration of Independence. The declaration included a call for female suffrage.
The Seneca Falls Convention led to other movements and helped launch the activist careers of Stanton, Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. The movements addressed various economic (equal pay for equal work), social (the right to divorce, the right to birth control) and political (the right to vote) issues. However most activists agreed that granting women the right to vote should be the first priority because it would ultimately lead to social equality.
National Movements and State Support
When the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870 granting adult black men the right to vote, female activists argued that it should include women as well. In 1872, the Equal Rights Party was organized for the sole purpose of granting women the right to vote. That same year, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for attempting to vote in the presidential election. She lost her plea in court, but her trial helped popularize the movement.
The National Woman Suffrage Association was founded to lobby for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. However the NWSA alienated many mainstream women by supporting other goals that were deemed radical at the time, including access to birth control and more lenient divorce laws. Those alienated from the NWSA formed the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1890, the two groups merged to become a powerful lobby for female suffrage.
Meanwhile western states began granting voting rights to women, beginning with the Wyoming Territory in 1869. Colorado began allowing women to vote in 1893, followed by Utah in 1896. In 1916, Montana elected Jeannette Rankin as the first woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. Many argued that if women could serve in Congress, they should also be allowed to vote.
Progressive Support and Federal Adoption
For many years, women tirelessly lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied and practiced civil disobedience to win the right to vote. As the Progressive movement swept across America in the early 20th century, one of its primary objectives became female suffrage. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, initially formed to push for the prohibition of alcohol, took up the suffrage cause as well.
Women soon comprised a major part of the Progressive movement as they became more politically active. Many female Progressives campaigned for increased government regulation in business, as well as increased health and safety laws. But above all else, they continued pushing for voting rights.
Parades were organized to support female suffrage, and women activists were nicknamed “suffragettes.” The National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, pushed for a constitutional amendment. When the U.S. entered World War I and President Woodrow Wilson declared, “The world must be made safe for democracy,” many suffragettes declared that America was not a democracy as long as women were not allowed to vote.
After suffragettes picketed the White House for nearly a year, Wilson publicly supported granting female suffrage. This prompted Congress to begin the amendment process that led to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. The presidential elections of 1920 marked the first time in U.S. history that women were allowed to cast their ballots.
The Legacy of Female Suffrage
The Nineteenth Amendment was hailed as a major achievement in the struggle for gender equality in America. Having taken over half a century to make it a reality, few early supporters were alive to see the amendment’s ratification. Many expected the amendment to galvanize a push for more social change on behalf of women, but instead it hindered the women’s movement by removing the unifying issue of female suffrage. In addition, many analysts have noted a parallel between the massive increase in government and women’s voting rights since 1920.
In the generations after the amendment’s passage, the gender roles in American society remained relatively static. Smaller women’s groups continued lobbying for equal rights, which culminated in the Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s. However the ERA was not ratified. While the Nineteenth Amendment granted political equality to women, it did not grant the social equality that many supporters had hoped for.
- Schweikart, Larry and Allen, Michael: A Patriot’s History of the United States (New York, NY: Penguin Group, Inc., 2004)
- Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving: The People’s Almanac (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co. Inc., 1975)