Even though women have been an integral part of American society since the beginning of time, they have not always been able to vote and have their voices count politically. The decades-long fight for women’s suffrage was not an easy one, but the campaign to win passage of the 19th Amendment remains a significant political mobilization moment in American history. For Women’s History Month, let’s study the fight for women’s suffrage and the complex history behind the movement.
Start of the Campaign
The battle for women’s right to vote began with a new way of thinking about the role of women in American society. In the decades before the Civil War, as women started to challenge the “Cult of True Womanhood” (the attitude that in order to be a “true” woman, she had to be a pious, submissive wife and mother focused exclusively on the home and family), a new idea of what it meant to be a woman and a citizen in America began to emerge. With that changing and growing sentiment in society, the groundwork for the women’s suffrage movement was laid.
Seneca Falls Convention
In 1848, reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott invited a group of abolitionist activists to a gathering in Seneca Falls, New York. The delegates at the Seneca Falls Convention believed that women should have the right to vote, since women were autonomous individuals who deserved their own political identities.
In the Declaration of Sentiments, the group wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As the first formal women’s rights convention in the United States, the Seneca Falls Convention marked the launch of the women’s suffrage movement.
The Progressive Push for Suffrage
After the Civil War ended and the 14th and 15th Amendment passed, people started to rethink what suffrage and citizenship meant. The 14th Amendment defined “citizens” as “male”, and the 15th Amendment extended the right of vote to Black men. This meant women were still not considered citizens under the U.S. Constitution. In some states, especially in the West, many women were already voting in local and municipal elections. However, there was still no federal law that gave women, regardless of color, the right to vote.
As the suffragists continued to organize, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) formed in 1890, arguing that women deserved the right to vote not because they were equal to men, but precisely because they were different from men. They framed their domesticity as a political virtue so that they could contribute to a more moral “maternal commonwealth.”
In 1916, NAWSA launched a blitz campaign to mobilize local and state suffrage organizations around the country to help win the vote. Another suffragist group, the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul, also used hunger strikes and White House pickets to bring attention to the cause. After World War I, women pointed to the work they did to support the war effort as proof that they were just as patriotic and deserving of true citizenship through the right to vote.
Passage of the 19th Amendment
Susan B. Anthony wrote the text for the 19th Amendment and originally introduced it to Congress in 1878. It wasn’t until 1919 that the federal woman suffrage amendment, which barred discrimination in voting based on sex, was actually passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. On August 18, 1920, the states ratified the amendment to the U.S. Constitution and officially signed it into law, granting women across the country the right to vote. The adoption of the 19th Amendment resulted in the single largest extension of democratic voting rights in American history. On November 2, 1920, more than 8 million women across the United States cast a ballot for the first time.
An Incomplete Victory
Despite its passage, the 19th Amendment did not grant full suffrage to all women. Women of color were still kept away from the polls through Jim Crow tactics. Racial and ethnic discrimination and violence, poll taxes, and literacy tests prevented Black women from exercising their right to vote. The 19th Amendment was at most a hollow victory for Black women and other women of color. It wouldn’t be until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that structural barriers to voting were finally removed and African American women finally had the freedom to vote.
There was also racism and division within the suffrage movement. Some white suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, used racist language to imply that white women were more deserving of the right to vote than African American men. Some leading activists even opposed the 15th Amendment, claiming that the white women’s suffrage should be prioritized over voting rights for all women. The racial divisions often split the women’s suffrage movement into coalitions of white and Black women.
When we think of leaders in the women’s suffrage movement, mostly White women come to mind: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucy Stone, Alice Paul. However, there were many Black woman suffragists who kept the movement going and fought for true equality and freedom to vote for all. Ida B. Well-Barnett, Sojourner Truth, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, and Daisy Elizabeth Adams Lampkin, among many others, all played key roles in the suffrage movement. We should remember the important leadership and contributions of these Black women leaders in fighting for and securing women the right to vote in a movement that is mostly remembered in history from the narratives of white-led organizations.
Protecting the Right to Vote Today
As triumphant as the 19th Amendment was, it’s really just one landmark in the ongoing struggle for equal rights for all citizens. Even with the 19th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many Americans are still experiencing voting suppression and disenfranchisement today. It’s especially important for women to vote in 2022 because abortion access, pay equity, and healthcare are all on the ballot. We’re working to protect our freedom to vote and ensure that every vote is counted. Join the Ohio Voter Rights Coalition to hear updates on the voting landscape in Ohio and how you can take action when the need arises.
You can also join our Election Protection program, which ensures Ohio voters have the information they need in order to cast their ballot. There are many volunteer opportunities available, from being an ambassador to a poll monitor, and each role is critical to empowering voters and creating a more representative democracy, so please consider signing up to participate in these efforts!