It took 144 years after Independence. But on August 26, 1920–90 years ago– the “other half” of the country got their rights. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution, giving women the vote, was declared in effect on this date by the Secretary of State. The Amendment had actually been ratified earlier in the month when Tennessee gave its approval on August 18, 1920.
Here’s a quick history of the movement from Don’t Know Much About History
Who were the suffragists?
Women in America always endured plenty of suffering. What they lacked was “suffrage” (from the Latin suffragium for “vote”).
American women as far back as Abigail Adams—who admonished her husband John to “Remember the Ladies” when he went off to declare independence—had consistently pressed for voting rights, but just as consistently had been shut out. It was not for lack of trying. But women were fighting against the enormous odds of church, Constitution, an all-male power structure that held fast to its reins, and many of their own who believed in a woman’s divinely ordained, second-place role.
But in the nineteenth century, more women were pressed to work, and were also a strong force in the abolitionist movement, with Harriet Beecher Stowe attracting the most prominence. But to many male abolitionists, the “moral” imperative to free black men and give them the vote carried much greater weight than the somewhat blasphemous notion of equality of the sexes.
In fact, it was exclusion of women from an abolitionist gathering that sparked the first formal organization for women’s rights. The birth of the women’s movement in America dates to July 19, 1848, when Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Lucretia Mott (1793–1880) called for a women’s convention in Seneca Falls, New York, after they had been told to sit in the balcony at a London antislavery meeting.
With the Civil War’s end, abolition lost its steam as a moral issue and women pressed to be included under the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended the vote to black males. But again women had to wait as politicians told them that the freed slaves took priority, a stand with which some women of the day agreed, creating a split in the feminist movement over goals and tactics. Hardliners followed Stanton into the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA); moderates willing to wait for black male suffrage started the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), leaving a rift that lasted twenty years.
Amelia Bloomer (1818–94) didn’t invent the pantaloons that bore her name, but she popularized them in her newspaper, The Lily, a journal preaching temperance as well as equality.
Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), called “the Napoleon of women’s rights,” came from the same Quaker-abolitionist-temperance background as Stanton, and the two women became friends and powerful allies, founding the NWSA together. A forceful and tireless organizer and lobbyist, she pushed for local reforms in her home state of New York while continuing to urge the vote for women at the national level.
In the early 20th century, American suffragists took a new direction, borrowed from their British counterparts. The British “suffragettes” had been using far more radical means to win the vote. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst, British suffragettes chained themselves to buildings, invaded Parliament, blew up mailboxes, and burned buildings. Imprisoned for these actions, the women called themselves “political prisoners” and went on hunger strikes that were met with force-feedings. The cruelty of this official response was significant in attracting public sympathy for the suffragette cause.
These militant tactics were brought back to America by women who had marched with the British. Alice Paul (1885–1977) was another Quaker-raised woman who studied in England and had joined the Pankhurst-led demonstrations in London. At the 1913 inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, who opposed the vote for women, Paul organized a demonstration of 10,000. Her strategy was to hold the party in power—the Democrats in this case—responsible for denying women the vote.
President Wilson’s views were also dictated by politics. He needed to hold on to the support of the Democratic South. That meant opposing women’s voting. Southern Democrats were successfully keeping black men from voting; they certainly didn’t want to worry about black women as well.
After Wilson’s 1916 reelection, in which women in some states had voted against him two to one, the protest was taken to Wilson’s doorstep as women began to picket around the clock outside the White House. Eventually imprisoned, Paul and others imitated the British tactic of hunger strikes.
In 1918, Paul’s political tactics paid off as a Republican Congress was elected. Among them was Montana’s Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973), the first woman elected to Congress. Rankin’s first act was to introduce a constitutional suffrage amendment on the House floor. The amendment was approved by a one-vote margin. It took the Senate another eighteen months to pass it, and in June 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment was submitted to the states for ratification. Now fearful of the women’s vote in the approaching presidential election, Wilson shifted to support of the measure. One year later, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee delivered the last needed vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution. (Declared in effect on August 26) It stated simply that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
It took more than 130 years, but “We, the People” finally included the half of the country that had been kept out the longest.