OTD in History… August 18, 1920, Women finally get the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, a week later on August 26, the ratification was certified. The Amendment declared, “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.” and “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” After over 70 years, the women’s suffrage movement achieved their goal. The fight began with the first women’s rights convention in 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention. There Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott’s convention of 200 women declared in the “Declaration of Sentiments, Grievances, and Resolutions” in a resolution “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
Two years later in 1850, the first national women’s rights convention convened reiterating the importance of suffrage not only political equality but also economic equality and other social reforms. At the convention, Stanton met Susan B. Anthony; together they would work to acquire for women the right to vote. In 1869, Anthony and Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association hoping to push suffrage as a Constitutional right. Another suffrage organization was founded the same year when Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe formed the American Woman Suffrage Association hoping to push suffrage legislation through the states. In 1890, the two organizations merged to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
During Reconstruction, the ratification of the 15th amendment to Constitution granting voting rights to African American men upset the nascent women suffrage movement as it refuses to grant universal suffrage and it is the first time the constitution mentions explicitly states males have the right to vote. In 1865, Stanton and Anthony circulated the “Petition for Universal Suffrage.” The petition demanded a Constitutional amendment to “prohibit the several states from disenfranchising any of their citizens on the ground of sex.” In 1871, the future first woman to run for president, Victoria Woodhull speaks in front of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives arguing women should be granted the right to vote, to which they respond negatively.
Since Congress would not grant women the right to vote, members of the movement hoped to push the issue to lead it down a path where the Supreme Court would decide and grant women the right to vote. In 1872, Susan B. Anthony registers to vote in Rochester, New York only to be arrested days later. Her trial is a shambles where the judge did not allow her to testify, dismissed the jury and fined her $100. In 1875, a case of women’s suffrage finally appeared in front of the Supreme Court with Minor v. Happersett. Virginia Minor was a suffrage leader in Missouri, who also attempted to register to vote in October 1872, the registrar refuses her application citing the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. Minor’s husband Francis decided to sue the registrar, the case went up to the Supreme Court. The court ruled against Minor that the 14th Amendment on citizenship does guarantee the right to vote.
Women’s suffrage had more advances in the states. Victories came early on in new states entering the Union, and by 1896, women had the vote in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, and Utah. First, in 1869, the Wyoming territory grants the right to vote to women, the next year the Utah territory grants women the right to vote, and in 1883, the Washington Territory gave women the vote. In 1890, Wyoming granted the vote when they became a state. In 1910 and 1912, Washington and California respectively granted women the vote. With a referendum in Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon in 1912, those states joined in granting women the right to vote. In 1914, Montana and Nevada were added to growing list of states, with New York granting the vote in 1915. Sixteen states gave women the vote before the 19th amendment was ratified.
For the 1876 centennial celebration in Philadelphia, Stanton wrote a Declaration and Protest of the Women of the United States to give women’s suffrage a national stage, but she was denied to deliver it, instead, she and four others charged on the stage and handed it to then Vice-President Thomas W. Ferry. In 1888, Congress first considered granting the vote to particular women, “spinsters or widows” who owned property. Even as the leadership of the movement passed to the next generation, staging protests were the method used to gain national attention. In 1910, Harriet Stanton Blatch, Stanton’s daughter formed a new organization the Women’s Political Union, they stage their first suffrage parade in 1910 in New York City.
By the teens, Alice Paul becomes a leading advocate, focusing on civil disobedience to gain attention for the movement. J. D. Zahniser and Amelia R. Fry in their biography Alice Paul: Claiming Power, claim Paul “became the soul and guiding spirit of the final years of the American suffrage movement, transforming that long-standing struggle with bold and controversial action. She raised the constitutional campaign for women’s enfranchisement to national prominence and publicly held politicians’ feet to the fire, obliging other suffragists and lawmakers to reshape their postures. She captured the narrative of the American movement and, in today’s parlance, made suffrage “cool,” at least for the young and the young at heart. Thus, she drove the final campaign to win the vote for women.” (Zahniser and Fry, 11)
In 1913, Paul helms another protest the Woman Suffrage Procession on the same day of Progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in front of the White House. In 1914, Paul and Lucy Burns form the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage specifically to campaign for a Constitutional amendment that would grant the vote to women. In 1917, Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage merged with the Woman’s Party forming the National Woman’s Party, who tactics to obtain the vote becomes more militant. The party had only 50,000 and faced opposition from the much larger the National American Woman Suffrage Association and leader Carrie Chapman Catt, who found their tactics detrimental to their cause and thought suffrage rights should be won first in the states, she had successfully advocated and fought for the vote in New York. Catt had the NAWSA support the war effort, and the organization and its two million members appeared patriotic.
Starting in 1917, the National Woman’s Party started the Silent Sentinels protests in front of Woodrow Wilson’s White House. The women would hold banners in front of the White House in silent protest. Among some of the quotes included, “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” Some were longer including, “We shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts — for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.” The banners often included Wilson’s quotes against him, and taunted him even calling him “Kaiser Wilson.”
The protest led to multiple arrests, where the women were mistreated when arrested. On June 25, 1917, the police arrested 12 of the protesters for obstructing traffic, and then on July 14 16 women were arrested, both times the women chose jail time over a fine, and they were sent Occoquan Workhouse, where they encountered deplorable conditions, food, sanitation, and treatment. President Wilson pardoned the women after three days in jail, despite their objections they did nothing wrong and did need any pardon.
In October 1917, Alice Paul was arrested for carrying a banner that read, “The time has come to conquer or submit, for us, there can be but one choice. We have made it.” Paul and the other suffragists were sent for longer sentences back to Occoquan Workhouse, where Paul was put in solidarity confinement, when she became ill and taken to the prison hospital she began a hunger strike and some of the other women also joined. The guards responded by force-feeding the women. The worst, however, occurred on November 14, 1917, the “Night of Terror”, where guards grabbed, dragged, beat, choked, pinched, and kicked”the suffragists.
The nightmare the women endured reached the newspapers, angering the public but also helped gain support for the movement. Their cause gained the attention of the House of Representatives, in September 1917 formed a special committee to deal with women’s suffrage legislation. On January 9, 1918, during his State of the Union Address, President Wilson expressed support for an amendment to the Constitution granting women the vote. Congress proposed the amendment the next day.
The House based the amendment on a draft Senator Aaron A. Sargent originally introduced in Congress in 1878. Sargent met Anthony on a train in 1872 and then worked to include legislation that would help women’s position. He formally introduced the amendment in January 1878, but it stalled in the committee stage, in 1888, the Senate finally voted and rejected the amendment. The amendment passed the House but despite Wilson’s pleading, the Senate balked, and it failed to pass by two votes on September 30, 1918. Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party again took action urging the public to support and vote in only pro-suffrage Senators in the 1918 midterm election. Paul’s plan worked and the new Congress had a pro-suffrage majority. Wilson was worried that if the amendment would not pass before the 1920 election, it would affect them and the chance for a Democrat to keep the presidency.
President called a special session of Congress to convince them to pass. On May 21, 1919, the House again passed the amendment and on June 4, it finally passed the Senate going to the ratification process. Thirty-six states needed to ratify the amendment, Southern Democrats opposed the amendment and were reluctant, and Tennessee just ratified the amendment before the deadline by one vote, giving it the states needed for ratification. The debate, however, remains as to which suffrage leader had the most influence, Carrie Chapman Catt, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association or Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party. Women were finally able to vote in the 1920 election giving them the first step towards equality something they are still striving to achieve nearly a hundred years later.
Nearly a century after acquiring the vote the heroes of the suffrage movement are still not as well known as male historical figures. Historian Eleanor Flexner lamented the historical void in her book Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (1975), writing, “The achievement of the vote for women was extraordinarily difficult, infinitely more so than most people realize, since those who ought to have included it in the history of this country simply obliterated the whole story.” With the rise of women studies and social history, historians are now examining the overlooked suffrage movement. As Robert Cooney, the author of Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement, explains, “A new look at the American woman suffrage movement reveals an entity far different from any popular conception… It was an active, controversial, multi-faceted, challenging, passionate movement of the best and brightest women in America, from all backgrounds, who, in modern parlance, boldly went where no woman had ever gone before.” Feeling the goal for women still had not been reached, Alice Paul worked the rest of her life advocating for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, that passed Congress but failed the ratification process, until then women have not achieved the equality they have been seeking 1848.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Cooney, Robert P. J. Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement. Santa Cruz (Calif.: American Graphic Press, 2005.
Flexner, Eleanor. Century of the Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.
Zahniser, Jill D, and Amelia R. Fry. Alice Paul: Claiming Power. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.