Less than one hundred years ago, women were not allowed the right to vote. Married women could not own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn. Women were expected to focus on housework and motherhood, not politics.
The campaign for women’s suffrage was a small but growing movement in the years before the Civil War. Starting in the 1820s, various reform groups flourished across the United States. Many American women were resisting the notion that the ideal woman was a reverent, submissive wife and mother concerned solely with life at home. This resistance morphed into a new mindset of what it meant to be a woman and a citizen in the United States.
The first women's rights convention was held in the United States in Seneca Falls, New York on July 1848 with 240 woman suffragists in attendance. The idea for the convention came about during discussion among Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and three other women over tea. Many participants at the convention signed a "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions" that outlined the main issues and goals for the emerging women's movement. Following the convention, the demand for voting became a focal point of the movement and women's rights meetings were held on a regular basis. For the next 50 years, activists and supporters worked to educate the public about the validity of woman suffrage.
The American Civil War impeded suffrage momentum from 1861 to 1865 as women, North and South, diverted their energy to "war work." This served as valuable training experience for women to gain crucial organizational and occupational skills to use after the war. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony got things moving again in 1866 by forming the American Equal Rights Association, an organization for white women and African Americans dedicated to the goal of universal suffrage. Stanton and Anthony, along with Lucretia Mott and other activists, continued to raise public awareness and lobbied the government to grant voting rights to women. These efforts started opening the floor to other activists in the women’s movement towards equality.
The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868, which extended the protections of the Constitution against unjust state laws to all citizens. This Amendment was the first to define "citizens" and "voters" as "male." Stanton and some of the other suffrage leaders objected to the proposed 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would give black men the right to vote without extending the same privilege to American women of any skin color. With the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870, a politically organized African-American community joined with white allies in the Southern states to elect the Republican Party to power, bringing radical changes to the South. Women, and African Americans, persisted to have their voice heard across the nation, despite the nullification of the 15th Amendment.
Susan B. Anthony was arrested in 1872 and brought to trial in Rochester, New York, for attempting to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election. At the same time, Sojourner Truth appeared at a polling booth in Grand Rapids, Michigan, demanding a ballot only to be turned away.
Meanwhile, Lawyer Belva Ann Lockwood is denied permission to practice law before the Supreme Court. Lockwood spent three years pushing legislation that enabled women to practice before the Court and become the first woman to do so in 1879.
Through the efforts of many early activists, a Women’s Suffrage Amendment was finally introduced in the United States Congress in the late 1800’s. The wording was left unchanged until 1919, when the amendment finally passed through both houses. At the turn of the century, women reformers in the club movement and in the settlement house movement wanted to pass reform legislation. However, many politicians were unwilling to listen to a disqualified group. Women began to realize that in order to achieve reform, they needed to win the right to vote.
The woman's suffrage movement became a mass movement at this point, passing leadership to two organizations. The first, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Carrie Chapman Catt, was a moderate organization. The NAWSA undertook campaigns to liberate women in individual states, and simultaneously lobbied President Wilson and Congress to pass a women's suffrage Constitutional Amendment. In the 1910s, NAWSA’s membership numbered in the millions. The second group, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), under the leadership of Alice Paul, was a more militant organization. The NWP undertook radical actions, including picketing the White House, in order to convince Wilson and Congress to pass a women's suffrage amendment.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Republican Party becomes the first national political party to adopt a woman suffrage principle. The following year, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns organize the Congressional Union, later becoming the National Women's Party in 1916. Using radical tactics, members of the Woman's Party participated in hunger strikes and engaged in forms of civil disobedience to bring attention to the suffrage cause.
On March 3, 1913, members of the Congressional Union organized a suffrage parade, strategically scheduling it the day before President Wilson's inauguration. Not all parade observers were suffrage supporters and hostile members of the crowd insulted the marching women. As planned, the publicity resulting from this incident provided further momentum for the suffrage campaign.
The National Federation of Women's Clubs, which by this time included more than two million women throughout the United States, formally endorsed the suffrage campaign in 1914. Just a couple of years later, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first American woman elected to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives. A suffrage petition signed by more than a million women in 1917 signaled the determination of the women of New York to gain the vote. The suffrage measure won by a margin of 100,000 votes in New York City and broke even in the rest of the state.
The onset of the First World War slowed movement efforts as many suffragists decided to shelve their activism and go back to work in support of their country. This decision served as a useful platform for women to validate the right to vote as an American citizen. President Wilson finally addressed the Senate personally, arguing for women's suffrage at the war's end in September, 1918. This is largely believed to be what catapulted women to the reform they were seeking.
After nearly a century of protest, in May and June of 1919, the Nineteenth Amendment passes both House and Senate in a special session and went to the states for ratification. Following ratification by the necessary thirty-six states, the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted on August 26, 1920, stating “the rights 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.” This victory is considered to be one of the most significant achievements of women in the Progressive Era. It was the single largest exercise of democratic voting rights in our nation’s history, and it was achieved peacefully, through democratic processes. Women had finally been heard and could continue to have a voice as citizens.
This is the reason for celebrating Women’s Equality Day on the 26th of every August.
While the battle for women’s suffrage was won, the fight for equality was just beginning. Women’s suffrage has been achieved at various times in countries throughout the world. In many nations, women's suffrage was granted before universal suffrage, so women and men from certain classes or races were still unable to vote due to non-citizenship or suppression laws. Women’s suffrage was only the beginning of the journey towards total equality, something that our society is still working towards almost a century later. The right to vote was fiercely fought for by so many and remains the single best way to elicit change.