The 19th Amendment, however, was the first federal piece of legislation that guaranteed women the right to vote everywhere in the US. At the time, it’s passage was not guaranteed – as we will discuss in this episode – and was the result of tireless, radical, and controversial work of suffragists. The women who led these movements had to mobilize a nation of other women to support an initiative that was quite radical in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – and after 1875, they had to convince women and men that women’s suffrage was in everyone’s best interest. Their tactics were sometimes militant, sometimes conservative, and often national in scale, and it’s thanks to them that the women of the United States can walk into their polling places this November and cast their votes for our next President.
Elizabeth: 100 years ago, the United States passed the 19th Amendment, which declares: “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.” Women had been granted the right to vote in a number of states, notably, in the westernmost states first, a trend that moved eastward. Notably, in 1776 at its founding, New Jersey gave voting rights to “all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds … and have resided within the county … for twelve months.” That language didn’t exclude women, and so women voted. Then, in 1790, the law was revised to explicitly say “he or she,” clarifying that both men and women had voting rights. But then in 1807, the Democratic-Republicans passed a law restricting the vote to only tax-paying, white male citizens. Women often voted for the opposing Federalist Party, so taking away women’s voting rights helped the Democratic-Republicans establish a stronger political advantage in Jersey. This law also took voting rights away from African Americans.
Averill: When the suffrage movements took hold in the 19th century, the suffragists had success first on a state by state basis. The first in that new wave of suffrage laws was Colorado (1893), followed by Utah & Idaho in 1896, Washington in 1910, California in 1911, then Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona in 1912, and then Montana & Nevada in 1914, before the US entered WW1.
Elizabeth: The 19th Amendment, however, was the first federal piece of legislation that guaranteed women the right to vote everywhere in the US. At the time, it’s passage was not guaranteed – as we will discuss in this episode – and was the result of tireless, radical, and controversial work of suffragists. The women who led these movements had to mobilize a nation of other women to support an initiative that was quite radical in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The state-by-state passage of suffrage laws from west to east was indicative of how radical people in this period thought of women voting.
And I’m Averill
And we are your historians for this episode of Dig
Averill: We want to give a special thanks to our newest “auger”-level Patrons, Maddie and Ann! Welcome Maddie and Ann, you’re both amazing, wonderful, THE BEST!
Elizabeth: We decided to kick off 2020 with an episode celebrating women’s suffrage in the US —
Averill: With a little world history sprinkled in!
Elizabeth: Followed by a few revamped old favorites from our previous podcasting project. Though they’re not as easily tied together as previous series, I’m sure you, dear listeners, will see their implicit and explicit connections anyway. We are historians of sex and gender, bodies and medicine, race and imperialism — and as a kick off to a new year, a year in which we will release our 100th episode, in which I will complete my degree to become the 4th PhD on this show, and we can all celebrate the 19th Amendment with an election in November – GET OUT THE VOTE, LADIES!! – it felt quite all right to have a hodge podge series to kick it all off.
Averill: Indeed, and today is grand because we’ve joined a fabulous new community of educational podcasters at a little group called Lyceum, an offshoot of our friends at Himalaya, which we’ll be telling you more about in the coming month. Be sure to follow us on Twitter & or Facebook for the fabulous news on that front!
Elizabeth: National ‘democracy’ as we know it now is very much a modern invention; particularly in European and European colonies, most states were monarchies until the 19th century. While there was ‘democracy’ and elected officials at local or regional levels, the idea of a large nation-state republic was really floated as an idea in the 18th century, starting in Europe and the American colonies.
Averill: While these republics were being envisioned, and then revolutions were launched to found said republics in France, Haiti, the American colonies, etc., one of the most important questions asked was, who would be a citizen of these republics? Who would be a voter, and have a say in how things went? Europe was patriarchal, and most Europeans saw the world in pretty rigid, male-dominated social hierarchies, with one man at the head of all levels of life – the government, the church, the family. Generally, ideas about citizenship in places like the American colonies and Britain were further limited by class and race standards as well as gender. But many, men and women, challenged those norms from very early on, and had been challenging them even before “Republic” entered the public lexicon.
Elizabeth: Still, when these democracies were established, many of the traditions of previous eras – including a property-owning, white, male-centered conceptualization of citizenship – dominated the ‘new’ systems. And Europeans exported this model wherever they went and established colonies. A few early democracies extended the vote to women early on. In 1718 Sweden, tax paying guild members were permitted to vote — and that included tax-paying guild women. That right was rescinded, however, in 1772. The Corsica Diet passed a law allowing women to vote in 1755, but that was rescinded in 1769, when the French annexed Corsica.
Averill: These conversations about citizenship and gender – and the folks who championed the inclusion of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups, in the boundaries of citizenship – continued from the earliest republican conversations and revolutions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Though the circumstances were different in each case, Sweden and Corsica evidence that women’s right to vote was undercut by anti-Enlightenment debates and sentiments. In the US, the 19th century ideals of Victorian public and private spheres worked against the idea that women should even be able to vote.
Averill: After the American Civil War, woman suffrage supporters organized the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) in 1866. The debates over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments caused a major split in the coalition of white woman’s rights advocates aligned with proponents of voting rights for Black men. The woman’s rights and abolitionist movements had been closely tied, almost one in the same since the early nineteenth century. For example, Frederick Douglass was one of the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments at the 1848 Seneca Falls women’s rights convention, and women’s suffrage advocates like Elizabeth Cady Stanton began their careers as abolitionists. So they had deep ties to one another. But, the debates over these two constitutional amendments pitted votes for women against votes for Black men.
Elizabeth: The first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment provided an expanded definition of national citizenship – a philosophical expansion of who was included in “We the People.” The amendment extended citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States” and decreed that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Basically, this is a “natural rights” argument, meaning that if the amendment passed with this language alone, all citizens of the United States would have equal rights, including women.
Averill: And of course that could never be! How on earth would the republic survive if women with all of their lady bits were allowed to vote? It would be total anarchy! [sarcasm] So to make the amendment passable, section 2 was written to only protect the voting rights of “male inhabitants.” In fact, the amendment was the first time that “male” was inserted into the Constitution at all. Section 2 overrode the three-fifth clause in the Constitution but in so doing, qualified the words “inhabitants” and “citizens” with the male sex. Then, the Fifteenth Amendment declared that states could not deny the right to vote based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” – the amendment did not mention sex. These were deliberate insertions and omissions and led to fierce debates among advocates for women’s suffrage.
Elizabeth: Though many suffragists were part of the abolitionist movement to end slavery, they were not immune to racial prejudice. Elizabeth Cady Stanton claimed: “it’s better to be the slave of an educated white man than of a degraded black one,” arguing that Black men would be “despotic” if granted the vote. Though Susan B. Anthony believed in universal suffrage, she felt that if only one group were to be given the vote it should be white women. She infamously stated that she would rather “cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the negro and not the woman.” In 1869, Stanton and Anthony split with others in the women’s rights movement and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association whose sole focus was the immediate voting rights for women.
Averill: Others, led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, which continued to support suffrage for Black men with the understanding that the vote for women would come next.
Elizabeth: The two women’s suffrage organizations did not join forces again until 1890, when they combined to form The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Averill: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and other woman suffragists tried a new legal strategy they called “the New Departure.” They argued that by its very nature, citizenship conferred the right to vote on men and women alike.
Elizabeth: In 1872 hundreds, maybe even thousands, of women across the country, from New Jersey to California, went to their local voter polls and said they were there to vote on the basis that they were citizens of the United States and that they were determined to submit their votes for President. Many women were arrested, and then filed lawsuits. Essentially, this was part of the plan. They were pushing for a test case, which could then make its way to the Supreme Court and hopefully be decided favorably, to affirm that yes, women are citizens, and therefore naturally have the right to vote.
Averill: One of these women was Susan B Anthony. Anthony went with her friends and family to the Republican polling place in Rochester, New York. She explained why she believed she had the right to vote, basing her argument on the recently passed 14th Amendment, which was ratified 5 years before. She insisted that section 1 of the 14th Amendment says that all persons born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States. Basically she was like — No one can doubt that I am a person. Hence, I am a citizen of the United States and thus entitled to vote. Apparently no one at the Republican polling place could doubt her personhood, because they let her vote. She also more than likely threatened to sue them if they didn’t let her vote.
Elizabeth: Soon however, US Marshals came to her home and arrested her. The warrant charged Anthony with voting in a federal election “without having a lawful right to vote and in violation of section 19 of an act of Congress” enacted in 1870, commonly referred to as the Enforcement Act. Interestingly, this was in and of itself a new crime — earlier arrests under the same law had only been made of recalcitrant Confederate Rebels. But it was applied to Anthony and other women like her. She was arrested under the Enforcement Act, and brought before a federal judge and a federal jury. In court, the judge did not even let the jury deliberate. He instructed them to find her guilty. So they did. As a result of other ways he instructed her case, she was unable to appeal her case. Which defeated the purpose of her action. She and the others wanted to be able to argue their interpretation of the 14th Amendment, and have their interpretation vindicated, at the highest level – in the US Supreme Court.
Averill: One woman, Virginia Minor of Missouri, managed to get her case to the Supreme Court – but with devastating results. In 1875 Minor vs. Happersett (a case between Virginia Minor and the registrar of her polling place, named Happersett) set back women’s suffrage for generations. It also had major negative consequences for newly enfranchised Black men and for the civil rights of all citizens. The Supreme Court heard and rejected the suffragists’ argument. The justices agreed that yes, women were persons, and yes, persons were citizens of the United States, but determined that voting was not a right of national citizenship. Instead, voting was a privilege bestowed by the separate states on those that each considered worthy. It was a privilege — not a right. The courts essentially decided that the US Constitution gives the national government almost no role to control voting. It gives the states total sovereignty over the right to vote.
Elizabeth: This decision in 1875 decimated the potential for the suffragists to use the 14th Amendment or arguments of “natural rights” to support their cause. Further, it signaled significant changes to come, as soon thereafter the Supreme Court began issuing rulings that allowed states to do all kinds of things that actually violated the 15th Amendment. Because the US Supreme Court begin ruling in favor of states rights, Black men were effectively disenfranchised whenever and wherever a state sought to prevent a man from voting based on his skin color, and the 15th Amendment was virtually annulled.
Averill: In seeking to enfranchise women, universal suffragists found themselves with an even steeper road to climb.
Elizabeth: Black women had always been a part of the suffrage movement. As Elizabeth already mentioned, the mainstream suffrage movement was closely tied with the abolition movement before the Civil War. Black women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman had been pro-woman suffrage from the movement’s earliest days. It wasn’t until internal fights over the 14th and 15th amendments that some suffrage leaders like Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton showed the limits of their quest for equality after it became clear that African-American men would get the vote before white women – a development that was viewed at the time as degrading to white women. Conversely, because of their unique position, Black women tended to focus on human rights and universal suffrage, rather than suffrage solely for African Americans or for women.
Averill: The question of whether “Votes for Women” meant all women or exclusively white women dates to the beginning of the suffrage movement. More and more Black women joined the ranks of suffragists as the movement and the nineteenth century progressed. Black suffragists like Nannie Helen Burroughs stressed the need for Black and white women to cooperate to achieve the right to vote. Black women worked with mainstream suffragists and organizations, like the National American Woman Suffrage Association when they were able. But the mainstream organizations did not address the challenges faced by Black women — such as negative stereotypes, harassment, and unequal access to jobs, housing, and education.
Elizabeth: After Reconstruction ended in 1877, there was a period of intense racial violence. It was an era of large scale Black disenfranchisement, Jim Crow law enforcement, and lynchings. For the most part, mainstream suffrage organizations started excluding or ghosting Black women. There were, of course, exceptions, but essentially the mainstream suffrage organizations became white organizations.
Averill: Often, women’s reform work and the fight for suffrage are treated as separate movements, but are actually closely related. Many reform organizations, like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union WCTU, eventually supported women’s enfranchisement as a way to push forward their other, primary reform goals (in the case of the WCTU, of course, that’s temperance.) Even without the vote, the very act of reform work in charitable and voluntary organizations allowed women to enter the political sphere, doing what we’d call “growing the base.”
Elizabeth: By the 1890s, maneuvering existing constitutional amendments to enfranchise women was no longer possible. So women suffragists had to build their base, and make the demand for voting rights meaningful to a significant number of average citizens. Abstract claims of universal justice and equal rights, the core of Susan B Anthony’s movement, had little appeal to many women, both white and Black. BUT, many women were inspired to push for political rights because it would impact women’s daily lives. Ultimately, it was the WCTU that first spun suffrage as an issue that should be important to average women, both white and Black. With the vote, the broader cause of temperance — which was already a large middle class movement — could be empowered.
Averill: The WCTU was the largest women’s association in the late 19th century, and very well organized. Women were drawn to the temperance movement initially because of its focus on how men’s drinking impoverished families, and subjected wives and children to physical abuse. They were really speaking out about domestic violence and about the sexual double standard, all things they believed stemmed from alcohol, but also the absolute power that men had over women in all things – money, family decisions, and etcetera. The holdovers of coverture.
Elizabeth: In 1884, a bit over a decade after it was formed, WCTU became the first large organization outside of the suffrage societies themselves to announce that it was in favor of voting rights for women. One of the women who was responsible for this achievement was Frances Willard. Willard was a masterful politician. She was able to build up the WCTU and take very conventional, conservative church going women into the most radical women’s movement of the decade- the suffrage movement
Averill: Willard became president of the WCTU in 1879, and she shifted the focus of the WCTU from one concentrated on closing saloons to an ambitious “Do Everything” campaign. She approached women’s suffrage in a way that was fundamentally differently from radicals like Susan B Anthony. She didn’t say that women needed the votes because of abstract justice or equal rights. She didn’t say women needed the vote because they had the same rights, and capacities, and obligations as men, although she did think that they did. Instead, she argued that women deserved the right to vote because women and men were different — their obligations and the sphere in which they lived and worked were fundamentally different, and their issues and concerns were different. Men could not be trusted to represent women, because they just had no idea what women actually did and dealt with on a daily basis.
Elizabeth: According to Willard, women needed to go into politics to protect their own interests. Most importantly, women needed the vote to protect their homes. They needed to step outside and go into public to protect their families, their homes, their husbands, and especially their children. Nineteenth century women’s suffrage was considered radical. It was associated with masculine women. Willard took it and rebranded it. She called it the “home protection ballot,” a cause that many women could get behind. This was particularly brilliant because it easily mixed women’s private sphere with the public, and in a traditional, respectable way.
Averill: For Willard, the vote was a tool for enforcing what most considered a conventional white Christian morality. But Willard also led the members of the WCTU to engage with a broadly progressive program. Still, the WCTU was such a large organization there were many competing demands among the women in its membership. As Willard attempted to grow WCTU membership in the South, she made moral compromises when it came to issues of race and segregation.
Elizabeth: This was the era of Jim Crow, marked by an obscene number of lynchings. Between 1877 and 1950, about 4,000 black people, primarily black men, were lynched for perceived infractions, including attempting to register to vote. Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a prominent journalist that championed anti-lynching, a cause she considered integral to the fight for voting rights. Originally from Memphis, Tennessee, she led an anti-lynching crusade, after a white lynch mob attacked the press for which she published, The Free Speech and Headlight. Threats to her life forced her to move to Chicago, where she worked for the Chicago Conservator newspaper. In her “Lynch Law of America”, published in 1900, Wells-Barnett argued that without representation in government, this lawlessness would continue to reign.
Averill: To help obtain voting rights for black women, Wells-Barnett founded the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women that merged a number of black women’s social clubs together and included suffrage within its platform. She was also a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Willard and Wells had a very public debate over Willard’s lackluster support of Well’s anti-lynching campaign. In 1890, Willard was quoted as saying ‘Better whiskey and more of it’ is the rallying cry of great, dark-faced mobs …The safety of women, of childhood, of the home, is menaced in a thousand localities.” Basically, Willard is saying that Black people drink too much and are a menace, she’s playing into this white southern trope of the Black man as an evil brute out to rape delicate white women.
Elizabeth: Obviously, this did not sit well with Wells, who wrote that Willard “unhesitatingly slandered the entire Negro race in order to gain favor with those who are hanging, shooting and burning Negroes alive.” The episode shows how radical, reform-minded women like Willard could still fall short in the quest for full equality and work for suffrage and social welfare while also supporting a racial hierarchy.
Nevertheless, Black women did participate in the WCTU, especially when they had the power to control their own chapters. There were a number of Black-run WCTU chapters throughout the North and South.
Averill: As the common understanding of the scope of issues affecting women expanded, the WCTU’s “Home Protection Ballot” evolved into a universal call for women’s suffrage. For the next twenty years, WCTU members served as the grass roots for the suffrage movement even though not all local WCTU chapters accepted the suffrage resolution. Some chapters ignored it completely while others pushed for state and federal constitutional amendments to allow women the right to vote. The Nebraska state WCTU sent a petition to the United States House of Representatives in support of a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage. They said , “As wives, mothers, and citizens we know our rights and will defend them—peaceably if we can, with severe measures if we must.”
Elizabeth: Frances Willard died in 1898, and the WCTU retreated from the agenda she’d set. It again became more conservative, although still an important venue for rural women, mid-western women, and religious women, to come into the suffrage movement. Without Willard’s guiding hand, the WCTU stepped back from leading the suffragists cause. Most of the radical members of the WCTU moved on into newer activist organizations, often those working exclusively for women suffrage. For many, the WCTU was a stepping-stone towards more progressive reforms.
Averill: Towards the end of the nineteenth century, America became what some commentators called “women club mad” because everybody and their sister was joining women’s club. Black women organized themselves in woman’s clubs just as much as white women. Black women’s clubs were central to their reform efforts and support of woman suffrage. In 1896, the National Federation of Afro-American Women merged with the National League of Colored Women to form the National Association of Colored Women, with activist Mary Church Terrell as its first president. NACW’s motto, “Lifting as we climb,” reflected the organization’s goal to “uplift” the status of Black women.
Elizabeth: This meant that the mostly middle-class organization sought to influence the lives and circumstances of working-class Black people; they’d go into neighborhoods to counsel working class Black women on “proper” hygiene, child rearing, and the like. Their political impact was formidable; the NACW maintained a suffrage department, the Equal Suffrage League, which mobilized local clubs to support suffrage.
Averill: Terrell was a prolific speaker and traveled all over the world working for the advancement of African Americans. In many of her speeches she pointed out to white women that did not support Black women’s suffrage, that the exclusion of Black women from voting because of race was no different than the exclusion of white women because of gender. Many African American women reached out to the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and attempted to take part in suffrage activities. Some local chapters of NAWSA were accepting of Black participation, others were not.
Elizabeth: In their ongoing efforts to gain southern support, northern suffragists held multiple meetings in the south. However, the 1901 and 1903 NAWSA conventions in Atlanta and New Orleans barred African Americans from attending. Attempts by Black women to bring issues impacting their communities to NAWSA’s attention were met with continual rejection. When Martha Gruening asked NAWSA to denounce white supremacy at the 1911 national conference, president Anna Howard Shaw refused, asserting that while she was “in favor of colored people voting,” she did not want to anger other members of the movement.
Averill: In 1913, Alice Paul and the Congressional Union of the NAWSA organized a major suffrage parade in Washington, D. C. Paul had spent time in England, working with British suffragettes and learned may of the more militant tactics British women used to publicize their suffrage cause. Paul used the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson as a perfect time to host the D.C. suffrage parade in order to take advantage of the thousands of people who would already be in the city for the inauguration. Some contemporaries said that the suffrage parade garnered more spectators than the inauguration itself.
Elizabeth: There are some pretty famous images from this parade that probably many of our listeners are familiar with. The parade began with Jane Walker Burleson as Grand Marshall on horseback with a model of the Liberty Bell. Next was the parade’s herald, Inez Milholland a suffragist and lawyer. She was dressed in white, riding a white horse with a pale-blue cape draped over the horses haunches. Milholland’s long hair was down, making her look like a goddess leading the parade. She carried a banner that said “Forward Into the Light.” Following her was a huge banner that read “We Demand An Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Enfranchising the Woman of this Country.” Roughly 8,000 marchers, bands, and parade floats marched from the US Capitol to the Treasury Building.
Averill: Some of the back and forth and lead up to the parade gives a good glimpse of what was going on in the suffrage movement and the intersection of race and gender. Essentially, Paul and other white organizers of the event were worried that an integrated parade would upset southern supporters. She wrote she wanted to “try to make this a purely Suffrage demonstration entirely uncomplicated by any other problems.” Instead of viewing Votes for Women as part of a broader push for social equality, Paul and others separated racial equality from electoral equality. Paul had attempted to keep news about black marchers out of the press, but when Black suffragists Mary Church Terrell and Adella Hunt Logan encouraged Black women’s clubs across the country to participate, newspapers began printing stories about the racial rift.
Elizabeth: Nevertheless, Black suffragists rallied and the question of whether to segregate the parade continued up to the day of the event. Seventy-two hours before the parade, a representative from NAWSA sent an overnight telegram to Paul chastising her for “so strongly [urging] Colored women not to march that it amounts to official discrimination which is distinctly contrary to instructions from National headquarters.” The message ordered Paul to instruct her parade marshals to not exclude Black participants. Still, on the day of the event, African American marchers reported a cold reception. Absentee or uncooperative registry clerks proved an inconvenience. During rehearsal, parade organizers released an official order to segregate, with Black marchers being sent to the back of the parade. However, spitfire Ida B Wells slipped away from her unit. Her fellow delegates assumed she had left. Shortly after the parade began, Wells appeared from the crowd and joined her Illinois section, flanked on either side by her friends Virginia Brooks and Bell Squire. A photographer from Chicago’s Daily Tribune captured an image of the triumphant Wells and her colleagues in procession.
Averill: Alice Paul was essential to reinvigorating the American campaign for a constitutional suffrage amendment. This approach was embraced by women social urban reformers, who saw a need growing out of a dramatically changing American womanhood. In the early 20th century, “American women” were increasingly less rural and less Protestant; they were more Catholic and Jewish, and more foreign born. The changing landscape and demography of the American public, the growth of industry, and urbanization created new issues women had to face — food adulteration, prostitution, infant mortality, but also the dirtiness of politics, like bribery and graft. Progressive women, Black and white, were mostly middle class, but saw themselves as the bulwark between the preservation of family life and the corruption and stink of cities and politicians.
Elizabeth: A new generation of Progressive women in the early 20th century embraced the idea of the vote as a tool rather than an idealistic principal. Votes would allow women to address certain political issues that were different from the issues that men cared about. Their slogans and campaigns revolved around these core principles — that “Women have to get the right to vote to clean things up,” and “You’ve got to call in the cleaning woman!” Add campaigns pictured a woman sweeping away corrupt politicians. Not too radical — still relegating women’s work to the home, and only focusing on “women’s” issues — but still seeking votes for women.
Averill: More importantly, there were more and more women wage earners and more working class women who joined the fight for woman’s suffrage. Their politics were a bit more radical that the middle-class arguments of protections for the home. Labor unions and organizers such as Rose Schneiderman argued that working women needed the vote for economic reasons. At a public suffrage debate in 1912, one New York senator against woman suffrage said, “Get women into the arena of politics with its alliances and distressing contests–the delicacy is gone, and you emasculize them.” Schneiderman cooly responded, “Women in the laundries…stand for 13 or 14 hours in the terrible steam and heat with their hands in hot starch. Surely these women won’t lose any more of their beauty and charm by putting a ballot in a ballot box once a year than they are likely to lose standing in foundries or laundries all year round. “
Elizabeth: As suffragists waited for the constitutional door to reopen, they went to the states themselves for franchise rights. I return to our earlier point that despite the 14th and 15th Amendments, the courts basically turned sovereign power of the vote over to the states. If suffragists could convince male voters to amend their state constitutions, women would gain full voting rights up to and including the right to vote for congress and the president. This is a crucial fact that is not particularly appreciated.
Averill: The first major state campaign to convince male voters to amend their state constitution and support full voting rights for women was in Colorado in 1893. Now women in Wyoming were actually the first American women granted the right to vote, not counting New Jersey mentioned at the top of the episode, but Wyoming granted women the franchise in its territorial constitution so when it became a state in 1890, women there already had the vote and did not need to lobby the men in their state to change the state constitution. So Colorado was the first state with a live suffrage issue. Black women were an important part of the Colorado campaign to victory. There were about 3,000 Black women in Colorado who gained the right to vote in 1893. By the time that the 19th Amendment was ratified 27 years later, the women of Colorado had already voted for president six times.
Elizabeth: In 1911, California became the sixth state to grant women suffrage of these suffrage states. It was by far the most important state to amend its constitution up to that point because it was a large state with a diverse and modern economy. The California suffrage campaign was also the first truly modern one, utilizing new modes of transportation and marketing. The campaign featured modern technology. Women drove their Model T’s all over California, going into small towns. Suffragists would stand up on the car seats and some one would play a trombone while she would call everybody to come and listen to why California men should change their constitution to allow suffrage. They made suffrage movies that were shown in Nickelodeons. The campaign was also characterized by elegant and glamorous images. A famous suffrage poster you may have seen came out of this California campaign. The poster depicts a woman wearing gold, her head in front of the rising sun overlooking Golden Gate.
Averill: Like in Colorado and other suffrage states, women in California actively used their votes once they won them to address many political issues: raising the minimum wage for women workers, raising the age of consent, establishing juvenile justice courts, and passing laws to control prostitution – not by penalizing the women but by penalizing the men who profited from the trade. However, enfranchising women state by state had its limits as it would never enfranchise all American women.
Elizabeth: Politicians in the Republican controlled industrial northeast were also opposed to women’s suffrage because manufacturers there depended on large female and child labor forces. Manufacturers feared that if women got the vote, they would pass laws that would curtail horrible working conditions in which their female employees were forced to work. In the Jim Crow Democratic South, the specter of Black women voting was an absolute barrier to change. The Democratic party in southern states had effectively disenfranchised Black male voters so they weren’t about to let Black women to vote, for fear it would reopen the door and allow Black men to vote too. However, the growing numbers of enfranchised women state by state began to reopen the door to the opportunity for a constitutional amendment to enfranchise women nationally as the number of enfranchised women was growing year by year.
Averill: During WW1, women took on increasingly public roles; and from well before and throughout the war, they were demanding the right to vote. (In some countries, women were granted the right to vote even before the war, interestingly again at the fringes of Europe / Euro society. New Zealand, which was a colony of Britain at the time, passed universal suffrage in 1883 – for men, women, and the Aboriginals of the island – which was pretty landmark for that era. It was absolutely NOT the case in Australia, which was more heavily dominated by white men invested in preserving their political, economic, and social control. National women’s suffrage movements were successful first in Europe in the northern countries, with Latvia first in 1905, Finland in 1906, Norway in 1913, Denmark and Iceland in 1915, and Estonia, the Netherlands, and the Russian Republic in 1917. Uruguay in South America also granted women the right to vote in 1917.) In many countries, women’s participation in WW1 demonstrated to lawmakers that women were more than capable of handling the demands of civic participation. They’d been munitions factory workers, ambulance drivers just behind the front lines, baseball players – everything. If it was, to that point, considered a “man’s job,” women did it – they had to! – during the so-called Great War. To continue to deny them the right to vote in places like Britain and the US was ungrateful and unfeasible. So in 1918, as the war was winding down, many European states passed women’s suffrage laws. Austria, Georgia, Poland, the United Kingdom, and several of the Soviet Socialist Republics that would eventually be part of the USSR. Azerbaijan became the first muslim-majoirty country to grant women the right to vote, also in 1918. In 1919, Belgium, Hungary, Luxembourg, Sweden, Ukraine, and Southern Rhodesia passed their laws, in 1920, Albania, Czechoslovakia, and, finally, the United States followed suit.
Elizabeth: By 1912, ten percent of the nation’s women were already casting their votes for president.
Averill: By 1916 it was 14 percent. All these states are in the west.
Elizabeth: At this point one branch of the suffrage movement, which named itself the National Women’s Party, determined to organize voting women, in the states where women could vote, to use their franchise strategically on behalf of a federal amendment. Membership in the NWP was limited to only enfranchised women. Now this branch, the National Woman’s Party led by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns mobilized against the reelection of President Wilson. Wilson was a Democrat and his party controlled both houses of Congress, so they were in charge of everything in our national government. His party was largely controlled by white supremacists who were dead set against federal interference into voting. Despite the national women party efforts he is reelected, although by a very narrow margin was inaugurated March 4, 1917.
Averill: On November 6, 1917, the New York became the first eastern state to amend its constitution to enfranchise women. New York was the most populous and most powerful state in the union was now answerable to women. It had the largest congressional delegation too, with 45 representatives, who all immediately became answerable to women. This turning point is marked by the president’s decision, after six years of holding out against this, to support a constitutional amendment.
Elizabeth: The National Womens Party continued its pressure on Wilson with daily picketing of the White House. This is the first time that anything like this is done, that a protest movement is picketing the president himself. You’ve probably seen the images of woman standing outside the White House gates with banners that read “Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?”
Averill: Wilson campaigned on the grounds that he “kept us out of war.” One month after he was reelected the U.S. entered WWI. After the US entered the war, the stakes of all this went way up. In June 1917, the police began arresting women who picketed outside the White House. Undeterred, women marched to the White House on Independence Day, carrying banners reading “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” They were quickly arrested and put in jail. In August of 1917 violence broke out between demonstrators carrying banners that addressed the president as “Kaiser Wilson” and servicemen. In October 1917, police warned the picketing women that if they continued to picket they could spend up to six months in prison. Members of the NWP continued to picket and were sentenced to jail varying from three days to seven months. After being arrested once, Alice Paul and Rose Winslow returned to the picket lines. They were rearrested and sentenced to seven months in prison where they commenced a hunger strike. They were violently force fed. Many women arrested on November 10, 1917 were sent to the Occoguan Workhouse in Virginia where they refused to put on prison uniforms. The guards beat them in what is now known as the “Night of Terror.”
Elizabeth: Concurrently, organizations like the Leslie Bureau of Suffrage Commission, formed by Carrie Chapman Catt were working to spread the word and educate average men and women about women’s suffrage. They would issue press releases touting the benefits of woman suffrage, pointing out facts such as New Zealand, where woman had voted for over twenty years, had the lowest infant mortality rate in the world. Or, they pointed out that states with woman suffrage had more women serving on Boards of Health and Charities than non-suffrage states. They are basically saying to people, look, if you care about infant mortality, if you care about the poor and the needy, then women’s suffrage should be important to you.
Averill: Another group who is usually considered conservative, The National Mother’s Congress was pro woman’s suffrage. Dr. Mary Sherwood, director of the Mother’s Congress Department of Obstetrics, implored members to demand that elected leaders enforce mandatory birth and death registration in their states. If they refused, Sherwood told her readers those lawmakers should be “regarded as enemies of progress and enemies or your homes and that their defeat is brought about at the next election.” She says this in 1917, so three years before the 19th Amendment grants all women the right to vote. It’s an example of how powerful women’s votes were becoming before the passage of the constitutional amendment. In many ways, the truly consequential change in politics came because of the prospect of women empowered at the ballot box.
Elizabeth: However, it was never a sure thing. There was monumental pushback against suffrage. Detractors argued that if women voted, the American family as they knew it would be ruined. From 1915 through 1919, politicians and critics poo-pooed about it not being the “right time” for women voters because we were at war, and then we had just finished a war, and who knows what the future might bring? And then there was the upset that women voters could upend the Racial Order. Women voters might upset the southern states, which were trying to maintain “order” through white supremacy. (Though as evidenced in the first few decades that women had the right to vote, and really right on up to today, white women in particular tend to vote more conservatively, and often with their husbands.)
Averill: In 1918, the House of Representatives finally agreed to a full floor vote of the amendment. Jeannette Rankin from Montana introduced the house bill. The fact that Rankin was a woman is, of course, a reminder that women were voting before the 19th Amendment. But they were still two years out from passing the 19th Amendment.
Elizabeth: The vote in the senate took another 18 months and at times seemed almost impossible. It was the 1918 midterm elections that shifted control over the Senate from the Democrats to the Republicans that finally made the difference – which is a reminder of how important it is to vote in midterm elections!
Averill: By the time the senate vote passed, it was June of 1919. Suffragists were desperate to get ratification in time for the 1920 presidential election because they expected that a turn of politics would be very reactionary. Ratification of a Constitutional amendment is difficult because ¾ of the states have to approve. And in 1919 there was a powerful and well-funded anti suffrage movement that put all of its energy into defeating ratification. One year after the senate passage in June or July of 1920, they were still one vote shy. Democrats controlling the deep South opposed on white supremacists grounds. Conservative New England Republicans also refused to ratify it. The final battle came down to Tennessee. It was the rare southern state that had both a Republican and a Democratic party. A special session was called by the governor, and suffragists and anti suffragists descended on the legislature. Up to the last minute, suffragists did not think that they had the vote.
Elizabeth: The 19th Amendment passed the Tennessee legislature by one vote – the tie breaking legislator was a 24 year old Republican named Harry Burn. He was a Republican in a Democratically-controlled state. His mother sent him a letter urging him to be a good boy and vote for ratification.
Averill: The governor, fearful that the opponents of suffrage would figure another dirty trick (they had been bribing, getting people drunk, tapping phones), signed the bill and sent it off to Washington in the middle of the night.
Elizabeth: The women’s suffrage amendment barely achieved passage and ratification. It could very easily have been defeated. There was nothing inevitable about women’s enfranchisement.
Averill: One third of the women eligible to vote were able to register. The amendment was signed in August; we, as you know, vote in November. There were only three months. Women did not start voting in parity with men until the 1980s.
Elizabeth: The last state to ratify the 19th Amendment was Mississippi and the year was 1984.
So what are some useful takeaways?
State elections matter. If Henry Burns had been some other guy, Tennessee wouldn’t have ratified, and the 19th Amendment could have gone the way of the ERA.
Martin Luther King Jr. said that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere. Democracy is something we have to work at, it is not infallible or a given.
Democracies have failed. In 1930s Germany, voters elected jingoist, patriarchal leaders, who used fear, violence, and racialized legislation to dismantle their democracy. In 1930s Spain, one of the most liberal governments of that country’s history was destroyed when the military leaders who saw democracy as a challenge to their power and launched a civil war that tore the nation apart.
We decide what democracy looks like. Restrictions on citizenship and who gets to vote continue, in this country and all over the world – both official restrictions, like laws that require a government-issued ID to vote, or that require one have a permanent address; and there are plenty of unofficial restrictions and prohibitions, like having limited hours for people to get to polling places, inaccessible polling places.
 “Safety First For Mothers,” Notes from the Twenty-first Child Welfare Conference, Department of Obstetrics Dr. Mary Sherwood, chairman “What women can do to hasten obstetrical care”, Child Welfare Magazine, Vol XI, No 10 June 1917, p 285-290.
Ellen Carol DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (New York: New York University Press, 1998).
Ellen Carol DuBois , Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2020).
Katherine Adamsand Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).
Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman In A White World (New York:Humanity Books, 2005)
Lisa Tetrault. The Myth of Seneca Falls: Memory and the Women’s Suffrage Movement, 1848-1898 (Charlotte:The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
J. D. Zahniser, and Amelia R. Fry, Alice Paul: Claiming Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
“Safety First For Mothers,” Notes from the Twenty-first Child Welfare Conference, Department of Obstetrics Dr. Mary Sherwood, chairman, Child Welfare Magazine, Vol XI, No 10 June 1917, p 285-290.