By: Caiti Anderson
On March 31, 1776, Abagail Adams wrote her now infamous “Remember the Ladies” letter to her husband, John Adams. Abigail urged John to, “…Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable [sic] to them than your ancestors…. If perticuliar [sic] care and attention is not paid to the Laidies [sic] we are determined to foment a Rebelion [sic], and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.” Abigail’s letter predicted the onset of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States by more than seventy years. However, the full realization of this dream was not achieved until August 26, 1920, one-hundred and forty-four years after Abigail’s entreating words. In celebration of the ninety-fifth anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, today’s post will focus on the history surrounding women’s battle for the right to vote.
The women’s suffrage movement humbly began with the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. Although it only seemed possible to very few at the time, this convention in a sleepy Upstate New York town initiated the seventy-two year struggle to the Nineteenth Amendment (see, the “Declaration of Sentiments”). The suffrage movement heavily invested itself in the abolition of slavery, virtually halting its entire operation during the Civil War to garner support for abolition. The ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment devastated many of the women’s suffrage supporters. They viewed the exclusion of women from the amendment as an irreconcilable travesty. The link between women’s suffrage and voting rights for African Americans was a complicated one. Many of those who originally supported the abolitionist cause later employed racist arguments in the attempt to gain women’s suffrage. By 1869, the women’s suffrage movement split into two different organizations. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony led the National Woman Suffrage Association, who opposed the exclusion of women from the Fifteenth Amendment. In contrast, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe founded the American Woman Suffrage Association as a less radical option for suffragists. These organizations united in 1890 with the creation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Initially, the NAWSA focused on pressuring state governments to enact legislation that would allow women to register to vote. Through lobbying, petitioning, and protesting, this strategy was relatively successful. By 1920, fifteen states granted women full voting rights, and twelve allowed women to vote in presidential elections. The map below illustrates the pattern of voting rights across the United State prior to passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Women’s suffrage found its strongest supporters in the Mid-Western and Western states, and its largest detractors in the South. Interestingly, women’s suffrage in the West emerged for two different reasons: the important role of women while settling the frontier helped equal women’s standing, and the territories’ desire to increase their voting population. Moreover, many frontier states did not require voters to be registered or be citizens. Once a significant number of states adopted women’s suffrage, the NAWSA begin to push the federal government to pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, the influence of the British suffragette movement radicalized certain members of the NAWSA to utilize civil disobedience tactics, creating a rift in the organization.
In 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns founded the National Women’s Party (NWP) as a subsidiary organization of the NAWSA. The NWP utilized creative tactics to draw attention to the suffrage movement during the backdrop of World War I. From aggressive lobbying and petitioning in Congress, massive parades, picketing, and demonstrations, to imprisonment and infamous hunger strikes, the NWP aggressively pressured the federal government to grant women the right to vote. New York’s adoption of women’s suffrage in 1917 encouraged President Wilson to support a constitutional amendment, which the House of Representatives passed on May 21, 1919. August 26, 1920 marked the formal ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. With only thirty-nine words, the Nineteenth Amendment transformed the United States and affirmed the country’s commitment to recognizing its founding principles. With the ability to vote in hand, American women had a new question to face: how can I register?
Note: The struggle of American suffragettes is a well-documented history. PBS released an excellent documentary in 1999: Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. For information about the arrest of Susan B. Anthony, go to this link.
Please visit the Library of Congress to view images from the movement.
For more information on the interconnectivity between the abolitionist and suffrage movements in antebellum America, please see: Kathryn Kish Sklar, Women’s Rights Emerges within the Antislavery Movement: 1830-1870 (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000). To read Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s famous speech, “The Solitude of Self,” please click here.