Women’s Fight for the Right to Vote
In 1776, as the emerging nation of the United States of America was being created, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John asking that the founders, “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”
John Adams replied, "I cannot but laugh. Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems." Nonetheless, the nation’s new Constitution was drafted and promised rights would be fully enjoyed only by certain white males who met specific criteria. In accordance with social tradition and English common law, women were were denied most legal rights. In general they could not vote, own property, keep their own wages, or even have custody of their children.
It would not be until 1848 that the first visible public demand for legal gender equality was made. That year, at the first Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott — who had met as abolitionists working against slavery — convened a two-day meeting of 300 women and men to call for justice for women in a society where they were systematically barred from the rights and privileges of citizens.
At the convention, “A Declaration of Sentiments” and eleven other resolutions were adopted with ease, but the proposal for women’s suffrage was passed only after impassioned speeches by Stanton and former slave Frederick Douglass, who believed that the right to vote was the right by which all others could be secured through participation in democracy. However, the country was far from ready to take the issue of women's rights seriously, and the call for suffrage was the object of much ridicule.
After the Civil War, Stanton and suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth fought in vain to have women included in new constitutional amendments giving rights to former slaves. The 14th Amendment defined citizens as "all persons born or naturalized in the United States" and guaranteed equal protection of the laws – but in referring to the electorate, it introduced the word "male" into the Constitution for the first time.
The 15th Amendment declared that "the right of citizens ... to vote shall not be denied or abridged ... on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude" – but women of all races were still denied the right to vote.
To Susan B. Anthony, the rejection of women's claim to the vote was unacceptable. In 1872, she went to the polls in Rochester, New York, and cast a ballot in the presidential election, citing her citizenship under the 14th Amendment. She was arrested, tried, convicted, and fined $100, which she refused to pay.
A ruling in 1875 by the Supreme Court in Minor v. Happersett noted that while women may be citizens, all citizens were not necessarily voters, and states were not required to allow women to vote.
Until the end of their long lives, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony campaigned for a constitutional amendment affirming that women had the right to vote, but they died in the first decade of the 20th century without ever casting a legal ballot.
The new century saw a profound change in the lives of women, as they joined the workforce in increasing numbers, led the movement for progressive social reform, and finally generated enough mass power to win the vote.
Carrie Chapman Catt and the National American Woman Suffrage Association were a mainstream lobbying force of millions at every level of government. Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party were a small, radical group that not only lobbied but conducted marches, political boycotts, picketing of the White House, and civil disobedience. As a result, they were attacked, arrested, imprisoned, and force-fed. But the country's conscience was stirred, and support for woman suffrage grew.
The 19th Amendment affirming women's right to vote steamrolled out of Congress in 1919, getting more than half the ratifications it needed in the first year. It ran into stiff opposition from states'-rights advocates, the liquor lobby, business interests against higher wages for women, and a number of women themselves, who believed claims that the amendment would threaten the family and require more of them than they felt their sex was capable of.
As the amendment approached the necessary ratification by three-quarters of the states, the threat of rescission surfaced. Finally the battle narrowed down to a six-week seesaw struggle in Tennessee. The fate of the 19th Amendment was decided by a single vote, that of 24-year-old legislator Harry Burn, who switched from "no" to "yes" in response to a letter from his mother saying, "Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!"
It was on August 26, 1920 that women finally won the right to vote in the United States of America. That morning, before breakfast, the Secretary of State in Washington, DC issued the 19th Amendment's proclamation immediately in order to head off any final obstructionism.
Thus mainstream and militant suffragists together finally won the first, and still the only, specific written guarantee of women's equal rights in the Constitution – the 19th Amendment, which 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."
It had been 72 years from Seneca Falls to victory, and ironically, the most controversial resolution had been written into law first. But many laws and practices in the workplace and in society still perpetuated men's status as privileged and women's status as second-class citizens.
It has only been 98 years since women won the right to vote, and 95 years since the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced. Help ratify the ERA today!
Do you live in a state that hasn’t ratified the ERA yet? Contact your federal, state, and local elected officials today! Use the script below as a starting point. (Remember to be polite to the aids answering the phone.)
A quick visit to USA.gov can help you locate your elected officials, on the local, state, and federal levels.
To call your representatives in Congress:
U.S. Capitol Switchboard: #(202) 224-3121
Hi! My name is [your name] & I am a constituent of [official’s name] from [county]. I wanted to know the official’s position on the Equal Rights Amendment.
If the official is in support the ERA:
Great! Would she/he be willing to bring this issue to the floor to get [your state] to ratify?
If the official does not currently support the ERA:
That’s unfortunate. The Equal Rights Amendment would truly legitimize women as equal to men in the eyes of the law, would help women to earn more and make it easier for abusers to be held accountable. Women are a large voting block in [your state] & I would ask the senator to reconsider their position."