History of the 19th Amendment: Women’s Right to Vote, 100 Years Ago
One hundred years ago, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted. This prohibited both the Federal government and State governments from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States based on sex. Effectively, this meant that the right to vote could no longer be denied to women. The text, in part, read:
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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
For over 70 years before that, the women’s movement had been pressing for the legal right of women to vote, going back to the 1848 women’s rights Seneca Falls Convention, “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Two years later, the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850 saw suffrage as an important part of the movement. In 1869 the Women’s Movement coalesced around two different organizations.
In 1860 Susan B. Anthony led the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The other was led by Lucy Stone, who and helped organize the earlier National Women’s Rights Convention, and had influenced both Anthony and Stanton.
These two groups combined in 1873 into the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which campaigned for women’s suffrage, as well as for a “sober and pure world” achieved by “abstinence, purity, and evangelical Christianity.” This was to have a powerful impact on the passage of the 18th Amendment, the prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. in 1919.
Looking back on the history of the women’s movement through the lens of feminism, the original “suffrage” campaign is identified as First-wave feminism. This is to distinguish it from Second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970, commonly called “Women’s Liberation,” when the priority was equal legal and social rights.
Third-wave feminism, starting in the 1990s, can be considered both a continuation of and a reaction to, Second-wave feminism. This most recent wave focused on the perceived failures of the Second-wave while responding to the backlash against it. Using what is now called “critical theory,” an early 20th-century philosophical ideology, it emphasized “intersectional” issues that affect race and class.
African-American Women’s Suffrage
Contemporaneously with the mid-19th century suffrage efforts were the work of notable African-American suffragists, including Mary Church Terrel and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Terell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree and championed both suffrage and civil rights. She helped form the Colored Women’s League of Washington (1849) and the National Association of Colored Women (1896). She was a founding member of the later National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was part of the 1913 March in Washington DC, along with 8,000 women. An African-American journalist, she was an outspoken leader in the anti-lynching campaigns of the late 1800s and founder of the later Alpha Suffrage Club in 1913.
It’s important to note that these efforts led to the passage of the 19th Amendment; it did not secure the right to vote for African-American women. While the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870 stated that voting rights could not be:
“denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
It nevertheless allowed the States the ability to determine the specific qualifications for voting. Some states, especially in the South, used qualifications such as literacy tests, poll taxes, and other practices to disenfranchise African-America voters in the decades following the passage of the 15th Amendment through so-called “Jim Crow” laws.
Other Voting Milestones
All Native Americans were granted citizenship and the right to vote in 1924 through the Indian Citizenship Act, regardless of tribal affiliation. But while about two-thirds of Native Americans were already citizens, some western states continued to bar Native Americans from voting until 1948. In 1943, Chinese immigrants were given the right to citizenship and the right to vote by the Magnuson Act. In 1948, Arizona and New Mexico became the last states to extend full voting rights to Native Americans.
It was not until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that the “Voting Rights Act” of 1965, signed by President Lyndon Johnson, banned literacy tests and other disenfranchising methods. Polling taxes were declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court case “Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections.”
The path to equal rights in voting involved a long series of threads through women’s rights, abolition, temperance, and civil rights.
In more recent times, August 26 has been called “Women’s Equality Day” and focuses on issues of equal pay women as well as female minorities.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian