History of women's suffrage in the United States

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American women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. The effort to obtain women's suffrage in the United States was a primary effort of those involved in the greater women's rights movement of the 19th century. Women's suffrage was permanently granted in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.


American women were granted the right to vote with the passage of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. During the early part of the century, agitation for equal suffrage was carried on by only a few individuals. The first of these was Frances Wright, a Scottish woman who came to the country in 1826 and advocated women's suffrage in an extensive series of lectures. In 1836 Ernestine Rose, a Polish woman, came to the country and carried on a similar campaign, so effectively that she obtained a personal hearing before the New York Legislature, though her petition bore only five signatures. At about the same time, in 1840, Lucretia Mott and Margaret Fuller became active in Boston, the latter being the author of the book The Great Lawsuit; Man vs. Woman. Efforts to gain various women's rights were subsequently led by women such as Susan B. Anthony, Virginia Minor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Paulina Kellogg Wright Davis.

Civil War

During the Civil War and immediately after little was heard of the movement, but in 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association was formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, with the object of securing an amendment to the Constitution in favor of woman suffrage, thus opposing passage of the Fifteenth Amendment without it being changed to include female suffrage.

Another more conservative suffrage organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association, headed by Lucy Stone, was also formed at this time by those who believed that suffrage should be brought about by amendments to the various state constitutions. They supported the proposed 15th amendment as written. In 1890, these two bodies united into one national organization, led by Susan B. Anthony and known as the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

National American Woman Suffrage Association

In 1900, regular national headquarters were established in New York City, under the direction of the new president Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt, who was endorsed by Susan B. Anthony after her retirement as first president. Three years later headquarters were moved to Warren, Ohio, but were then brought back to New York again shortly afterward, and re-opened there on a much bigger scale. The organization obtained a hearing before every Congress, from 1869 to 1919.

Regional suffrage

New Jersey, on becoming a federal state after the American Revolution, placed only one restriction on the general suffrage — the possession of at least $250 worth of cash or property. The election laws referred to voters as "he or she." In 1790, the law was revised to include women specifically. Female voters became so objectionable to professional politicians, that in 1807 the law was revised to exclude them. Later, the 1844 constitution banned women voting, the 1947 one then allowed it.

The first territorial legislature of the Wyoming Territory granted women suffrage in 1869 [2]. In the following year, the Utah Territory followed suit. However, in 1887, the United States Congress disenfranchised Utah women with the Edmunds–Tucker Act. In 1890, Wyoming came into the Union as the first state that allowed women to vote. In 1893, voters of Colorado made that state the second of the woman suffrage states [3]. In 1895, Utah adopted a constitution restoring the right of woman suffrage. Colorado was the first state where men voted to give women the right to vote.


In 1912, Grace Wilbur Trout, then head of the Chicago Political Equality League, was elected president of the state organization. Changing her tactics from a confrontational style of lobbying the state legislature, she turned to building the organization internally. She made sure that a local organization was started in every Senatorial District. One of her assistants, Elizabeth Booth, cut up a Blue Book government directory and made file cards for each of the members of the General Assembly. Armed with the names, four lobbyists went to Springfield to persuade one legislator at a time to support suffrage for women. In 1913, first-term Speaker of the House, Democrat Champ Clark, told Trout that he would submit the bill for a final vote, if there was support for the bill in Illinois. Trout enlisted her network, and while in Chicago over the weekend, Clark received a phone call every 15 minutes, day and night. On returning to Springfield he found a deluge of telegrams and letters from around the state all in favor of suffrage. By acting quietly and quickly, Trout had caught the opposition off guard.

After passing the Senate, the bill was brought up for a vote in the House on June 11, 1913. Trout and her team counted heads and went as far as to fetch needed male voters from their homes. Watching the door to the House chambers, Trout urged members in favor not to leave before the vote, while also trying to prevent "anti" lobbyists from illegally being allowed onto the House floor. The bill passed with six votes to spare, 83-58. On June 26, 1913, Illinois Governor Edward F. Dunne signed the bill in the presence of Trout, Booth and union labor leader Margaret Healy.

Women in Illinois could now vote for Presidential electors and for all local offices not specifically named in the Illinois Constitution. However, they still could not vote for state representative, congressman or governor; and they still had to use separate ballots and ballot boxes. But by virtue of this law, Illinois had become the first state east of the Mississippi River to grant women the right to vote for President of the United States. Carrie Chapman Catt wrote:

"The effect of this victory upon the nation was astounding. When the first Illinois election took place in April, (1914) the press carried the headlines that 250,000 women had voted in Chicago. Illinois, with its large electoral vote of 29, proved the turning point beyond which politicians at last got a clear view of the fact that women were gaining genuine political power."

Besides the passage of the Illinois Municipal Voting Act, 1913 was also a significant year in other facets of the women's suffrage movement. In Chicago, African American anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett founded the Alpha Suffrage Club, the first such organization for Negro women in Illinois. Although white women as a group were sometimes ambivalent about obtaining the franchise, African American women were almost universally in favor of gaining the vote to help end their sexual exploitation, promote their educational opportunities and protect those who were wage earners.

Other states

One after another, western states granted the right of voting to their women citizens, the only opposition being presented by the liquor interests and the machine politicians. New York joined the procession in 1917.

19th Amendment

Many groups were opposed to women's suffrage at the time. On January 12, 1915, a suffrage bill was brought before the House of Representatives but was lost by a vote of 174 to 204. Again a bill was brought before the House, on January 10, 1918. On the evening before President Wilson made a strong and widely published appeal to the House to pass the bill. It was passed with one more vote than was needed to make the necessary two-thirds majority. The vote was then carried into the Senate. Again President Wilson made an appeal, and on September 30, 1918, the question was put to the vote, but two votes were lacking to make the two-thirds majority. On February 10, 1919, it was again voted upon, and then it was lost by only one vote.

There was considerable anxiety among politicians of both parties to have the amendment passed and made effective before the general elections of 1920, so the President called a special session of Congress, and a bill, introducing the amendment, was brought before the House again. On May 21, 1919, it was passed, 42 votes more than necessary being obtained. On June 4, 1919, it was brought before the Senate, and after a long discussion it was passed, with 56 ayes and 25 nays. It only remained that the necessary number of states should ratify the action of Congress. Within a few days Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan, their legislatures being then in session, passed the ratifications. Other states then followed their examples, and Tennessee was the last of the needed 36 states to ratify, in the summer of 1920. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was an accomplished fact, and the Presidential election of November 1920, was therefore the first occasion on which women in all of America were allowed to exercise their right of suffrage. This had the effect of overriding local laws which confined the right to vote to males only. However, even now some of those laws are on the statute book.

See also