Battle for the Ballot: Women win right to vote in 1920

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles on women’s suffrage written by local writers Karen Elias and Loretta Coltrane. The articles will be published in The Express throughout the coming year, leading up to the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States on August 26, 2020.

One of our greatest victories in the battle for civil rights will be celebrated across America this coming year. August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States.


Women’s right to vote was granted with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in August, 1920, after seven decades of almost constant struggle, persistence, political negotiation, civil disobedience, personal sacrifice, and unmistakable courage. The suffragists engaged in dramatic acts of resistance. They picketed the White House – a first in U.S. History. They endured prison where they were force-fed. They hiked 170 miles to Albany, and then, as the “Army of the Hudson,” 250 miles to Washington DC to lobby for suffrage. They also worked tirelessly behind the scenes to hammer out appeals, petitions, political platforms, and templates for what would eventually become the Nineteenth Amendment, knowing in their hearts that women should have the right to vote simply by virtue of being human.


It’s hard for us — who so often take our right to vote for granted — to imagine what it was like before that right was won. Prior to the 1840s when the demand for suffrage began to gather strength, women were largely defined as wives, mothers, and daughters, confined to what was called the private sphere where they were expected to fulfill their “proper roles” as home-makers. Under law, husband and wife were considered one person, and that person was male. This meant that women had no legal status; they could not own property or sign contracts, and because the public realm was defined as belonging exclusively to men, it was considered unnatural, even sinful, for women to speak in public.

Many of the 19th century women’s rights advocates were Quakers. Bolstered by their belief that all people are equal in the sight of God, they became involved in the abolitionist movement to free the slaves and began to find the courage to speak publicly, despite widespread condemnation. Within the radical wing of the abolitionist movement, some became convinced that women’s rights were also worthy of moral support and they began to speak out for equality of the sexes.


Two leading Quaker social activists, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, came to believe that political pressure was essential to achieve this equality, and they convened the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848. The convention, attended by 300 women and men, issued a “Declaration of Sentiments,” deliberately modeled after the “Declaration of Independence,” which asserted that all men and women are created equal and are therefore deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Stanton wrote and introduced a proposal to the convention demanding women’s right to vote; the proposal was so controversial that her husband refused to attend the gathering and accused his wife of turning the convention into a farce. It was only after Frederick Douglass, respected abolitionist leader, gave his support that the resolution passed.

A series of National Women’s Rights Conventions followed in quick succession, and the issue of suffrage began gaining greater acceptance. With the advent of the Civil War, the movement’s leaders, including at this point Susan B. Anthony who was working in close collaboration with Stanton, agreed to temporarily suspend their focus on women’s rights so that they could concentrate on the abolition of slavery. But once the war was over, Anthony and Stanton organized the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention to regain lost momentum.


The end of the war brought with it new challenges. Abolitionist and women’s rights activists were now calling for universal suffrage – the right of everyone, including women, to vote. But some abolitionists and prominent politicians cautioned the suffragists that they should postpone their campaign until African American men had gained that right. The women’s movement split in half over the question of whose rights should come first, and these tensions endured for decades, with a merger between the two factions proving impossible until 1890 when they aligned and formed the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, NAWSA became an organization prepared to engage in an effective suffrage campaign waged at both the state and national levels.

Western states were beginning to grant voting rights to women: Wyoming in 1869, Utah in 1870, Colorado in 1893, and Idaho in 1896. These successes, along with the increasing visibility of the issue, gave rise to a backlash, with opponents claiming that women voters would support causes such as prohibition and the elimination of child labor. Some opposed the suffrage movement because they believed women were emotionally unstable, while others claimed that women’s involvement in so-called dirty politics would sully the moral high ground that women occupied. Women’s place, according to the “Antis,” was no longer necessarily restricted to the home, but her role in society, they said, should be social betterment, not politics. The suffragists began to wonder whether the vote would ever be won.


By the turn of the century it was becoming clear that ratification of an amendment to the Constitution would require approval by three-fourths of the states. This meant that the south, the area of the country least supportive of suffrage, would need to come on board. Over the objections of some of its leaders, NAWSA developed a Southern Strategy, arguing that the political dominance of whites could be maintained in the south through the enfranchisment of (only) educated women, who would be predominantly white. During this time, the mainly white membership of NAWSA also distanced themselves from its black members. Ida Wells-Barnett, a prominent African American leader, was told that – to avoid upsetting white southerners – she would have to march with a segregated contingent at the 1913 march on Washington. She refused, and instead joined marchers from her home state of Illinois. The Southern Strategy was unsuccessful; not one southern state endorsed suffrage as a result of its implementation.


By 1916, women’s suffrage had become an issue of national importance. Washington State had enfranchised women in 1910; California in 1911; Oregon, Kansas and Arizona in 1912; and Illinois in 1913. NAWSA (now with two million members) had continued its lobbying efforts at both state and national levels and, in 1916, declared a constitutional amendment its highest priority. The issue also received additional attention from the newly-formed National Women’s Party (NWP), organized by Alice Paul, which engaged in actions that were provocative and confrontational. Members of the NWP picketed the White House , something that had never been done before, holding banners demanding women’s right to vote. At one event, over 200 women were arrested, half of whom were then sent to prison where they began a hunger strike. When the papers reported that the suffragists were being force-fed, the resulting public outcry convinced the administration to set the women free.

The entrance of the U.S. into the First World War in 1917 became the turning point. Men who had gone to war were replaced in a variety of non-traditional jobs by women and, in recognition of women’s support for the war effort, President Woodrow Wilson began calling for approval of the suffrage amendment. Bills were brought before Congress in quick succession, but though they passed the House, the Senate refused passage until, in 1919, the President called a special session of Congress to consider the amendment. This time, both the House and the Senate voted to approve.

Thirty six states were then needed to ratify the amendment. By the summer of 1920, 35 states had voted their approval when the bill was introduced in Tennessee. Partisans on both sides of the suffrage divide lined the halls of the Tennessee capitol. Liquor lobbyists bribed legislators to vote Nay, fearing that newly-franchised women would vote for prohibition. The House Speaker defected at the last minute. Legislators were lured away by fabricated emergencies. When the vote was finally taken, a freshman member of Congress named Harry Burn, who had walked into the room wearing an anti-suffrage rose in his lapel, switched his vote at the last minute. We have his mother to thank. In Burns’s pocket was a note from his mother Phoebe, reading, “Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt.”

On August 18, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, thus becoming the law throughout the nation. In the national election of 1920, women in the United States were allowed to cast their votes for the first time.