August 1920 saw the greatest expansion of voting rights in American history. The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment established that twenty-six million American women could no longer be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex.
Congress had passed the Nineteenth Amendment a year earlier — forty-one years after its introduction and seventy-one years after Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott drafted the Declaration of Sentiments at Seneca Falls, New York, widely regarded as the start of the formal women’s rights movement in the United States. Benefits came quickly: Economic studies show that when women gained the right to vote, education spending and enrollment increased, children stayed in school longer, and child mortality dropped by as much as fifteen percent.
As a child, I learned a fairy-tale version of the suffragists’ story: Women couldn’t vote, Susan B. Anthony came along and saved the day, and now we can. Picture Mary Poppins’s England, where Mrs. Banks marched around her living room handing out sashes to her “sister suffragettes.”
Of course, the real story is far more complex — full of conflict, setbacks, and victories born of the efforts of not just a few exceptional leaders but of millions of women.
The story doesn’t actually begin at Seneca Falls. (That idea emerged from a six-volume history of the women’s rights movement written by Stanton and Anthony.) Even before the American Revolution, wealthy single women sometimes voted in defiance of social norms.
Between 1777 and 1807, women lost the right to vote previously enjoyed in several colonies. The original state constitution of New Jersey, for example, had allowed propertied residents to vote regardless of race or gender; the state embraced suffrage for unmarried and widowed women, though married women could not vote because their property legally belonged to their husbands. (Coverture laws prompted many suffragists, including Anthony, to remain single.) But in 1807, the New Jersey legislature restricted voting to “free, white, male citizens.”
In the 1830s, abolitionists began advocating for women’s rights, as well. Contributors to both movements included Anthony, Stanton, and Frederick Douglass, who joined forces after the Civil War to promote universal suffrage, regardless of race or gender. But when Congress moved to enfranchise African-American men with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, while continuing to exclude women, many suffragists balked. Stanton and Anthony, both early abolitionists, campaigned against the Fifteenth Amendment because it did not include women. Stanton resorted to racist rhetoric, arguing that “educated, virtuous white women” were more worthy of the vote than “degraded” African-American men.
Ladies’/Gentlemen’s Voting Booth, U.S. Patent No. 966,505
Two approaches emerged from this rift: Stanton and Anthony continued to advocate for a constitutional amendment, while Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe focused on a state-by-state approach. Despite the racism exposed by the strategic split, women of color were active in both organizations and others that they formed themselves. In the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade, Ida B. Wells defied organizers’ demand that African-American women march in the back. Chippewa law student Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin educated suffragists about Indigenous women’s traditional political roles. Chinese suffragist Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was a force in the movement from the age of sixteen. Adelina Otero-Warren organized Latinx women in New Mexico.
Progress was piecemeal. Even as individual states expanded voting rights to women, many granted only partial suffrage. Inventors patented selective voting booths, such as a Minnesotan model with his and hers entrances that displayed full ballots to men and only school board candidates to women. But by the close of the 19th century, women were voting on equal terms with men in four states. By 1919, fifteen states, mainly in the West, had full female suffrage, while twelve others granted women partial voting rights.
At the national level, World War I highlighted both women’s patriotism and the hypocrisy of fighting a war for democratic ideals abroad while denying half of the American population the right to vote. Alice Paul’s Silent Sentinels picketed the White House with increasingly confrontational banners, leading to their arrest and brutal treatment. Momentum was building; the House easily approved the amendment in January 1918, and on September 30, 1918, President Wilson finally urged his party — which controlled the Senate — to follow suit.
It failed by one vote. Undeterred, suffragists planned campaigns to oust anti-suffrage senators in the November elections. But within days, the Spanish flu overtook the capital. By mid-October, most lawmakers were out sick or caring for the sick, and political activities, rallies, and speeches came to a halt. As the pandemic canceled gatherings across the nation, suffragists campaigned by telephone, letters, and newspaper ads.
And once again, women’s contributions to a national emergency — this time as nurses and caregivers — won support for women’s suffrage. With the election of several new pro-suffrage senators, both the House and Senate passed the amendment in 1919, launching an intense ratification campaign that succeeded the following year.
But the real story doesn’t end the way many of us learned it, either. The Nineteenth Amendment did not grant women the right to vote; instead, it barred disenfranchisement on the basis of sex. States were still free to exclude millions of women of color from the polls — and they did. African-American and Latinx women faced literacy tests, poll taxes, “white primary” laws, and other forms of voter suppression. Native American women who refused to disassociate from their tribes were not eligible for citizenship until 1924, after which many states excluded them from the polls with literacy tests and other pretextual means. The Chinese Exclusion Act and Asiatic Barred Zone Act denied citizenship and voting rights to most Asian immigrants. The battle for suffrage was not over. Indeed, it would be forty-five years before the Voting Rights Act prohibited these discriminatory practices.
And really, this story has no end. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013); five years later, research showed that nearly one thousand U.S. polling places had closed, mostly in predominantly African-American counties. The suffrage debate has shifted from poll taxes and literacy tests to voter ID laws and access to polling places, early voting, and voting by mail. In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, millions of Americans have seen their votes challenged in court. We can never check suffrage off the to-do list; this hard-won right is too easily lost.
Yet, the suffragists story of persistence offers us a template. In her joyous, fiery play, “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Heidi Schreck traces how the document she revered as a young debate champion has disserved generations of women and the ongoing struggle to effectuate its ideals. Schreck likens the course of progress to watching a woman running along a beach with a dog. If you watch the dog running back and forth, it seems that progress is constantly being undone.
“But if you watch the woman, you can see that she is moving steadily forward, and forward, and forward.”
Jenny Carman is a Staff Attorney at the Colorado Court of Appeals, where she has practiced across the spectrum of criminal, civil, and juvenile law for eleven years. Any views or opinions expressed in this publication do not reflect the position of the Colorado Court of Appeals or the Colorado Judicial Department.