Amendment 19 to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. It prohibits all levels of government in the United States from restricting the right to vote based on sex, which in so doing extended the franchise to women. The official text is as follows:
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.
In the early years of the United States, voting was not a nationally-recognized right. The framers of the Constitution predominantly envisioned that the states would have the authority to craft their own election laws. In regards to who was eligible to vote, most of the states confined it to white male individuals who owned property of a certain dollar value. This was motivated by the perception that those with property to their name would have a greater stake in the outcome of taxation, tariffs, and local policies, as opposed to the landless who were considered to be not educated or not cognizant of long-term electoral decisions. Some women – and even some free African Americans – were allowed to vote in certain cities and states, but the laws allowing them to do so fluctuated throughout the 19th century. As the property requirements were lifted across the states, universal suffrage for men became increasingly attainable, ultimately culminating in 1870 with the Fifteenth Amendment, extending the right to vote to all American men irrespective of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Women remained largely separate from the franchise in spite of this, as the national debate surrounding votes for women declined amid the Civil War and the subsequent passage of the Reconstruction Amendments. Although certain advocates for women’s suffrage argued that the Fourteenth Amendment extended the right to vote – including Susan B. Anthony and Virginia Minor – the Supreme Court held in Minor v. Happersett that while women were citizens entitled to due process and equal protection, it does not extend to the right to vote.
Advocacy for women’s suffrage proved to be far more successful in the western states and territories than in the east. Wyoming’s Constitution at the time of its statehood application explicitly acknowledged that men and women both have the right to vote in elections. After a brief interval of hesitation by Congress, Wyoming was accepted into the Union with no changes to its constitution in 1890. By the end of the 19th century, Wyoming was joined by Utah, Colorado, and Idaho in allowing women the right to vote. In 1890, two major women’s organizations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. They proceeded to advocate for extending the right to vote for women at the state level. Despite a lack of progress from 1896 to 1910, several more states began to allow women to vote by 1920, including Washington, California, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, the Alaska Territory, Montana, and Nevada. On March 3, 1913 – just one day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated as the Twenty-eighth President – the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage organized a parade in Washington, D.C. Organized by co-founders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, the parade of 5,000 attracted a crowd of around 500,000, and in so doing propelled the American women’s suffrage movement into the international public’s eye.
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 – and America’s subsequent intervention in 1917 – saw many women enter the labor force to fill the positions left vacant by the men who joined the military to fight in Europe. Many other women volunteered as relief workers, nurses, and ambulance drivers for the U.S. military and the Red Cross for the war effort. Accordingly, women’s suffrage organizations used this increase in female-driven work to promote expanding the right to vote. Members of the National Woman’s Party argued from a patriotic viewpoint that if women were willing and able to serve the country in times of war, then they should also have the same right to vote that their male counterparts held. At the same time as these patriotic appeals for the vote, other members of the National Woman’s Party conducted protests and demonstrations on the sidewalks of the White House. These “Silent Sentinels” called for President Wilson to support the “Anthony Amendment,” a proposed amendment to the Constitution that would extend the right to vote to women. The protests were subsequently met with police action and arrests, the most notable of which was when 168 protesters were arrested on July 4, 1917. They were then transported to a prison in Lorton, Virginia, where they were subjected to intervals of harsh treatment and force-feeding when certain inmates went on hunger strike. Negative reactions to these incidents of prison mistreatment were directed toward the Wilson Administration, prompting the release of the protesters a few months later. In May 1919, six months after the Armistice of Compiègne ended the fighting in World War I, the women’s suffrage amendment passed the House of Representatives. The Senate passed the amendment later in June, whereupon it was sent out to the states for ratification. The ratification process proved to be the most difficult challenge for the amendment, as even states that had allowed certain degrees of voting for women were either reluctant to sign the amendment, or faced strong opposition from anti-suffrage groups. After successfully getting thirty-five state legislatures to ratify it, Tennessee was the final state needed to have the women’s suffrage amendment approved. Pro and Anti suffrage protesters, politicians, and spectators paid close attention to the Tennessee state legislature, both advocating for support for their respective positions. The ratification tally was split at 48 by 48 after months of deliberation. It was ultimately Representative Harry Burn who voted yes for the amendment, thereby making Tennessee approve the amendment. He had voted against the amendment at first out of concern for voting against his constituents, but a hand-written letter from his mother urging him to vote yes compelled him to approve it. The women’s suffrage amendment – now known as the Nineteenth Amendment – was ratified on August 18, 1920, after which it was certified eight days later by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.
The instant that the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, over twenty-six million American women were made eligible to vote. In spite of this, a substantially large “women’s bloc” of voters did not fully materialize until the 1950s, as the Cold War brought about more sweeping changes in political and social advocacy. Additionally, in spite of the celebrations surrounding the voting expansions, the majority of African Americans – including the women among them – were still disenfranchised. In the southern states, African American women who attempted to register to vote were frequently met with poll taxes, fraudulent voting practices, literacy tests, and outright violence. Poll taxes were eventually repealed with the Twenty-fourth Amendment in 1962, and the Civil Rights Movement culminated with a nationwide end to discrimination with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Nonetheless, the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was not only a victory for the women’s suffrage movement, but was also another step in the long-term pursuit of extending the Constitution’s promises of natural-born civil liberties for all Americans.
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum