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  • Milestones on the road to women's voting rights

    Women parade along a Washington, D.C., boulevard in 1913 in support of women's voting rights, seven years before ratification of the 19th Amendment. (Photo public domain/Creative Commons)

    Information for this timerline has been provided by Mona Siegel, professor of History at Sacramento State and author of Peace on Our Terms: The Global Battle for Women’s Rights After the First World War.



    The first scholarly book written on the history of the American women's suffrage movement (which came out in 1959) was titled A Century of Struggle. The author, Eleanor Flaxnor, argued that we need to look far back into the days of the early American republic to understand the emergence of the suffrage movement. The following is a list of significant dates and milestones in the quest for women’s rights. 

    Read also: Sac State celebrates 19th Amendment, women's voting rights


    American women began seeking educational opportunities to advance themselves intellectually and socially. In 1821, Emma Willard opened the Troy Female Seminary, the first endowed institution for girls’ education. The first public school for girls opened in Massachusetts a few years later, in 1824. Oberlin College became the first university to offer bachelor’s degrees to young women, in 1841. Lucy Stone, a pioneering suffrage leader, was among the first women to earn a college degree. These milestones were important because in the 19th century, many believed women simply did not have the intellectual capacity to be full citizens.  


    American women began learning to organize for a cause through their involvement in the abolition movement. Many early suffragists got their start in abolitionism, including the Grimké sisters, who insisted women be allowed to speak in public (including legislative assemblies); and Frances Watkins Harper, a free woman of color and abolitionist, as well as a poet and powerful teacher who was an active organizer among black women and supported the cause of suffrage. In the economic arena, these decades saw the first female factory worker strikes for better work conditions and wages.


    At the end of the 1840s, American women began to establish dedicated and ongoing women’s rights organizations. In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and several others convened a meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss the “social, civil, and religious rights of women.” One of the rights they claimed was the right to vote, a plank many men and women found far too radical, but which was heartily supported by Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was present at the meeting. National women’s rights meetings followed in 1850 and 1851. At the latter, in 1851, Black abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth gave her famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech.


    After the Civil War, many Republicans and abolitionists dropped their support for women’s suffrage, leading some suffrage leaders, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony to argue against the 15th Amendment, which insisted Americans right to vote would not be abridged on account of race but said nothing about sex. Anthony and Stanton came to believe the next necessary step must be another amendment, guaranteeing women’s right to vote. In 1873, Susan B. Anthony was tried and found guilty for voting illegally in a presidential election. In 1887, a national amendment guaranteeing women's right to vote was first debated (and dismissed) on the Senate floor. Other suffragists, including Lucy Stone, believed the smarter strategy would be to pursue suffrage at the state level rather than the federal level. Most of the early state victories were in the West. In 1869, the Territory of Wyoming adopted universal suffrage, allowing women to vote in national and local elections for the first time. Colorado became the first state to pass women's suffrage by popular referendum in 1893. California became the first more populated state to grant women the vote, in 1911, which was seen as an important breakthrough, especially since the liquor lobby campaigned heavily against the measure.


    A new generation of women began to take over suffrage organizations, and the two branches of the movement (federal amendment vs. state method) reconciled and united. In 1900, Carrie Chapman Catt took succeeded Anthony as the head of the National American Women's Suffrage Association. Some newcomers spent time in Great Britain in the early 20th century, where they were inspired by militant suffragettes. Among them was Alice Paul, who would push suffragists to throw all their force behind a national amendment. In 1913, she famously organized a women's march in Washington, D.C., the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration, which drew the ire of many but also tremendous publicity. As a sign of the ongoing racial rift in the suffrage movement, however, Black women were told they would have to march at the back of the parade. The famous anti-lynching crusader and suffragist Ida B. Wells refused and joined the Chicago delegation mid-parade.


    During World War I, the suffrage movement again split. In 1916, Alice Paul and other militant suffragists formed the National Women’s Party and resolved to battle anyone who stood in the way of passing a national women’s suffrage amendment. She and others established pickets outside the White House during World War I. Many were eventually arrested and held under horrific conditions. In the meantime, Carrie Chapman Catt and mainstream suffragists supported America’s entry in World War I and used their patriotic service and sacrifice as an argument for the full rights of citizenship. After World War I, suffragists and women's rights activists from as far away as France and Egypt began pressuring Woodrow Wilson to live up to his promise that World War I would make the world "safe for democracy." At the Paris Peace Conference, they campaigned heavily for women's rights as a pillar of a new, liberal, international order.

    In the meantime, in the United States, the House of Representatives passed a women’s suffrage amendment in January 1918. The Senate was a tougher battle, particular as Southern Democrats were uniformly opposed to women’s suffrage if it meant enfranchising Black women. Nevertheless, the measure finally passed the Senate by the needed two-thirds majority in June 1919. From there, 36 states needed to ratify. The final vote came in Tennessee on August 18, 1920, and on August 26, 1920, the secretary of state certified final adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment.


    The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, as impressive a feat as it was, did not enfranchise all American women. Black women in the South found themselves rapidly disenfranchised, along with Black men, by racist poll taxes and other measures. Not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would most of those barriers be dismantled.

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