How Did Women Win the 19th Amendment? A Piecemeal Path to Women's Voting Rights

U.S. National Archives

The 19th Amendment was not easily won. From the 1830s to 1920, a diverse group of activists used a multitude of strategies to win voting rights for women. Some focused on amending the U.S. Constitution. Others appealed to the states for women’s admission to the polls. They lobbied privately in their parlors and publicly in the halls of Congress. They wrote articles and circulated petitions, preached from soap boxes and pulpits, organized massive marches, and suffered jail terms. These efforts secured piecemeal victories that gave millions of women the vote before 1920 and made possible the triumph of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. 

Tabular Statement of Limited Suffrage, Page 1, 1897, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
A piecemeal path to women’s voting rights
Instead of granting women full voting rights, some states, counties, and municipalities adopted “partial” or “limited” suffrage measures that enabled some women to vote in certain elections. This tabular statement of limited suffrage details the “voting privileges” certain states granted to women beginning in 1838—10 years before the Seneca Falls Convention.
Tabular Statement of Limited Suffrage, Page 2, 1897, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Tabular Statement of Limited Suffrage, Page 3, 1897, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Tabular Statement of Limited Suffrage, Page 4, 1897, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Patent Drawing of a Voting Machine, 1910-08-10, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

A “solution” to the “challenge” of partial suffrage

Election officials in partial suffrage states faced the challenge of providing different ballots for women and men. To address this challenge, inventors such as Lenna Winslow created devices that could restrict voting options by gender. As women entered through the “Ladies” side of a turnstile, Winslow’s “Voting Machine” concealed ballot items on which they could not vote.

Hunter et al. v. District of Columbia, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

A legal victory

From June to November 1917, 218 Silent Sentinels were arrested while peacefully protesting in Washington, DC. They were charged with “obstructing sidewalk traffic,” and many were convicted. The six defendants in Hunter et al. v. District of Columbia appealed their conviction. On March 4, 1918, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals declared the actions of the Sentinels fully legal and reversed all of their convictions.

National Women's Party Virginia Branch Petition, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

Petition outlines treatment of Silent Sentinels

Letter from Laura C. Pollard to Congressman Edwin Webb, Regarding a Mother's Sacrifice in War, 1917-05-29, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

Suffrage for sacrifice

Although unable to bear arms themselves during World War I, some suffragists lobbied Congress for the vote by calling attention to women’s sacrifices in support of the war effort. Just days after Congress instituted a wartime draft, Laura Pollard sent this suffrage petition to Congress, declaring, “surely, no man has as much to sacrifice in this war, as we mothers.”

Uncle Sam “You Earned It” Petition, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

Woman suffrage as a “war measure”

On September 30, 1918, in an address to the Senate, President Woodrow Wilson asked the chamber to pass a woman suffrage amendment as a “war measure.” The House had already passed the measure. This petition depicting Uncle Sam handing the ballot to Lady Liberty (representing American women) urges senators to heed the President and vote for woman suffrage. Despite the President’s efforts, the measure did not pass.

Political Power of Women Pamphlet, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

Mounting power of piecemeal voting rights victories

Woman suffrage victories in the states were critical to the struggle for a Federal woman suffrage amendment. This pamphlet explains that enfranchising women in one state increased the percentage of congressional seats (and Presidential electors) beholden to women voters. Passage of a woman suffrage amendment grew more likely every time a state adopted woman suffrage.

“The Lady and the Tiger”, Clifford K. Berryman, National Archives and Records Administration, November 7, 1917, Original Source: National Archives Catalog

A critical victory in the East

Working-class suffragists scored a critical win when they helped to convince working-class men to vote for adding woman suffrage to New York’s state constitution in 1917. Success in New York, the first eastern state to enfranchise women, generated hope that a Federal amendment would pass. This political cartoon shows a suffragist with the “Tammany Tiger,” which represents New York City’s political machine. Originally opposed to woman suffrage, Tammany Hall backed it in 1917.

Credits: Story

Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote
Corinne Porter, curator
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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