How Did Women Win the 19th Amendment? A Strategy for Suffrage

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.

A Petition for Universal Suffrage, Page 1, 1865, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Unanswered call for “universal suffrage”
In January 1866, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and others, sent Congress this petition for “universal suffrage.” The petition asked that while placing “safeguards round the individual rights of four millions of emancipated slaves . . . you extend the right of suffrage to women.”
A Petition for Universal Suffrage, Page 2, 1865, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Petition from the National Woman Suffrage Association to Congress, Page 1, 1873-01-22, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Crusade for a constitutional amendment
Since the 15th Amendment only protected freedmen’s voting rights, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) focused on obtaining a constitutional amendment enfranchising women. This 1873 petition signed by NWSA founders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony urges Congress to pass legislation giving women the right to vote. Neither Stanton nor Anthony lived to see the 19th Amendment added to the U.S. Constitution.  
Petition from the National Woman Suffrage Association to Congress, Page 2, 1873-01-22, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Senate Journal for 45th Congress, 2nd Session, Page 1, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
A long-awaited amendment
This Congressional Record entry from January 10, 1878, notes that California Senator Aaron Sargent introduced a woman suffrage amendment identical to the future 19th Amendment. Suffragists quickly gained congressional attention to their cause, but winning its endorsement took much longer. For 42 years, the measure was introduced at every session of Congress but was ignored or voted down. It finally passed Congress in 1919 and went to the states for ratification.
Senate Journal for 45th Congress, 2nd Session, Page 2, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Berryman “Let the People Vote on It” political cartoon, 1918-06-26, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Letter from F.E. Warren to Mary E. Homes, 1889-11-08, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

An early voting rights victory

The Territory of Wyoming opened its polls to women in 1869, half a century before the 19th Amendment was ratified. As the territory sought statehood, Wyoming women fought to protect their voting rights. This telegram from the governor confirms their success. Wyoming entered the union on June 27, 1890, and for the first time since New Jersey disfranchised women in 1807, women in a U.S. state enjoyed full voting rights.

Memorial of Utah Women Against Christiancy-Luttrell Bills that Would "Disenfranchise" Them, Page 1, 1878-03-04, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Congress disfranchises Utah women
In 1870, Utah’s majority Mormon territorial legislature adopted woman suffrage. Congress, which was strongly opposed to the Mormon practice of polygamy, passed legislation in 1887 that outlawed the practice and disfranchised Utah women—the only time that Congress took voting rights from women.  It argued that women in plural marriages could not vote independently. Utah won statehood in 1895 and once again fully enfranchised women. This memorial opposed an attempt Congress made to disfranchise Utah women in 1878.
U.S. vs Susan B. Anthony, Order committing Susan B. Anthony to Albany County Jail, Page 2, 1872-12-26, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Successful voting, failed legal case
In the 1872 election, 15 women in Rochester, New York, including Susan B. Anthony, successfully registered to vote and cast their ballots. They were later arrested and charged with illegal voting. This December 26, 1872, order directed U.S. Marshals to take Anthony to jail, although she was kept under supervision rather than jailed. Only Anthony’s case went to trial. In U.S. v. Susan B. Anthony, she was found guilty and fined $100, which she never paid.
U.S. vs Susan B. Anthony, Order committing Susan B. Anthony to Albany County Jail, Page 1, 1872-12-26, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Petition from Enid Pierce Favoring the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, Page 1, 1916-07-09, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
“Help to break the fetters of Ignorance and set Justice free”
Enid M. Pierce, a school teacher in Providence, Rhode Island, sent this petition to Rep. Ambrose Kennedy in July 1916, urging his support for a woman suffrage amendment. Her letter makes an impassioned plea against depriving women the right to vote on the basis of their sex, which she compares to the unjust disfranchisement of African American men in the South because of their race.
Petition from Enid Pierce Favoring the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, Page 2, 1916-07-09, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Petition from Enid Pierce Favoring the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, Page 3, 1916-07-09, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Petition from Minnie Fisher Cunningham of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association, 1916-05-02, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

“This is not a question in which the State’s Rights bogy is involved”

Texas Woman Suffrage Association President Minnie Fisher Cunningham sent Congress this pro-suffrage petition in 1916. She argued that woman suffrage would not threaten Southern states’ rights because suffragists sought no other changes to voting qualifications besides the “removal of sex discrimination.” Therefore, Southern states’ laws designed to prevent people of color from voting would not be threatened.

Petition from Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference Signed by Kate Gordon and Laura Clay, Page 1, 1919, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
“Do not destroy self-government for the state”
A minority of white Southern suffragists—women who supported white supremacy as fervently as their own political rights—insisted on states’ rights to determine eligibility for voting and opposed a Federal woman suffrage amendment. This 1919 petition from prominent Southern suffragists Kate Gordon and Laura Clay makes a direct appeal to Congress’s “race pride,” arguing that white women should obtain the vote by state action rather than a constitutional amendment.
Petition from Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference Signed by Kate Gordon and Laura Clay, Page 2, 1919, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Postcard from the Georgia Association Opposed to Woman's Suffrage, 1916, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

“Because White Supremacy must be maintained”

Many anti-suffragists opposed a woman suffrage amendment because they believed it was a state’s right to determine voter qualifications. Southern anti-suffragists further feared that giving women the right to vote under the Constitution would undermine white supremacy and efforts to prevent African American men from voting. This postcard lists some of the ways that anti-suffragists feared woman suffrage would threaten white supremacy.

Woman Suffrage Petition from Frederick Douglass Jr. and Other District of Columbia Residents, Page 1, 1878, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Disfranchised Washingtonians fighting for women’s voting rights
In 1877, African American residents in Washington, DC—including Frederick Douglass’s children Rosetta Douglass (Mrs. Nathan Sprague) and Frederick Douglass Jr.—sent this petition asking Congress “to prohibit states from disfranchising United States citizens on account of sex.” Notably, the petitioners lobbied against disfranchising women in the states without mentioning the District of Columbia, where all residents regardless of race or gender lacked many voting rights.
Woman Suffrage Petition from Frederick Douglass Jr. and Other District of Columbia Residents, Page 2, 1878, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Photo of Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

Many women marched

Organizers of the 1913 Washington, DC, suffrage march attempted to racially segregate the parade, but some women of color walked alongside white women, including Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, Baldwin marched with other female lawyers in the parade and recalled struggling to “walk four abreast . . . [in a space] no wider than a single car track.” She is pictured in her ca. 1911 personnel file photo for the Office of Indian Affairs.

Woman Suffrage Petition With Petition Drive Instructions Attached, Page 1, 1911, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Borrowing tactics from working-class organizers
Working-class women joined the suffrage movement in significant numbers during the 1910s. The movement gained not only unprecedented numbers of supporters but also leaders with deep experience in organizing labor. The instruction page attached to this 1911 woman suffrage petition from Chicago shows that suffragists adopted labor union tactics to build working-class support for woman suffrage.
Woman Suffrage Petition With Petition Drive Instructions Attached, Page 2, 1911, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
Woman suffrage petition signed by women of Hopkins, MN from diverse occupations, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

Becoming a cross-class cause

By 1910, a majority of American women worked for pay at some point in their lives. As working women came to view the vote as a significant tool for protecting them in the workplace, the ranks of suffragists swelled. Often identified with the middle class, the struggle for woman suffrage grew into a mass movement supported by women from backgrounds as diverse as the occupations listed on this 1913 petition.

Resolution from International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in favor of woman suffrage, 1919-02-04, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives

Winning union support for woman suffrage

Working-class women helped win the vote in part by winning over powerful trade unions and working-class men, who then used their political influence on behalf of woman suffrage. As labor organizations—like this Connecticut chapter of the International Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers—voiced their desire for a woman suffrage amendment, support in Congress mounted.

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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