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