American democracy dramatically expanded in 1920. In that year, millions of women won the right to vote when the newly ratified 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibited the states from denying the vote on the basis of sex. Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote celebrates the 100th anniversary of this major milestone in American history. The 19th Amendment is a landmark voting rights victory, but it did not open the polls to all women. Millions of women remained unable to vote for reasons other than sex. Rightfully Hers highlights the relentless struggle of diverse activists throughout U.S. history to secure voting rights for all American women.
The U.S. Constitution as drafted in 1787 did not specify eligibility requirements for voting. It left that power to the states. Subsequent constitutional amendments and Federal laws have gradually restricted states’ power to decide who votes. But before 1920, the only constitutional restriction prohibited states from barring voters on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” States’ power to determine voter eligibility has made the struggle for women’s voting rights a piecemeal process from the earliest days of the republic through the first decades of the 21st century.
In 1776, New Jersey became the first of the new United States to grant some women the right to vote. Its state constitution restricted the vote to property owners but made no mention of sex or race. Later statutes even referred to voters as "he or she."
For 30 years, New Jersey women who met the property qualification (predominantly single women and widows) were active participants in elections at all levels—local, state, and national. In 1807, New Jersey took the vote away from women and free black men when it passed election laws that restricted voting rights to tax-paying white males. New Jersey women did not regain the vote until the 19th Amendment’s ratification in 1920.
Minor v. Happersett
A failed argument for a citizen’s right to vote. In 1872, Virginia Minor sued a Missouri registrar for refusing to allow her to register to vote. She argued that the 14th Amendment conferred citizenship on women and that voting was a citizenship right. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Constitution did not guarantee a citizen’s right to vote and that states could restrict voting rights to men.
The ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 was a landmark constitutional victory that limited states’ power to exclude women from voting, but it did not make all women voters. Millions of women had already gained the vote from their states, and millions more remained excluded from the polls for reasons other than sex.
Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote
Corinne Porter, curator
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration