The face of the American electorate changed dramatically after the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Having worked collectively to win the vote, more women than ever were now empowered to pursue a broad range of political interests as voters. Women leaders prepared legislative agendas that they believed newly enfranchised women would help to pass. Some women began running for and winning political office. Others fought to further women’s equality. American women were not united in these undertakings. Race, class, and political beliefs often divided women just as they had before the 19th Amendment. Although not always successful, women’s political campaigns in the 1920s laid the foundation for future struggles toward greater equality and political representation.
Educating women voters
After winning the 19th Amendment, national organizations that had worked to enfranchise women transitioned to educating women voters and lobbying for legislation to protect women and their families. Legislative bulletins from the National Association of Colored Women and the League of Women Voters summarize a variety of bills to help their members stay informed of political measures related to women’s interests.
Nearly passed anti-lynching legislation
Women engaged in a host of social justice causes as members of mixed-sex organizations and women’s groups. This 1922 petition from the International Uplift League—signed by female and male representatives—urged Federal action against lynching. Especially critical to African American women and men, passage of the Dyer Anti-Lynching bill looked promising but was ultimately blocked by a filibuster in Congress.
Landmark social welfare legislation
Under pressure from many national women’s groups, Congress passed the Sheppard–Towner Maternity and Infancy Act just one year after ratification of the 19th Amendment. To combat high infant and maternal mortality, especially in rural areas, the act provided Federal funds for health education and nutrition services to mothers and babies. These maps from Indiana suggest the impact of the act on lowering infant mortality from 1920 to 1927.
A leading politician and leader for women’s political engagement
In 1924, Mary T. Norton of New Jersey became the first Democratic woman elected to Congress without being preceded by her husband. These credentials certify her first election. Norton had not been a suffragist but was an important civic leader. She served in the House of Representatives from 1925 to 1951. During her political career, Norton championed working people and advocated for women’s full political participation at all levels of government.
After 1920, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), a former woman suffrage organization, focused on winning women full legal equality. By lobbying for the controversial Equal Rights Amendment, it fought to include women on juries and to give married women control over their property and custody of their children. Beginning in 1923, an Equal Rights Amendment was introduced at every session of Congress until passing in 1972. It remains unratified.
Women’s political power to promote white supremacy
Winning the vote inspired women’s participation in a variety of organizations across the ideological spectrum. During the 1920s, hundreds of thousands of women—including many former suffragists—joined the Women of the Ku Klux Klan (WKKK). Activists drew on their suffrage movement experience to promote the Klan’s racist and xenophobic agenda. The women of Alliance Klan #1 sent President Coolidge this letter in 1924, encouraging him to sign a bill creating discriminatory national immigration quotas.