Rightfully Hers: Why Did Women Fight for the Vote?

By U.S. National Archives

Women fought long and hard for the franchise—the right to vote—for a multitude of reasons. Many suffragists argued that the right to vote should be universal and that it was unjust to bar American women from the polls. They also argued that women’s inability to vote resulted in tangible economic, political, and social harm to them, their families, and their communities. This section features a few of the countless stories from women whose lives were affected by their inability to vote. The arguments that suffragists made for women’s enfranchisement reveal their belief that it was an essential tool for protecting their well-being as well as achieving what they saw as women’s fundamental rights as citizens.

Letter from Mary Stevens to Congressman Edwin Webb, Urging Support for Woman Suffrage, 1917-05-29, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
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“My father trained me in my childhood days to expect this right”

Some women fought for decades—as many as 50 years—for their right to vote. Mary O. Stevens, a former Civil War nurse, sent this letter to House Judiciary Chairman Rep. Edwin Webb in 1917 stating, "I have given my help to the agitation . . . a good many years. It seems as if the time was come for this great act of justice."

Petition from Emily Barber for Relief from Political Disabilities, Page 1 (1879)U.S. National Archives

“She has been obliged to teach for one third of the wages accorded  to a male teacher”

In 1879, Emily Barber, a teacher, sent this petition to Congress calling attention to the inequalities she endured as a wage-earning woman. She pointedly noted that she paid equal taxes with men but had no say in how they were spent, and that “with acknowledged superior capacities for teaching and governing schools,” she made only a third of male teachers’ pay at her school. 

Petition from Emily Barber for Relief from Political Disabilities, Page 2, 1879, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
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Petition from Marriann Hosmer for Relief from Political Disabilities, 1877, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
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“If I could have had a vote, it would have saved me and my children $500.00”

In 1877, Marriann Hosmer of Bedford, Massachusetts, petitioned Congress to give women the ballot, “not as a gift but as an act of justice to all women; that they may have a right to their property, their children and themselves; which they have never had.” Without the vote, she had been unable to counter a measure—passed by one vote—that called for a costly road through her farm.

Woman's Christian Temperance Union Department of Franchise Petition to Honorable E.G. Lapham, Page 1 (1883-01)U.S. National Archives

“The ballot . . . is a most potent element in all moral and social reforms”

Frustrated by their limited ability to secure government regulation of alcohol, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—the largest women’s organization in the country at the time—endorsed woman suffrage in 1881. Pointing to links between drunkenness and domestic violence, temperance reformers argued that women needed the ballot as a means of home protection.

Woman's Christian Temperance Union Department of Franchise Petition to Honorable E.G. Lapham, Page 2, 1883-01, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
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Letter from Laura D. Jeffers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Page 1 (1934-08-17)U.S. National Archives

“The negro has a right to select the men who are to govern”

Laura Jeffers sent this letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to urge his intervention in the “White mans Primary” [sic] in Texas. Jeffers explained that despite paying poll taxes, black voters were prevented from voting in primaries, which determined who could run for, and therefore win, office. She further argued that voting discrimination hurt black Texans’ ability to get good-paying government jobs at the height of the Great Depression.

Letter from Laura D. Jeffers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Page 2, 1934-08-17, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
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Letter from Laura D. Jeffers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Page 3, 1934-08-17, From the collection of: U.S. National Archives
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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 always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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