U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave American women the right to vote, represented the culmination of several decades of struggle.

Summary of Event

In 1890, the radical and moderate wings of the woman suffrage movement in the United States merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). This organization’s first president was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, longtime women’s rights champion and social activist. Her leadership in the cause of woman suffrage was nearing an end, however, and younger women were beginning to replace the aging stalwarts. Woman suffrage;U.S. Suffrage;women Women;suffrage Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) [kw]U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote (Aug. 26, 1920) [kw]Women Gain the Right to Vote, U.S. (Aug. 26, 1920) [kw]Right to Vote, U.S. Women Gain the (Aug. 26, 1920) [kw]Vote, U.S. Women Gain the Right to (Aug. 26, 1920) Woman suffrage;U.S. Suffrage;women Women;suffrage Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution) [g]United States;Aug. 26, 1920: U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote[05170] [c]Women’s issues;Aug. 26, 1920: U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote[05170] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 26, 1920: U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote[05170] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Aug. 26, 1920: U.S. Women Gain the Right to Vote[05170] Catt, Carrie Chapman Shaw, Anna Howard Paul, Alice Stanton, Elizabeth Cady Anthony, Susan B. Stone, Lucy

Although not yet generally accepted, woman suffrage was no longer considered a fringe idea. The movement for women’s voting rights had influential friends in the U.S. Congress as well as in state legislatures. This progress is attributable to the efforts of such veterans as Stanton (president of the National Woman Suffrage Association from 1869 to 1889), her close friend, cofounder and also president of the NWSA, Susan B. Anthony, and older allies such as Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone. A younger generation was ready to advance the movement, confident that a growing social consciousness would aid their cause.

The ever-growing numbers of women moving into higher education and into the job market found enlarged horizons and new experiences and contacts. They developed programs for social reform as well as for personal development. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs, General Federation of Women’s Clubs formed in 1890, created a network of intelligent, capable women who were able and willing to tackle serious social problems such as low wages, overcrowded tenements, and poor health conditions.

Carrie Chapman Catt served as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association from 1900 to 1904 and again from 1915 to 1920. She and Anna Howard Shaw, president of the NAWSA from 1904 to 1915, epitomized the new leadership in the movement for women’s rights. They stressed tighter organization, cohesion, and propaganda as tools with which to broaden the movement’s support. Catt, in particular, had a keen eye for detail and was responsible for recruiting and training suffragists. She proposed that suffragists do a systematic study of government, examining existing laws to note the unjust ones and formulate ways to get them changed. Catt also proposed more visibility for the movement, suggesting that members court the press and establish a finance committee to ensure a steady flow of funds.

Larger and better unified than previous organizations, the NAWSA of the early 1900’s shifted the movement’s arguments, putting less stress on equal rights and more on the good that women could do for society as a whole. The idea of female benevolence would reach a wider audience, the suffragists argued. They were helped considerably by the fact that their agenda meshed well with the Progressives’ Progressive movement pre-World War I program of reform. The groups shared the same goals for society—including an end to poverty, injustice, and corruption—so they cooperated in pressuring legislators for reforms such as cleaning up slums and sweatshops, expanding educational opportunities, and ousting corrupt political bosses.

Antisuffrage arguments took on new zeal between 1890 and 1919, as foes of the movement defended the status quo by depicting woman suffrage as an attack on traditional values and beliefs. The most basic arguments relied on the notions that the sexes have separate spheres and that the two must complement each other if society is to remain orderly. Foes of suffrage insisted that granting women voting rights would harm family and society by pitting wives against husbands, disturbing the natural order. Also, they asserted, women’s purity and natural moral superiority would suffer from exposure to the battles and tensions of politics.

Suffragists responded to critics by shifting their emphasis to the altruism expected of women. The women’s vote, they said, would purify politics and effect reforms nationwide. As one historian has expressed it, the vote would not violate woman’s sphere but rather “would consummate motherhood.” Capitalizing on the traditional view of women as morally superior to men and on domestic ideals, the suffragists succeeded in broadening their support base.

In 1912, the Progressive Party endorsed woman suffrage, although presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt was a lukewarm advocate of this plank in the party’s platform. Another victory came in 1914, when the General Federation of Women’s Clubs passed a resolution supporting woman suffrage, giving the movement mainstream acceptability and respectability.

State campaigns were chalking up victories as well, particularly in the West. Anna Shaw, president of the NAWSA, focused the group’s energies and funds on state campaigns with gratifying results. From 1910 to 1914, seven western states gave women the vote, and a new stage of the struggle began. Shaw’s successor as president of the NAWSA, Catt, concentrated on the federal level, working to win presidential and congressional support. Differing ideas of how to get that support sidetracked some of that effort.

Alice Paul, a political activist with a master’s degree in sociology and an education in political science and economics, took leadership of the NAWSA’s Congressional Committee in 1912. Its purpose was to lobby for suffrage on the federal level. More so than Catt or Shaw, Paul was adept at garnering publicity. The charismatic leader soon gathered a large number of young suffragists around her and formed the militant Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage. Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage

Many older members of the NAWSA were annoyed by these tactics, and in 1916 Paul and her group left the NAWSA to found the National Woman’s Party. National Woman’s Party[National Womans Party] One of their first public acts was to attack Woodrow Wilson Wilson, Woodrow [p]Wilson, Woodrow;woman suffrage and the Democrats, as the party in power, for denying women the vote. Paul and her followers picketed the White House and went on hunger strikes, Hunger strikes;suffragists both moves calculated to win attention and sympathy. Catt and the NAWSA avoided these tactics, not wanting to alienate friends in both political parties.

Both the militants and the moderates used World War I to add to the strength of the suffrage movement. When the United States entered the war in 1917, the NAWSA offered endorsement. Members sold war bonds and organized benefits for the troops, as did millions of other women nationwide. Catt argued that the fight for democracy at home was a matter of justice. Women were contributing immensely to the war effort and deserved a “reward.”

Catt hoped to get a suffrage amendment through Congress, and her hopes rose after Wilson appeared at the NAWSA convention in June, 1916. While not committing himself, Wilson indicated that he saw success coming if the women persevered. Some of that success came when several states granted women the right to vote in presidential and municipal elections.

More pressure was brought on Wilson and Congress by the NAWSA and the Congressional Union’s repeated charge that the United States was not truly a democracy as long as it denied a large percentage of citizens the vote. Embarrassed, Wilson urged the Senate to pass a woman suffrage amendment, calling it “vital” to winning the war. Catt was ecstatic when, on November 6, 1917, New York State passed a suffrage bill. She thought this would force Congress’s hand, but it took several more months before Congress acted.

On January 10, 1918, the House of Representatives voted on the suffrage amendment. It was a close call: The amendment passed by a vote of 274 to 134, barely gaining the required two-thirds majority. The Senate would prove to be an even tougher battleground. Despite Wilson’s personal appearance and plea before the Senate on September 30, 1918, the Senate voted down the amendment. On February 10, 1919, another vote was taken and again suffrage failed—by a single vote. Catt was so sure that the next vote would bring victory that she began organizing the group that would become the NAWSA’s successor, the League of Women Voters. League of Women Voters She was determined that women should be educated in how to use the vote so that they would be capable of full political participation.

On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives voted on woman suffrage; the vote was 304 for and 89 against. The Senate debate began on June 3, and late on June 4 the vote was taken: 56 for and 25 against. Victory had finally come.

Within the next four months, seventeen states ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, almost half the number needed. Catt and the NAWSA executive board were so certain of success that they dissolved the NAWSA in February, 1920. At the final meeting, Catt gave a moving tribute to the pioneers who laid the groundwork for the final victory, naming in particular Susan B. Anthony and Anna Howard Shaw.

On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution. Catt, in Washington, D.C., that day, was received at the White House by President and Mrs. Wilson. In New York the next day, she told a crowd of cheering women that they were no longer “wards of the nation.” Rather, they were now “free and equal citizens.” The long struggle was over.

Significance

With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, the women’s movement in the United States splintered into a variety of groups, each working toward its own particular goals. The unifying cause of suffrage was won, and no new cause was able to galvanize women nationwide.

The amendment had some positive immediate effects; for example, twenty states passed laws enabling women to serve on juries. In addition, Congress seemed eager to please women voters—at least temporarily. In 1921, Congress passed the Sheppard-Towner Act Sheppard-Towner Act (1921)[Sheppard Towner Act] to finance maternal education and child health care programs. In 1924, Congress passed a child labor amendment, although it was never ratified. The Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, Women’s Joint Congressional Committee[Womens Joint Congressional Committee] which represented several major women’s organizations, including the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the American Association of University Women, lobbied for desired bills.

It soon became evident, however, that many women’s expectations were too high: Woman suffrage would not solve all social problems. One assumption that had been common to both suffragists and antisuffragists was that women would vote in a bloc. Suffragists claimed they would thus purify politics and end war, crime, and injustice of all kinds. Opponents foresaw domestic discord, excessive individualism, and even social anarchy. Statistics show that both sides were wrong. Women voted in smaller numbers than men and tended to vote the same way as their male relatives. Part of the problem was a lack of female candidates and officeholders. Women simply did not rally to “women’s issues” in large numbers.

Catt saw this development as stemming from women’s loss of a unifying cause. For decades, the struggle for suffrage had served to unify and energize women. With the coalition divided, factions split over such issues as protective laws and a newly proposed equal rights amendment (pushed most strongly by Alice Paul). There was no common rallying point or broad consensus for women after 1920. Clearly, the Nineteenth Amendment did not give women much political power. What it did accomplish was a push toward a gradual shift in attitudes: Women were now deemed able to be involved in public affairs, to act as agents of change.

Among the varied women’s organizations functioning after 1920, the League of Women Voters had some of the most solid effects. In particular, the league’s state chapters succeeded in decreasing the number of discriminatory marriage and property laws on the books and, perhaps just as important, served to train women who were interested in participating in politics. The league increasingly emphasized education rather than proselytizing for social reform, however, frustrating many former NAWSA members as well as Alice Paul and her fellow activists. Factionalism grew, much of it focusing on the issue of social feminism.

Widespread disagreement arose among women’s organizations concerning what the term “feminism” should encompass. To Catt and pre-1920’s suffragists, the new female image was one of women combining marriage and career, cooperating and competing with men in the professions. Many women, however, placed more stress on marriage and motherhood and, thanks in large part to the growing advertising industry, were largely concerned with fashion, beauty, and sex appeal. It is not coincidental that Atlantic City hotel owners promoted a beauty contest in 1920 to select a Miss America. The new heroines of that era were more likely to be movie stars and beauty queens than social activists such as Jane Addams or Alice Paul. Woman suffrage;U.S. Suffrage;women Women;suffrage Nineteenth Amendment (U.S. Constitution)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clift, Eleanor. Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Brief history of the suffrage movement in the United States describes important events and organizations and provides background on the movement’s leaders. Includes bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clinton, Catherine. The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century. Rev. ed. New York: Hill & Wang, 1999. A brief but comprehensive chronological look at nineteenth century women. Covers women’s experiences with and contributions to the major social campaigns and reforms of the 1800’s. Alongside the usual “stars,” discusses “forgotten” women: black women, poor women, Native American women, and lesbians. Lays a good foundation for readers interested in more detailed study. Includes bibliographic essay and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. 2d ed. New York: Free Press, 1997. Discusses diversity, race, and class issues among the advocates of women’s rights. Includes list of suggested further reading and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Enlarged ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1996. A standard source on the women’s movement through the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Includes abundant quotations and anecdotes, photographs, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harper, Ida Husted. History of Woman Suffrage, 1900-1920. 1922. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Fifth volume in the NAWSA’s official account of the suffrage movement. Very detailed, with reports of the NAWSA’s annual national conventions, many extracts from leading writers and speakers at both state and federal levels, and material collected by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Includes brief supplements for several chapters and a detailed index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, Anne Firor, and Andrew M. Scott. One Half the People: The Fight for Woman Suffrage. 1975. Reprint. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1982. An exhaustive treatment of the persons and organizations involved in the movement to win women’s right to vote. Includes bibliographic essay and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Van Voris, Jacqueline. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York: Feminist Press, 1987. Biography focuses on Catt’s work in the suffrage movement from 1900 to 1920. The last four chapters trace her efforts on behalf of international suffrage and world peace. Includes excerpts from many of Catt’s speeches and writings, chapter notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience: A Concise History. 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. Selective survey of the history of American women focuses on both domestic and public life, with some attention to the impact of class and race. A chapter on woman suffrage examines the movement’s meaning to the women who participated in it. Includes illustrations, maps, charts, bibliography, and index.

Pankhursts Found the Women’s Social and Political Union

First Woman Is Elected to the U.S. Congress

National Woman’s Party Is Founded

Canadian Women Gain the Vote

British Women Gain the Vote

League of Women Voters Is Founded

Proposal of the Equal Rights Amendment

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