History of Women’s Suffrage – National Overview

Suffragists began their organized fight for women’s equality in 1848 when they demanded the right to vote during the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York. For the next 72 years, women leaders lobbied, marched, picketed, and protested for the right to the ballot.

The Library of Congress exhibit “Shall Not Be Denied” covers the long history of the suffrage movement. See the exhibit online.

See highlights of the exhibit below:

Seneca Falls and the Start of Annual Conventions

“I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?”
Sojourner Truth, Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851

The campaign for women’s voting rights lasted more than seven decades. Considered the largest reform movement in United States history, its participants believed that securing the vote was essential to achieving women’s economic, social, and political equality. Culminating 100 years ago in the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the fight for women’s suffrage was not for the fainthearted. Determined women organized, lobbied, paraded, petitioned, lectured, and picketed for years. Suffragists were ridiculed, patronized, and dismissed by opponents, yet they persisted. Some were assaulted and endured the harsh confines of prison for daring to claim rights equal to men, but they would not be denied.

The movement questioned the country’s commitment to democracy, exposed the nation’s longstanding class, regional, and racial divides, and challenged existing gender stereotypes. Arguments and strategies for and against women’s suffrage varied over time and place. Proponents forged uneasy alliances and overcame countless controversies. Although few of the women who began the suffrage campaign before the Civil War lived long enough to witness its final victory in August 1920, their work was carried on by their daughters, granddaughters, and other women whom they had inspired, nurtured, and taught. Their collective story is one of courage, perseverance, savvy, creativity, and hope that continues to inspire women today. #ShallNotBeDenied

Alice Paul celebrating the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Credit: Library of Congress

A 1915 illustration by Henry Mayer, titled “The Awakening,” suggested the geographical force behind the suffrage movement.

Credit: Cornell University, The PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography

Key Dates 1919 – 1920

The U.S. House of Representatives finally approved the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, on May 21, 1919. The U.S. Senate followed two weeks later, and the 19th Amendment went to the states, where it had to be ratified by 3/4ths of the then-48 states to be added to the Constitution.

Missouri ratified the amendment on July 3, 1919 and was the 11th state to do so.

By a vote of 50-47, Tennessee became the last state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby issued a proclamation declaring the 19th Amendment ratified and part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.

Also see these excellent timelines:

Racism & Discrimination Within the Movement

The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 did not guarantee the exercise of full voting rights for all women—women of color especially had additional struggles ahead. Recent and ongoing scholarship has uncovered detailed and complex histories of African American women in the suffrage movement, but there is still much work to be done regarding all women of color. The contributions of Asian American, Latina, and Native American suffragists are just beginning to be examined by scholars.

For African American suffragists the links between racial justice and women’s rights were central to their activism. In the early twentieth century, relatively few black women participated in (or were permitted to participate in, due to racism) the primarily white women’s suffrage associations of the NAWSA and the NWP. Instead, black suffragists organized within the National Association of Colored Women (NACW); religious organizations such as the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention; and local women’s clubs and suffrage leagues.

Today, more than 68 million women vote in elections because of the courageous suffragists who never gave up the fight for equality.

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