Justice Demands the Vote: Women’s Suffrage in the United States
The women’s suffrage movement was documented largely through photographs that tell the story of brave women writing letters, marching in parades, handing out leaflets, and even getting arrested. The hard work, sacrifice, and dedication of these women survives because of these pictures. For too long, women were denied one of the most fundamental freedoms this nation has to offer: the right to vote. We honor these brave warriors by preserving their legacy, and by continuing to cast our vote.
What Is The Nineteenth Amendment?
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on August 18th, 1920 when Tennessee became the last of the necessary three quarters of the states to vote for it. Congress certified the amendment on August 26th, 1920. The amendment prohibits states and the Federal government from denying citizens the right to vote based on their sex. The amendment was the culmination of eight decades of activism.
After the amendment became law, voting rights were not universally adopted. In the West and other parts of the U.S., Native Americans and Asian immigrants were mostly excluded from citizenship which meant that they couldn’t vote. And in the South, where a majority of African American men and women lived, barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests blocked voting rights. Jacob Lawrence’s circa 1940 painting is a reminder that even as late as the 1940s, voting rights were not universal. In fact, the struggle for voting rights continues to this day.
The Women’s Suffrage Movement in the U.S.
The campaign for women’s suffrage in the U.S. began before the Civil War. During the 1820s and 1830s, most states had extended voting rights to all white men. The idea of women’s suffrage started to become a topic of discussion as women became more active in political and social causes. Women were getting involved in temperance leagues, religious movements, moral-reform societies, and anti-slavery organizations.
In 1848, the famous Seneca Falls Convention brought together women (and some men) to discuss women’s rights. The attendees, spearheaded by the leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, planned to discuss the social, civil, political, and religious rights of women. The idea to include voting rights in the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments was not popular with many of the attendees. In fact it was a man, the abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass, who argued successfully for its inclusion.
Post Civil War Suffrage Movement
The suffrage movement gained momentum when the Civil War ended. After the war, the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution raised questions of suffrage and citizenship. The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, extended the Constitution’s protection to all citizens, including former slaves, but failed to address voting rights for women. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guaranteed Black men the right to vote.
In May of 1869, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). They began to fight for a universal suffrage amendment to the Constitution. They took the contrarian point of view that the 15th amendment, despite its importance, should not be ratified unless it also enfranchised women.
In November of 1869, suffragists and anti-slavery activists Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The AWSA members supported the 15th amendment, but they didn’t think it should include voting rights for women. They worried that it wouldn’t win congressional approval if it included the vote for women. Instead, they rallied for individual states to enfranchise women rather than the Federal government.
NWSA was more revolutionary than AWSA. Susan B. Anthony, for example, showed up at the ballot box in her hometown of Rochester, New York in 1872 and voted in the presidential election between Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley, even though women weren’t allowed to vote. She was arrested and found guilty of voting illegally in a highly publicized trial. In 1876, she interrupted the official 100th anniversary celebration of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia to present NWSA’s Declaration of Rights for Women.
A bitter rivalry between AWSA and NWSA endured for decades, even after the 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870. Eventually the two rival organizations made peace and merged in 1890, creating the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). NAWSA continued its activism until passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
1913 Woman Suffrage Procession
In 1912 and 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns from NAWSA planned the Woman Suffrage Procession parade. Suffragists and supporters marched down Pennsylvania Avenue on Monday, March 3, 1913, the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration. Estimates of the number of marchers range from 5,000 to 10,000 people. This was the first large, organized march on Washington for political purposes. The parade consisted of floats, bands, and various groups marching to represent women at home, in school, and in the workplace.
Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, the famed African American activist, journalist, and educator, marched in the parade along with a delegation from Chicago. She was originally told to march in the back. Wells, however, waited with spectators as the parade got underway, and as the women marched by, she stepped into the Illinois delegation where she belonged.
Another famous participant in the parade, Inez Millholland Boissevain, was a labor lawyer, socialist, World War I correspondent, and active member of the National Woman’s Party. This photograph shows her gallantly riding a horse in the parade.
National Woman’s Party
In 1916, Alice Paul formed a splinter group from NAWSA, called the National Woman’s Party. The party single-mindedly worked on passage of the 19th amendment and then later the Equal Rights Amendment (which was never ratified). The NWP party headquarters were in Washington D.C. which gave the women access to government officials.
The National Woman’s Party focused on more militant tactics than their predecessors, including hunger strikes and White House pickets. The party also engaged in less militant tactics, such as writing letters and petitions. The following photo shows the interior of the party headquarters, with nicely dressed women demurely writing their letters. Don’t be fooled by their genteel postures, though. These women were tough.
From January 1917 til June 1919, women from the NWP, known as the Silent Sentinels, stood at the fence around the White House and harassed President Wilson and other lawmakers. Regardless of the weather, the women stood outside holding banners, constantly reminding lawmakers that women still lacked basic citizenship rights.
In 1917, the police started arresting the picketers for obstructing traffic. The women refused to pay any fines and demanded prison time instead, in order to draw more attention to their cause. Alice Paul was placed in solitary confinement for two weeks, with nothing to eat except bread and water. She became weak and unable to walk and was taken to the prison hospital. There, she and others began a hunger strike. The doctors at the hospital force-fed the women, making many of them even sicker than they already were.
On November 14th, which came to be known as the Night of Terror, the superintendent of the Occoquan Workhouse, where thirty-three of the women were imprisoned, ordered the nearly forty guards to brutalize the suffragists. The prisoners were beaten, chained to cell bars, and denied medical care. Some of them lost consciousness.
Newspaper stories about how the women were treated angered many Americans and created more support for suffrage. Eventually even President Wilson changed his mind about suffrage. In 1918, Wilson went in person to Congress and made a strong and widely-publisized appeal to pass a bill to send an amendment to the states for ratification.
African American Women’s Suffrage
Many of the suffrage organizations excluded African American women. African American women attended political conventions on their own at local churches and other venues. The following photo shows Nannie Helen Burroughs and eight other women at the Woman’s National Baptist Convention. Burroughs was a teacher, activist, orator, entrepreneur, and active member of the National Association of Colored Women (which was later renamed to the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs). The organization worked on issues of civil rights and injustice, including women’s suffrage.
Many African American women suffragists, including mixed-race activists, such as Adella Hunt Logan and Mary Church Terrell, worked to further the cause of women’s voting rights. Helen Appo Cook and other women formed the Colored Women’s League (CWL) in 1892 in Washington D.C. In Boston, the National Federation of Afro-American Women worked with the CWL, under the leadership of Margaret Murray Washington and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. The two groups combined in 1896 to form the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, under the leadership of Mary Church Terrell.
Activists who agitated for African American women’s suffrage had some success. Black and white women won the vote in dozens of states even before the 19th Amendment, and African American women became a powerful voting block. However, full voting rights didn’t become a reality for Black citizens until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and there are still problems across the country with a shortage of polling places in Black communities.
A March Across the United States
The suffragists took their activism to every state in the U.S. and Washington, D.C. In New York City, they marched with their kids.
They handed out pamphlets in Utica, New York.
In Cleveland, Ohio, they pleaded with men to vote for ratification of the amendment.
They traveled across the country, from San Francisco to New Jersey.
They got arrested in Washington D.C. and elsewhere and pled with the justice system to not treat them like criminals.
They supported the war effort during World War 1, demonstrating that they were just as patriotic and deserving of full citizenship as men.
Finally, the 36th state ratified the 19th Amendment when Tennessee voted Yes on August 18th, 1920. The 19th amendment became law when Congress certified it on August 26th, 1920. And on November 2nd of that year, millions of women across the United States voted in elections for the first time.
The Year of the Woman
Many U.S. museums are celebrating the anniversary of the 19th Amendment ratification. In 2019, the Baltimore Museum of Art declared that 2020 would be a year for women’s art, exhibitions, programs, and acquisitions in honor of the anniversary. The museum announced that it would purchase art only by female-identifying artists in 2020, and that it had a $2.5 million budget to enable this.
Other venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, have organized shows, performances, lectures, and symposia. In 2019 the Library of Congress opened a wonderful new “Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote” exhibition that features artifacts and documents from the women who changed political history 100 years ago during the struggle for women’s suffrage.
1000Museums has declared 2020 the Year of the Woman. In honor of this, we are featuring a woman artist every month. Although 2020 is a dedicated year of sharing the works of inspiring women artists, every year should be a year for celebrating art of all genders. By showcasing women’s art, we hope to inspire change that will last forever.