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History of the Fight for Women's Right to Vote in the United States and the 19th Amendment

Thelma is an award-winning non-fiction writer who enjoys writing about people and events in American history.

Women Hold Signs in Favor of Votes for Women

Women Hold Signs in Favor of Votes for Women

The Fight for Female Suffrage

Many people do not realize there was a time in the United States when only men were allowed to vote. If it were not for the suffrage (means the right to vote) movement, women may never have been given the right to vote.

What started as a small scale attempt to achieve public awareness of this injustice to women turned into conventions, parades, and marches, which led to arrests and injuries to hundreds of women involved in the protests.

The change in voting rights did not come easily or quickly. Suffragists fought the battle for over 70 years, which seems unimaginable to United States citizens today.

Seneca Falls Convention: Starting Point for the Struggle for Women's Rights

One of the earliest events held to publicize the need for women's equality was organized by Suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in 1848. The Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York was attended by more than 300 people, including a few men. One of the males was well-known activist Frederick Douglass, a former African American slave. Stanton and Mott, along with Susan B. Anthony, began the effort to raise public awareness for women's right to vote. This is considered to be the start of the American women's rights movement.

Issues discussed at the convention included:

  • Women working outside the home
  • Better education for women
  • Women deserving the right to vote
Convention Organizers: Suffragists Mott, Stanton and Anthony

Convention Organizers: Suffragists Mott, Stanton and Anthony

Two Organizations Founded to Further the Cause

After the Civil War, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was founded in 1869 by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Their platform was an amendment to the United States Constitution which would give women the right to vote. They opposed the passage of the 15th Amendment which would give black men voting rights but did not include suffrage for women, white or black.

The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was established by abolitionists Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell. They were in favor of the 15th Amendment and believed it would not be ratified if it included women's suffrage. Their strategy was to fight on a state level as opposed to a national level which the NWSA endorsed.

Territory of Wyoming First to Give Females the Right to Vote

In 1869, the Wyoming territory gave female residents age 21 and older their voting rights. Wyoming not only showed their forward-thinking in the advancement of voting rights, but the state also elected the first female governor in the nation in 1924. Their well deserved state nickname is the "Equality State."

Wyoming Women Casting Votes

Wyoming Women Casting Votes

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Groups Join Forces for the Common Goal

In 1890, the NWSA and AWSA combined their efforts and became the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Their agenda was to lobby the individual states to adopt amendments to their state constitutions concerning women voting. It would take longer than getting the national constitution amended but it would be easier to concentrate their work at the state level.

In 1913, the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, a massive suffrage parade was held in Washington, D.C. Hundreds of women were injured and many were arrested. More demonstrations, including picketing the White House, were held. These events were reported in newspapers across the nation.

President Wilson had originally been opposed to women voting and had campaigned on that platform. Many men of the time period thought the ladies' interest would diminish. When it became clear they would be in the fight as long as necessary to change the minds of "backward thinking" men, Wilson realized he should alter his stand on the issue and support the suffrage movement.

Finally, an amendment was introduced in Congress. However, even with the president's backing, it failed to pass in the Senate by just two votes. Although the effort had been unsuccessful, passage was definitely getting closer.

1920 Was the Year of Success for the Cause

On May 21, 1919, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, passed in the House of Representatives. Two weeks later, it passed in the Senate.

Then, the legislation was sent to the individual states for ratification. To become law, the approval of at least 36 of the 48 states was needed. By 1920, only one more state's vote was needed for it to become law. It had already been rejected in seven of the southern states: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia. Tennessee was the next state to vote.

The fate of the amendment rested in the hands of Republican Representative Harry T. Burn of McMinn county Tennessee. Representative Burn, who was only 21 years old, had previously made it clear he did not support the bill. The prospect of a victory was looking dim.

Then, Harry's mother got involved causing him to do an about-face on his position. The story goes that Mrs. Burn told her son, "Don't forget to be a good boy and help in the ratification." After Harry cast his ballot, the 19th Amendment was ratified and became law.

Tennessee State Representative Harry T. Burn: Tennessee state representative who cast deciding vote for female suffrage.

Tennessee State Representative Harry T. Burn: Tennessee state representative who cast deciding vote for female suffrage.

The Rest of the Story

In November 1920, after over 70 years of struggle by several generations of women, over 8 million women voted for their first time. This proves the truth in the adage: "The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Oil"!


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Thelma Raker Coffone

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