A Brief History of Women's Suffrage in the USA

Updated on April 7, 2020
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Expository essay writing in history, philosophy, politics, and spirituality keeps the mind sharp and satisfies its thirst for knowledge.

Women's Right to Vote
Women's Right to Vote | Source

Woodrow Wilson and Women's Right to Vote

Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, was the president when American women country-wide finally won the right to vote. According to the Democratic Party's webpage titled "Our History,” "For more than 200 years, our party has led the fight for civil rights, health care, Social Security, workers' rights, and women's rights." The page then touts President Wilson:

Under the leadership of Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, the U.S. Constitution was amended to grant women the right to vote. In August of 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify women’s suffrage, and it became our nation’s 19th amendment.

The Democratic Party's website is filled with many other false claims as it revises history to rehabilitate its racist and sexist past. Just as that party had denied full citizenship to former slaves and other blacks as it fought against civil rights, it fought against women's rights with the same vigor and determination to keep women from voting. Woodrow Wilson had not performed in a “leadership” position on women's suffrage:

Wilson had actually maintained a somewhat lukewarm attitude toward women’s suffrage throughout his first term (1913-1917). In 1917, he had been picketed by suffragists outside the White House who berated him for paying mere lip service to their cause. The protests reached a crescendo when several women were arrested, jailed and went on a hunger strike.

Because of the war effort—the USA entered World War I on April 6, 1917—during which women were being asked to sacrifice their husbands, sons, and time, the president became aware that the women fighting for the right to vote had a larger investment in that war effort than he had earlier recognized; thus, in a speech before congress on September 30, 1917, Wilson declared: "we have made partners of the women in this war…Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?"

But far from leading the suffragist movement, Wilson came late to that debate, having earlier opposed women's right to vote, and without the war effort, he likely would have continued his lukewarm position on that issue:

President Wilson didn't do a thing then, as popular sympathy and support for women's suffrage mounted. The signs women held up became more personal and pointed: the president who wished to make the world safe for democracy stood in the way of democracy at home. According to Berg, Wilson supported the state-by-state approach, which would be in keeping with his cultural Southern character. But it's plain as day that Wilson relented and came very late to the suffrage game. The 19th Amendment finally passed in 1920 not because of him, but because of (Alice) Paul. The world war mobilization gave Wilson a graceful – grudging? – reason why women should be rewarded with the vote.

Thus, Wilson's contribution to women's right to vote was a September 30 speech to congress and having been president when the Constitution was finally amended to include the 19th amendment. It had been the many women and men of the Republican Party who had fought for decades to bring an end to the atrocity that had allowed the denial of the vote to women.

Woodrow Wilson & Wife
Woodrow Wilson & Wife | Source

The Party for Citizens' Rights

The Republican Party of early America as well as today has been and has remained the party that advances and supports equal rights of all citizens. Under a Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, the bloody American Civil War (1861-1865) was waged to secure the abolition of slavery, which had keep blacks as property. That war also guaranteed that the United States would remain united.

The party of Lincoln was founded in 1854 with the goal of ending the pernicious institution of slavery. That party had to battle against its opposition party, the Democratic Party, that sought to keep slavery, and then following the Civil War, continued to battle against citizenship for the former Africans who had served for decades as slaves. The Democratic Party employed its terrorist arm, the Ku Klux Klan, to terrorize, maim, and kill those who fought to eliminate slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws.

The Republican Party, after promoting and securing the civil rights of black citizens against which the Democratic Party fought bitterly, became the party which struggled to support the rights of women, including the right to vote. Just as it sought to keep blacks as second-class citizens, the Democratic Party struggled to keep women from securing their equal rights under the law.

The 1848 Convention at Seneca Falls

At Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, a convention was held to begin the fight for women's rights. The Women's Rights Convention then began appearing in the American political landscape often, including meetings held in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850. By 1870, two women, Mary Livermore and Lucy Stone became the first women to serve as delegates to the Massachusetts Republican State Convention.

At the National Republican Convention in 1872, a resolution was passed suggesting that women be admitted to "wider fields of usefulness." That resolution also declared, "the honest demand of this class of citizens for additional rights . . . should be treated with respectful consideration."

J. Ellen Foster - Women's Right to Vote
J. Ellen Foster - Women's Right to Vote | Source

Republican National Convention 1892

The first women to serve as delegates to the Republican National Convention took their seats at the 1892 convention held in Minneapolis. Therese Jenkins and Cora Carleton served as those first women delegates. Also, at that same convention for the first time, a woman delivered a speech—J. Ellen Foster, chair of the Women's Republican Association of the U.S.A., gave that address.

Foster also hand delivered fliers that contained information from her organization regarding the inclusion of women in the national political debate. Foster and her organization clarified the position of these pioneers struggling for their right to full citizenship.

Judith Ellen Foster had declared that "woman is politics." She encouraged women to become involved in politics to help reform society. The Republican Party had continued to include women in its party platforms, and Republican women's auxiliaries in the 1870s and 1880s helped to retain the support of women even after the issue of slavery had ceased to be widely debated. Foster's WNRA became an influential part of the Republican Party effort. Its members continued to support Republican candidates during each political election.

Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony | Source

Congressional Democrats Vote Against the 19th Amendment

The nineteenth amendment to the Constitution afforded voting rights to women. The bill to amend to Constitution was first offered for consideration by Senator A. A. Sargent (R-CA) in 1878. Susan B. Anthony encouraged passage of this amendment, and thus it became known as "The Susan B. Anthony Amendment.” The 19th amendment to the US Constitution consists of the following text:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Just as they had opposed civil right for blacks, the Democrats, who were then the majority of the senate, opposed the rights of women to vote. The amendment came up for vote four times, and the Democrats voted against it all four times.

Voting Rights for Women Passes in Republican Congress

Women's right to vote, to be secured by the 19th amendment first sponsored in 1878, had to wait 41 years until a Republican congress could gain control and pass the amendment. Then the House passed the amendment in May of 1919 by a vote of 304 yeas and 89 nays with the Senate passing it in June of that year with a vote of 56 yeas and 25 nays.

In the House, only 70 of 174 Democrats voted for the amendment, while 200 out of 214 Republicans voted for the bill. In the Senate, 20 out of 37 Democrats voted yea, while 36 out of 44 Republicans voted yea. A similar voting pattern was evident during passage of the civil rights legislation that secured rights for blacks.

Ratification Meets Same Opposition

The ratification of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote met with the same Democrat opposition that the civil rights legislation had endured under Democrats earlier in the history of the USA. As the Republican controlled state legislatures easily and quickly ratified the 19th amendment, eight states controlled by Democrats voted against that amendment.

Before the passage of the 19th amendment, the Republican congresses in twelve states had begun to allow women to vote. With the final state, Tennessee, ratifying the amendment, #19 entered the Constitution on August 20, 1920.

Women's Right to Vote
Women's Right to Vote | Source

Jeannette Rankin, First Woman to Serve in Congress

In many ways, the women's rights movement has paralleled the civil rights movement for blacks. And for both women and blacks, the Republican Party has been the one that advocates for and supports those rights. Just as the first black citizens to serve in government did so as Republicans, the first women to serve in that body were also Republicans.

Interestingly, the first woman, Jeannette Rankin, to serve in the House of Representatives was elected to that body in 1916, four years before women were afforded the legal right to vote nationally. Jeannette Rankin began her political career in the state of Washington, where she became active in securing an amendment to the state constitution to allow women voting rights. After passage of the amendment in 1911, Rankin relocated back to her home state of Montana, where she continued her activism to secure suffrage for Montana women. Montana granted those rights in 1914.

Rankin served as an outspoken advocate for women's rights. In the House, in 1917, only one year after taking her seat, she formed the Committee on Woman Suffrage. On the House floor, she defended an amendment for women's voting rights by declaring,

How shall we answer the challenge, gentlemen? How shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?

Although the resolution easily passed the House, the Senate failed to support it. After serving her term in congress, in 1919, Rankin returned to her first interest, which was pacifism. She traveled to Switzerland, where she became a delegate to the Women's International Conference for Peace. Returning to America, Rankin relocated to a small farm in Georgia in 1924, where she founded the pacifist organization, the Georgia Peace Society.

After successfully being re-elected to the House in 1940, she lost favor by voting against US entry into the war effort after the Pearl Harbor attack. Her pacifist stance was expressed when she declaimed, "As a woman I can’t go to war, and I refuse to send anyone else." Hers was the only "no" vote in congress. Her pacifist position on the war rendered her irrelevant for the rest of her term.

Rankin's importance for women's rights remained the strongest part of her political legacy, and for her 90th birthday a celebration and dinner were held in her honor at the Rayburn House Office Building. Rankin died on May 18, 1973, in Carmel CA. She had been thinking about a third run for congress to fight against the Vietnam War.


The Republican Party and the Women's Vote

© 2019 Linda Sue Grimes


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