Milestone Documents in the National Archives

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Nineteenth Amendment


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The women’s suffrage amendment finally achieved what more than two generations of women had fought for without cessation. Indeed, while her husband John was helping to establish the new American republic, Abigail Adams had perceived the basic injustice of the taxation of women who had no voice in their government.

The intensive campaign to enfranchise women began shortly after the Civil War. Women who had entered public life as advocates of antislavery measures resented the inequality that gave the freedman the vote in 1870 while all women, except the few residents of Wyoming Territory, were still excluded. That year, the introduction of a resolution in Congress to permit women to vote marked the beginning of the national legislative history of women’s suffrage. Ten years later, Senator A. A. Sargent of California introduced another resolution: "The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex." The resolution passed more than 40 years later with the wording unchanged. The "Susan B. Anthony Amendment," as the measure came to be called, mobilized a broad segment of American womanhood that finally helped win its ratification in 1920.

Women had organized, petitioned, picketed, and even gone to jail as they attempted to correct imbalances and inequality of the American democratic system. They believed that only through the ballot would women establish their legal right to own property, claim their own salaries, have custody of their children, and demand equal pay for equal work. Until 1890 the two most visible national organizations were the American Woman Suffrage Association, which sought state legislation, and the National Woman Suffrage Association, which directed its efforts toward securing an amendment to the Constitution.

In 1890 the two groups merged and became the National American Woman Suffrage Association, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its first president. The suffragists underwent numerous hardships in their efforts to obtain signatures on petitions to present to state legislatures and to Congress. Some of the indignities were meted out by other women who "had husbands to look after their interests" and saw no need for a suffrage amendment. The antisuffragists—male and female—organized into the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, which published a newspaper and circulated other literature. Suffragists were successful in some of the Western states. Women received the right to vote in Wyoming as early as 1868, when that territory was organized; Colorado followed in 1893.

When Woodrow Wilson was elected President, Alice Paul organized a massive suffrage demonstration for his inauguration. She later launched the National Women’s Party in 1916 and adopted the British practice of picketing. Women picketing the White House were physically abused by opponents, arrested, and sentenced to jail terms.

Congress passed the 19th amendment enfranchising women in 1919. Wisconsin and Michigan were the first states to ratify it; Tennessee’s vote on August 18, 1920, delivered the crucial 36th ratification necessary for final adoption. The ratification process had taken 14 months. After the women’s suffrage victory, Carrie Chapman Catt attempted to compute human cost:

To get the word "male" in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign…. During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six referenda to male voters, 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage in state constitutions, 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive congresses.

The work of a century did not end with the ratification. In 1919 the National American Woman Suffrage Association had reorganized into the League of Women Voters before women’s suffrage was an accomplished fact. The league succeeded in generating considerable enthusiasm among women during the 1924 Presidential election with its "Get-Out-the-Vote" campaign.

Having accomplished one reform by constitutional amendment, leaders of the movement immediately began seeking another by the same device. In 1923 the first Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) was introduced in Congress and in every session thereafter. Finally it passed both houses of Congress in 1972, largely due to the tireless efforts of Congresswoman Martha Griffiths of Michigan, and was sent to state legislatures for their consideration until 1979. In 1978 ERA supporters persuaded Congress to extend the 1979 deadline until 1982. But by the end of 1982, 14 states had still not ratified the amendment, and it died.

The League of Women Voters was part of the coalition that fought for passage of the ERA, but it has also been active on many other fronts. For example, in the late 1920s the league sponsored citizenship schools, and its Radio Committee spearheaded an effort to develop radio as a medium of public education. Throughout the postwar era, the League of Women Voters worked for women’s rights by distributing information on candidates and issues, conducting voter registration drives, sponsoring Presidential debates, and lobbying for legislation it deemed to be in the interest of women.

Since the passage of the 19th amendment, more and more women have exercised the right to vote. Sixty-eight percent of women were registered to vote by 1988, making up 54 percent of all registered voters.

Women have also run for, and won, elected offices in increasing numbers. Congress included 15 women, 2 in the Senate and 13 in the House of Representatives, in 1971. By 1991 this total had risen to 31 women, 2 in the Senate and 29 in the House (including 1 non-voting Delegate). In the 1992 elections, 52 women won congressional office, 5 in the Senate and 47 in the House (including 1 nonvoting Delegate). Three women were serving as state Governors in 1991, and 33 women held top statewide offices. Each of the 99 state legislatures included at least 1 woman member by 1991. The number of women mayors of cities with populations over 30,000 increased from 7 in 1971 to 151 in 1991.

U.S. Presidents and state Governors have appointed women to many positions. The federal judiciary included 175 women in 1991, and Sandra Day O’Connor, appointed in 1981, was the first female to be appointed a U. S. Supreme Court Justice. By 1991, President Bush had appointed 8 women to the federal bench and 133 women to other Senate-confirmed positions. Female members of state cabinets increased from 64 in 1980 to 113 in 1991. In 1993 President Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.

The passage of the 19th amendment gave women a voice in the nation’s political arena. Since 1920, whether by serving in elected or appointed office or by casting their votes, increasing numbers of women have made that voice heard.

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Chicago: "Nineteenth Amendment," Milestone Documents in the National Archives in United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Milestone Documents in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995), Pp.112-117 83–86. Original Sources, accessed July 22, 2024, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DX4FS3JAG4LRVEG.

MLA: . "Nineteenth Amendment." Milestone Documents in the National Archives, in United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Milestone Documents in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995), Pp.112-117, pp. 83–86. Original Sources. 22 Jul. 2024. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DX4FS3JAG4LRVEG.

Harvard: , 'Nineteenth Amendment' in Milestone Documents in the National Archives. cited in , United States. National Archives and Records Administration. Milestone Documents in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1995), Pp.112-117, pp.83–86. Original Sources, retrieved 22 July 2024, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DX4FS3JAG4LRVEG.