Winning the Right to Vote

The earliest settlers of colonial America brought many of the laws and customs of England to the United States. One of those laws stipulated that only “free holding” men, or those who owned property and paid taxes, could vote.

Those men were overwhelmingly white, Protestant, and over the age of 21, meaning only a small subset of the population could vote. Just 6% of those in new America were eligible to vote to elect the first president, George Washington, in 1789.
Although both men and women supported votes for women, both men and women organized against suffrage as well. Anti-suffragists argued that most women did not want the vote. Because they took care of the home and children, they said women did not have time to vote or stay updated on politics. Some argued women lacked the expertise or mental capacity to offer a useful opinion about political issues.

Many American women were beginning to chafe against what historians have called the “Cult of True Womanhood”: that is, the idea that the only “true” woman was a pious, submissive wife and mother concerned exclusively with home and family.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, extends the Constitution’s protection to all citizens-and defines “citizens” as “male”; the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, guarantees black men the right to vote.

Some women’s suffrage advocates believed this was their chance to push lawmakers for truly universal suffrage. As a result, the movement refused to support the 15th Amendment and even allied with racist Southerners who argued that white women’s votes could be used to neutralize those cast by African Americans.

In 1869, a new group called the National Woman Suffrage Association was founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The Association began to fight for a universal-suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution. World War 1 slowed the suffragists’ campaign but helped them advance their argument nonetheless, women’s work on behalf of the war effort, activists pointed out, proved that they were just as patriotic and deserving of citizenship as men.

Disagreements over strategy threatened to cripple the movement more than once, but finally, on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified. And on November 2 of that year, more than 8 million women across the United States voted in elections for the first time.

The historic 19th Amendment to the US constitution prohibited states from denying citizens the right to vote based on gender, but many historians note that voting remained inaccessible for women of color for several decades to follow.