Battle for the Ballot

Women vote in the 1920 presidential election. (National Archives)

Things you didn’t know (or maybe forgot) about how women got the vote

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The word isn’t related to ‘suffering’

The origin of “suffrage” is not suffering, although plenty of people suffered in the pursuit of suffrage. It derives from the Latin suffragium, meaning a vote or a right to vote. It can also mean a prayer of intercession, certainly an apt description given the many groups of people who have prayed for the right to vote.

Read more: Women’s suffrage changed American democracy. But the 19th Amendment’s work remains unfinished.

A slight in London sparked a U.S. movement

The first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, shaped the movement for decades. The event was the brainchild of abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, who were furious after being barred from an 1840 anti-slavery convention in London because of their gender.

Image: Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the first president of the National Woman Suffrage Association.

Abolitionists and suffragists were intertwined

The women’s rights movement sprang from the abolitionist movement before the Civil War, but the relationship was often uneasy. Some felt women should be able to vote before Black men, or vice versa. Others insisted everyone get the vote simultaneously. And some wanted to bar African Americans from the women’s movement, fearing their involvement would turn Southern legislators against the cause.

Image: Asset for SUFFRAGEFACTS

“If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back. … And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.”

Abolitionist minister Sojourner Truth, at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio

Lonely guys in Wyoming deserved a hat tip

Wyoming was the first territory or state to act after the 1848 Women’s Rights Convention to pass a women’s suffrage law, on Dec. 10, 1869. Some men truly wanted voting access for their wives and moms, but many legislators had other motivations, including the hope that the new right would attract more single women to that frontier, where men outnumbered women 6 to 1.

Read more: More than a century before the 19th Amendment, women were voting in New Jersey because of a strange loophole in New Jersey’s state constitution
Image: An illustration of women voting for the first time in Cheyenne, in Wyoming territory, in 1869. Wyoming was the first state or territory after the 1848 Women's Rights Convention to pass a law allowing women to vote.

Julia Ward Howe’s eyes saw the glory but not the vote

Author and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe not only founded several major women’s organizations and suffrage groups, but, during the Civil War, she also wrote the lyrics that became the activist anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting

At a time when women were mocked for speaking in public, Susan B. Anthony was a leading voice in the fight for equality in labor practices and pay. After voting in Rochester, N.Y., in 1872, she was arrested, convicted of voting illegally and fined, and the publicity attracted many people to her cause. She did not live long enough to cast a legal vote.

Image: Asset for SUFFRAGEFACTS

“All that we require of a voter is that he shall be forked, wear pantaloons instead of petticoats, and bear a more or less humorous resemblance to the reported image of God. He need not know anything whatever. ... We brag of our universal, unrestricted suffrage; but we are shams after all, for we restrict when we come to the women.”

Mark Twain in an 1875 paper on “Universal Suffrage” read before the Monday Evening Club in Hartford, Conn.

Image: Catherine Flanagan, left, and Gertrude Crocker are arrested in August 1917 as they protest outside the White House. Crocker holds a banner that reads, "How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?" Women demonstrated at the White House for months to pressure President Woodrow Wilson to support a 19th Amendment.

The Supreme Court ruled against letting women vote

Women’s activist Virginia Louise Minor tried to register to vote in St. Louis in 1872 and was rejected. She and her husband sued, and the case rose to the Supreme Court. The nine male justices declined to interpret the 14th Amendment’s “all persons” clause to include women, forcing suffragists to refocus on changing the Constitution.

Men feared ‘petticoat rule’

According to a 1900s anti-suffrage pamphlet aimed at women, they shouldn’t get the vote because:

… 90 percent “do not want it, or do not care.”

… they would be competing with men instead of cooperating.

… “more voting women than voting men will place the Government under petticoat rule.”

… “it is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.”

Image: The National Anti-Suffrage Association opposed the 19th Amendment.

Ida B. Wells organized women of color

Death threats drove journalist Ida B. Wells from Memphis after she wrote a 1892 lynching exposé. She moved to Chicago, where she urged women of color to get involved in politics, and she led a group at the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade in D.C. Told by organizers to go to the back or leave, she emerged from the crowd halfway through the march and joined the Illinois delegation at the front.

Image: A portrait published in 1891 shows journalist Ida B. Wells, who advocated for women of color to become involved in politics and marched in a 1913 parade to support women's suffrage.

‘Silent Sentinels’ picketed the White House for 18 months

Led by Alice Paul, who had helped organize the D.C. march, more than 1,000 women in January 1917 began daily demonstrations at the White House gates, despite verbal and physical attacks from spectators. At one point, Paul was arrested, jailed and charged with obstructing traffic, and her hunger strike galvanized public support for women’s suffrage.

Read more: Women embraced William Henry Harrison’s presidential campaign in 1840, scandalizing men
Image: Asset for SUFFRAGEFACTS

“I am not one of those who believe – broadly speaking – that women are better than men. We have not wrecked railroads, nor corrupted legislatures, nor done many unholy things that men have done; but then we must remember that we have not had the chance.”

Jane Addams in a speech before the Chicago Political Equality League in 1897

Image: Alice Paul, seated second from left, sews the 36th star on a banner in August 1920 to celebrate Tennesse's vote as the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

A tragic pandemic helped the cause

The 1918 flu spread easily among soldiers in the last stages of World War I, creating a sudden shortage of men. As women surged into the U.S. workforce, they blew apart the arguments that they were delicate and intellectually inferior — and unequal pay and poor working conditions galvanized their drive for equal rights and protections.

When states granted women voting rights

Before 1895

1895-1899

1910-1914

1915-1919

Full voting rights as a territory prior to 1895

Gained rights with the 19th Amendment

NH

VT

MA

RI

CT

NJ

DE

MD

Alaska and Hawaii were not states in 1920. The Territory of

Alaska had full voting rights in 1913. In some states, women

could only vote for certain offices before 1920.

Source: National Constitution Center

BRITTANY RENEE MAYES/THE WASHINGTON POST

When states granted women voting rights

1910-1914

Full voting rights as a territory prior to 1895

Before 1895

1895-1899

Gained voting rights with the passage of the 19th Amendment

1915-1919

NH

WA

WA

VT

ME

MT

MT

ND

OR

MN

MA

ID

WI

NY

SD

RI

WY

WY

MI

CT

PA

IA

NJ

NE

NV

OH

IN

IL

DE

UT

UT

CO

WV

CA

VA

MD

KS

MO

KY

NC

TN

OK

AZ

AR

NM

SC

GA

AL

MS

LA

TX

FL

Alaska and Hawaii were not states in 1920. The Territory of Alaska had full voting rights in 1913.

In some states, women could only vote for certain offices before 1920.

Source: National Constitution Center

BRITTANY RENEE MAYES/THE WASHINGTON POST

Finally, women got the vote

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment, passed by Congress the previous June, was ratified by Tennessee, the last state needed to reach the threshold for becoming part of the Constitution. It was certified Aug. 26, and women had the right to vote.

Headshot of Bonnie Berkowitz
Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the Graphics department at The Washington Post who often focuses on Health & Science topics.FollowFollow
The long struggle for suffrage
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