A quick history of women’s suffrage, or why we should thank our foremothers today

Ninety-one years ago today the “we” in “We the People” became a whole lot bigger. On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, giving women throughout America the right to vote. The road to women’s suffrage was long one, and there’s no day better than today to recall it.

 Starting a movement

Women's suffragists, 1913. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Arguably the birthplace of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 in upstate New York played a pivotal role in bringing to public consciousness the right of women to vote. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gathered together other, like-minded men and women to discuss female inequality in social and political spheres. Despite the recognition by this group of the need for women’s voting rights, it took another 72 years for their goal to become a reality.


Gaining steam

Historians Ellen Carol DuBois and Lynn Dumenil call it “the most successful mass movement for the expansion of political democracy in American history.” On the long road to enfranchisement, the tactics and tone of the suffrage movement changed as American society became more urban and industrialized.

Transforming from a largely white, middle-class movement, wealthy and working-class women joined, encompassing all socioeconomic levels. Women with experience in other Progressive-era reform movements added suffrage as another worthwhile cause as did young, college-educated women, another new demographic in the crusade.

State-by-state approach

In 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was formed from two competing suffrage groups, led first by Susan B. Anthony and then Carrie Chapman Catt. While helping to consolidate efforts and reduce rivalry within the movement, suffrage activism still focused on individual states to pass laws allowing women full voting rights.

Teacher’s Corner

Check out the newest National Constitution Center lesson plan, Women of Power, in which students learn more about women’s contributions throughout American history. Lesson plans available for elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Prior to 1910, four states–Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah–allowed women full voting rights. By 1914, seven more states west of the Mississippi River joined them. The massive effort, cost, and time to mount state campaigns led to the decision to instead aim for a Constitutional amendment.

National spotlight

In 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in Washington, D.C., Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, young and energetic reformers, organized a parade promoting votes for women. National media attention focused on the 5,000 participating women and brought the issue in front of the country en masse—exactly what a strategy for federal legislation needed.

Paul and Burns formed the Congressional Union, later the National Woman’s Party, a group whose mission was to get Congress to pass a women’s voting bill. They tried (and failed) in the 1916 elections to leverage the voting power of women in western states that already had female enfranchisement.

The suffrage movement was not without opposition or problems. Indeed, part of the explanation for the length of time it took was that male politicians were against giving women the vote—and men were the ones in Congress to vote on legislation. Additionally, suffrage groups were racially segregated, despite the shared vision of all women being able to vote. NAWSA excluded African American women, which created the opportunity for journalist Ida B. Wells to form the first all-black suffrage club in 1913.

American citizens could no longer be denied the right to vote because of their sex.”

In 1919, the necessary votes in the Senate finally solidified. The next and final obstacle: getting three-fourths of the states to ratify the amendment. By mid-1920, thirty-five states had approved and just one more was needed. Young Tennessee Republican Harry Burn played a crucial role, as Jenna Winterle points out today in an accompanying post on Constitution Daily.

Tennessee’s ratification ensured that the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution, ensuring that American citizens could no longer be denied the right to vote because of their sex.

The takeaway message for those of us in 2011 then might be to remember that the ability to go to the polls, to cast a vote for candidates and issues that matter in our communities and our nation, was not a guarantee originally made for all Americans. Gaining the vote made women a politically-valuable voting bloc, one that politicians and policymakers would (and still) need to court and listen to their interests—or risk alienating half of their constituents.

 Paige Scofield is the Programs & Communications Coordinator at the National Constitution Center. She concentrated on twentieth century women’s and gender history as a graduate student.