American Women Secure the Vote: August 26, 1920
This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.
The day before Wilson’s first presidential inauguration in 1913, thousands of women marched in parade down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. They had come to demand what, to them, was a basic right — the suffrage. Called “suffragettes,” these women had become a powerful political force to be reckoned with, despite their lack of the vote.
The two movements, women’s suffrage and temperance, overlapped with one another. So identified were these movements that liquor companies opposed women’s suffrage, in part it seems because they feared votes for women equaled votes for prohibition. The two most prominent leaders of the women’s suffrage movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were prominent in the temperance movement. Before the Civil War they had also been active in the abolitionist movement.
From its earliest days, the suffragette movement had been demanding the vote as the key and guarantee of other natural rights that the movement believed belonged to women. Some suffragettes rejected traditional notions of male authority, both in the state and the family. They held that all professions, including law, political office, and the ministry, should be open to women. “The speedy success of our cause,” wrote Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “depends upon the zealous and untiring efforts of both men and women for the overthrow of the monopoly of the pulpit, and for the securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions, and commerce.”
As it did with temperance, the Civil War overshadowed the issue of women’s suffrage. After the war, the movement split over support for the 14th and 15th Amendments. The more radical wing, led by Anthony and Stanton, had argued that the rights of blacks were already theirs by nature; they didn’t need amendments to guarantee them. In the words of the social contract, Anthony wrote:
“We throw to the winds the old dogma that governments can give rights. Before governments were organized, no one denies that each individual possessed the right to protect his own life, liberty and property. And when 100 or 1,000,000 people enter into a free government, they do not barter away their natural rights; they simply pledge themselves to protect each other in the enjoyment of them, through prescribed judicial and legislative tribunals. They agree to abandon the methods of brute force in the adjustment of their differences, and adopt those of civilization.”
Anthony applied these arguments to women. She held that the suffrage is a woman’s inalienable right and so to deprive women of the right to vote is an act of tyranny. Anthony acted on her convictions in 1872 when she attempted to vote for President Grant. She was arrested and tried in court for the attempt. Sojourner Truth also attempted to vote in the ’72 election.
Not all suffragettes went as far as Anthony and Stanton. In 1895, more conservative elements in the women’s suffrage movement distanced themselves from Stanton when she published The Women’s Bible. In this work, Stanton argued that one had to look at God in a new light — not as masculine only, but as feminine; not only as Heavenly Father, but as Heavenly Mother. This was too revolutionary, and Stanton lost her voice in the movement she had helped to found.
Many opposed the suffragette movement because they thought that giving woman the right to vote would remove her from her proper sphere, the home. The notion of equality espoused by proponents of women’s suffrage was in opposition to the traditional notion that the father represented his family in society. To give women the suffrage assumed that wives had interests opposed to their husbands’. Those opposed to the implications of women’s suffrage formed, in 1911, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, led by Mrs. Arthur Dodge. A prominent member of the National Association was Cardinal Gibbons. “When I deprecate female suffrage I am pleading for the dignity of woman,” wrote Cardinal Gibbons. “I am contending for her honor, I am striving to perpetuate those peerless prerogatives inherent in her sex, those charms and graces which exalt womanhood and make her the ornament and coveted companion of man. Woman is queen indeed, but her empire is the domestic kingdom.” Another critic of the women’s suffrage movement — and of feminism in general — was that relentless labor leader, Mother Mary Jones. Speaking of feminism, she said, “I don’t belong to the women’s club. I belong to the fighting army of the working class.” As for suffrage, she said she was “in no sense of the word . . . in sympathy with” it:
“In a long life of study of these questions I have learned that women are out of place in political work. There already is a great responsibility upon women’s shoulders — that of rearing rising generations. It has been in part their sad neglect of motherhood which has filled reform schools and which keeps the juvenile courts busy. If women had been really industrious in their natural field they might have warded off some horrors of the time. They can begin now to be more useful than they have been by studying these economic problems and helping toward industrial peace.
"The average working woman is unfitted for the ballot. She will rarely join in an organization of the industry she works in. Give her the vote and she’ll neglect it. Home training of the child should be her task, and it is the most beautiful of tasks. Solve the industrial problem and the men will earn enough so that women can remain at home and not leave it."
“I have never had a vote and I have raised hell all over this country!” Mother Jones said. “You don’t need a vote to raise hell! You need convictions and a voice!”
But no opposition could slow the momentum of the women’s suffrage movement. In 1917, the state of New York gave women the suffrage, with the endorsement of the powerful state Democratic machine, Tammany Hall. Two years later, the United States Congress approved the 19th Amendment: “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.” By August 19, 1920, the requisite 36 states had ratified the amendment, and it became part of the Constitution seven days later.
The adoption of the 19th Amendment did not end agitation for women’s rights. In 1923, the National Woman’s Party (NWP) introduced into Congress the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which would forbid all discrimination on the basis of sex. In line with their devotion to women’s equality, the NWP opposed legislation directed at protecting women workers because such legislation treated them as a special class, not as equals to men. Indeed, critics of the ERA charged that it would overthrow all legislation directed to protecting women in industry. In this case, at least, the NWP was allying itself with the laissez-faire National Association of Manufacturers, which endorsed the ERA.
Women’s activists would prove unsuccessful in obtaining passage of the ERA, both in the 1920s and in the decades to come. But in the decade of the ’20s, they would succeed in fomenting a sexual revolution the effects of which influence our world today.
A Suffragette Song
"The March of the Women," composed in 1910, became a rallying hymn for suffragettes in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, including the United States.