The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920. It declares that “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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. “The amendment, which granted women the right to vote, represented the pinnacle of the women’s suffrage movement, which was led by the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).In their decades-long struggle for female enfranchisement, women’s rights advocates met with strong opposition from anti-suffrage activists.
The women’s suffrage movement has its origins in the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first women’s rights convention ever held in the United States. Approximately three hundred activists, female and male, gathered to discuss the condition of women and to devise strategies for achieving social and political rights for women. Though women’s suffrage was a topic of debate at the convention, it was not the main goal of the movement at this early stage, and the convention’s resolution demanding women’s suffrage was the only resolution that was not passed unanimously.
The first women’s suffrage organizations were created in 1869. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), while Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Henry Blackwell founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). These two rival groups were divided over the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed African American men the right to vote. The AWSA supported the Fifteenth Amendment, while the NWSA opposed it because it did not include suffrage for women. In 1890, the two competing organizations were merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
During the 1870s, suffragists (women’s suffrage activists) began attempting to vote at polling places and filing lawsuits when their attempts were rejected. This drew attention to the women’s rights movement, particularly after Susan B. Anthony was arrested and put on trial for voting in the 1872 presidential election. Suffragists hoped that the lawsuits would work their way up to the Supreme Court, and that the justices would declare that women had a constitutional right to vote. In 1875, the Supreme Court, rejected women’s suffrage, ruling that the US Constitution did not confer the right of suffrage to anyone.
After the Supreme Court ruling, leaders of the women’s rights movement adopted other strategies for securing universal suffrage. Activists began organizing a drive to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote. The National American Woman Suffrage Association launched a campaign to achieve victories at the state level, in the hopes that if enough states allowed women the right to vote, federal legislation would follow. These efforts were so successful that by the time of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, over half of all states had already granted limited voting rights to women.
The Nineteenth Amendment
In January, 1878, Republican Senator Aaron A. Sargent of California formally introduced in the Senate a constitutional amendment to guarantee women the vote. The bill languished in committee until 1887, when it finally went up to a vote, and was defeated. Not until 1914 was another constitutional amendment for women’s rights considered, and again rejected, by the Senate.
Though the movement for women’s suffrage was well-organized and gaining momentum by the early twentieth century, it met with strong opposition from some sectors of US society. Brewers and distillers were opposed to female enfranchisement because they assumed that women would vote for the prohibition of alcoholic beverages, while businesses that employed children feared that women would vote to eliminate child labour. Anti-suffrage organizations sprang up all over the country to oppose the drive for female enfranchisement. Anti-suffrage activists were not just men; indeed, many upper class women joined the movement, arguing that politics was a dirty business that would sully the moral and spiritual authority of women
The National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1900, launched an effort to link the drive for female suffrage to the US war effort in the First World War. Though many of her fellow suffragists were anti-war pacifists, Catt made the controversial decision to support the war and to thereby portray the women’s suffrage movement as patriotic. The effort was a success; in his 1918 State of the Union address, President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for female enfranchisement.
On August 18, 1920, Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote to all US citizens regardless of sex. The Nineteenth Amendment represented a major victory and a turning point in the women’s rights movement.