August 18th in (Feminist) History

speaker_gillett_signing_the_suffrage_billOn this day in 1920, Tennessee officially approved the Nineteenth Amendment, making it ratified and added to the Constitution. The amendment was the culmination of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement, which had fought for decades to achieve it. Before the ratification of the amendment, all states denied women the right to vote, as it was not enshrined within the Constitution.

Though some women’s rights groups existed before in the U.S., the genesis of the suffrage movement is usually cited as the Seneca Falls Convention in New York in 1848. The movement for suffrage truly took hold after the Civil War, when women’s rights leaders began to push for the inclusion of universal suffrage within the Reconstruction amendments. Though the Reconstruction lead to not only the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments but also the Fifteenth, which prohibited denying the right to vote based on race, color, or previous servitude, women did not earn the right themselves.

Eventually states began to consider suffrage bills but they continued to be unsuccessful, as were the few earlier attempts to amend the Constitution. One of these was “The Petition for Universal Suffrage”, which had the signatures of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony (among others). One of the methods attempted to push for suffrage was the New Departure strategy which claimed that the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment together guaranteed women the right to vote. The Supreme Court rejected it three times and the movement switched to another angle in the form of a new amendment.

This lead to the Nineteenth Amendment, which is identical to the Fifteenth Amendment except for the mention of “sex” in the place of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude”. Republican Senator Aaron A. Sargent submitted the amendment in 1878, but the Senate rejected it (16 to 34) despite many women testifying before the Senate in support. The thirty years that followed (“the doldrums”) featured few achievements for women’s rights and no further consideration of the amendment. From 1910 to 1911 however, the movement began to push for suffrage across the states and finally began to win little battles, though the Senate rejected the amendment again in 1914.

In 1915, Carrie Chapman Catt took over as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She revitalized the organization and made the choice to support the war effort in 1917. The women’s war work of the NAWSA turned them into much more visible symbols of nationalism, which lead to President Wilson speaking out in favor of suffrage in his 1918 State of the Union address. With the push of the President, the Senate reviewed the amendment again. Though it failed to pass by one narrow vote in February of 1919, the President ordered a special session for the Senate to review it again. It passed the house on May 21 1919, and the Senate on June 4, 1919, and finally reached the state of ratification by the states. This process lasted over a year until Tennessee finally ratified it.


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