After winning the vote, here’s why the suffragist movement took divergent paths

The suffragists movement united a diverse group of women. But battlefronts changed after they gained the right to vote.

Women in academic dress march in a suffrage parade in New York City in 1910, 10 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Photograph by Schlesinger Library, Bridgeman Images

In September 1920, people crowded Liberty Square in Philadelphia to celebrate the passage of the 19th Amendment the previous month. After more than seven decades of struggle, American women’s right to vote was finally enshrined in the Constitution—and Katharine Ruschenberger knew exactly how to mark the occasion.

A few years earlier, the suffragists had raised funds for the Justice Bell, an exact replica of the Liberty Bell that toured the nation to promote women’s suffrage. It was time for the bell, which had never been rung, to sing out in celebration. When the moment came, Ruschenberger didn’t give the bell its ceremonial tug. Instead, she passed the rope to her niece and the bell sounded its cry of joy.

The gesture brought symbolic closure for the women who had fought so hard for the vote. But the ceremony didn’t mean suffragists would stop fighting. From world peace to contraceptives,  civil rights to an equal rights amendment, they turned their energies to a variety of other causes after 1920. And for some whom the new amendment had left behind, the push for women’s access to the polls didn’t end at all.

The movement had united a diverse group of women. But as ratification drew near, suffrage leaders were split on how best to use their organizational might after the amendment was ratified. The suffrage movement armed activists of all stripes with the organizational expertise they needed to build momentum for other causes. After 1920, though, “That unification went out the window,” says Heather Munro Prescott, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University and a historian of the birth control movement.

Two of the movement’s most powerful leaders, Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt, had diverged in their approach to suffrage. After 1920, they took different paths. Catt, who had headed up the National American Woman Suffrage Association, thought the next move should be an organization that equipped women with the information they needed to become savvy voters.

The best homage to the generations of women who had agitated for the vote, Catt said, was “a League of Women Voters to ‘Finish the Fight’ and to aid in the reconstruction of a nation.” The organization, which she founded in 1920, focused on voter education, pro-woman legislation, and strengthening democracy.

Paul, who had helmed the National Woman’s Party (NWP), went in another direction. The work of suffrage would not be done, she decided, until another Constitutional amendment guaranteed full equality to women under the law. She devoted the remaining years of her life to what became known as the Equal Rights Amendment.

Women line up to vote for the first time in New York City in 1920, after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Women line up to vote for the first time in New York City in 1920, after the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Photograph by Underwood Archives, Getty

Though the ERA passed both chambers of Congress in 1972, it has yet to be ratified by all 50 states. Fifteen states—Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia—did not ratify the amendment before the 1982 deadline.

Peace was another popular pursuit in the wake of the 19th Amendment, which was passed in the immediate aftermath of World War I. The devastation of the war galvanized suffragists like Jane Addams, who transitioned from suffrage and social work to the international pacifist movement. “Surely, now that we begin to comprehend the moral, social, and economic consequences of the late war,” she wrote in 1932, “we must examine openly the question of how to avoid another.”

Addams and others pushed for the U.S. to participate in the League of Nations and for international cooperation and disarmament. In 1931, Addams became the first woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Other suffragists found meaning in causes like birth control. Though it’s hard to say how many suffragists went on to advocate for legalized contraception and women’s health programs, Prescott says, the fight attracted suffragists “who were willing to put their reputations on the line.” 

One of them, Mary Ware Dennett, pushed for the National Woman’s Party to include birth control on its agenda. When the issue was shunted to the sidelines, she went on to use suffrage tactics by framing contraception, like voting, as a civil right.

Dennett wasn’t the only woman pushed aside during the post-suffrage era. Though women of color tried to convince mainstream suffragists that support was needed to access the vote, they  were largely ignored.

“White suffragists continued to organize, but often saw the fight as over,” says Cathleen Cahill, an associate professor of history at Penn State and author of Recasting the Vote: How Women of Color Transformed the Suffrage Movement. But while white women successfully participated in the 1920 presidential election, Black women in the South faced the same kinds of Jim Crow–era roadblocks Black men had long encountered there. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation meant it was almost impossible to register to vote.

But when Black women who had worked alongside white suffragists called on Paul and the NWP to take on the cause of Black voting rights, they were rebuffed. At the 1921 convention, Black delegates were snubbed by some white attendees like North Carolina’s delegation, which initially refused to register due to Black women’s presence there. At the convention, the mostly white attendees agreed to pursue a national equal rights amendment instead of racial equality at the polls.

Other women of color also found it hard to access the polls. Under the Page Act of 1875, Chinese and other East Asian women were turned back from the borders of the U.S. if officials suspected they came for “immoral purposes”; the law effectively prevented Asian women from emigrating or becoming citizens. The law was only repealed in 1943. Though Native American women gained citizenship in 1924, their right to vote was not guaranteed. And Latinas were targeted by state laws that often barred them from the polls.

It would take decades to redress the wrong, and only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were the votes of women of color protected by law. But today, ID laws, felony voting restrictions, and gerrymandering still prevent some women from exercising their right to vote. “Women of color are still talking about these issues,” says Cahill. While white suffragists had the luxury of moving on, she says, that wasn’t the case for marginalized women. Over a century since the 19th Amendment became law, their fight to equal access to the polling booth continues.

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