“Well I have been & gone & done it!!” Susan B. Anthony wrote to a friend on November 5, 1872.
That day Anthony and her three sisters managed to vote in Rochester, New York. Nearly a century after the nation’s founding, seven years after the end of the Civil War, and two years after the 15th Amendment granted voting rights to African-American men, it was still illegal for most women to vote. Anthony and her sisters had been sure they would be denied. Indeed, that’s what they had hoped would happen. They wanted grounds for a lawsuit.
But Anthony, a well-known and intimidating figure, couldn’t help herself. A few days earlier, she had browbeaten the young officials who were registering voters at a local barbershop into putting the women’s names on the voting rolls. When that proved an unexpected success, she spread the word.
On Election Day, some 15 women in Rochester voted. “We are in for a fine agitation in Rochester,” wrote Anthony to her friend and fellow campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although she hadn’t expected to vote, she knew her defiant act would have ramifications.
Two weeks later, the opportunity she’d been aiming for arrived on her doorstep in the form of a well-mannered federal officer. He was there to arrest her.
By that point women had been campaigning to get the vote for decades. They’d begun to question their subordinate role in society, rallied to improve women’s rights within marriage, and called for universal suffrage. They’d ventured beyond the domestic sphere of their homes and neighborhoods, into spaces where no “respectable” women would go, and had spoken in public before mixed crowds, which no respectable women would do. They’d inserted themselves into a political process that made no room for them. They’d insisted on what they believed were their rights as citizens. They’d elevated women’s voting rights to an issue that national politicians could no longer ignore.
And yet, they still had a very long road to travel—a nearly half century–long campaign to press their cause across the country. The 19th Amendment, which decreed that no citizen could be denied the right to vote based on sex, became law on August 26, 1920—a tremendous accomplishment. Some 27 million women became eligible to vote, the largest increase in potential voters in American history. But the victory was incomplete: Because of restrictive state and federal laws such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and ethnic barriers to citizenship, many nonwhite women—African Americans, Native Americans, Latinas, and Asian Americans—still didn’t have access to the ballot. Nor did many nonwhite men, despite the 15th Amendment.
It’s easy to consign the suffragists to the past—to imagine them as severe Susan B. Anthony and fussy Elizabeth Cady Stanton, stiffly posing in a black-and-white portrait or as long-skirted women brandishing quaint banners, demonstrating for something we take for granted. After all, more women now vote than men, nearly 10 million more in the 2016 presidential election. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of the most powerful people in the country. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for president in 2016, and six women competed to be the Democratic nominee in 2020.
But the past is still with us. My grandmothers were born into a world in which they couldn’t vote. A girl born in the United States today arrives in a country that a woman has never led. Nearly 51 percent of the population is female, but far fewer women hold elected office than men. Efforts to limit who can vote persist. Clinton lost to a man known for sexist behavior, and none of those female presidential candidates made it to the top of the ticket. The campaign for political equality that began in the 19th century shows no sign of being over in the 21st.
The push for women’s suffrage began in 1848 in part because Stanton, a socially active woman from a prosperous and prominent family, was chafing at her circumscribed life. Stanton had moved from Boston to the small town of Seneca Falls, New York, for the health of her husband, Henry, an abolitionist who began leaving her alone with their three sons as he traveled the state agitating against slavery. As much as she loved her children—she would end up having seven—Stanton found the limitations on what women were able to achieve maddening.
“I suffered with mental hunger,” she later wrote.
When Lucretia Mott, a noted Quaker abolitionist, came to the area for a visit, Stanton welcomed the chance to see her. The two had met several years earlier at an antislavery convention in London. Over tea with Mott and a few friends, Stanton “poured out the torrent of my long-accumulating discontent,” she wrote, “with such vehemence and indignation that I stirred myself, as well as the rest of the party, to do and dare anything.”
What they dared to do was organize their own convention, the first to be held on women’s rights in the U.S. They did it quickly, in little more than 10 days, because Mott, the most experienced activist of any of them, would be leaving soon.
The women drafted a “Declaration of Sentiments” to be presented to the convention for approval. Modeled on the Declaration of Independence, the document decried men’s “absolute tyranny” over women, citing grievances that reflected the very limited rights women had in the United States then.
Married women, for example, were “civilly dead” because they did not have legal rights separate from their husbands’, nor could they own property or even keep the wages they’d earned themselves. Colleges were closed to women; so were professions. Man, the declaration stated, “has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy [woman’s] confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life.”
Appended to the declaration were resolutions that claimed equality for women on many fronts, but Stanton realized that without political power, these positions just amounted to wishful thinking. What women needed was the vote. She added this resolution: “That it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.”
Several hundred people attended the two-day meeting. Roughly a hundred signed the declaration, but many balked at the resolution advocating suffrage. Mott feared that pursuing the vote would “make us ridiculous.” Politics were considered excessively corrupt for women and perhaps, for some, a step too far out of the domestic domain.
But Frederick Douglass, who had fled slavery and founded the North Star antislavery newspaper in nearby Rochester, spoke in support of it. As he wrote in his account of the convention, he believed “if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise.”
The resolution passed, and the campaign for American women’s right to vote had begun.
Eighteen years later, in 1866, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a poet and novelist, took the stage at the Eleventh National Women’s Rights Convention in New York City. The Civil War was over, the Union had won, and now the burning question was how emancipated people would be incorporated into the reunited country. Women wondered whether that solution would include them.
At the meeting, Harper spoke of the injustices she’d experienced as a woman, telling the crowd that when her husband died suddenly, all their property had been taken away from her. She also recounted the wrongs she’d suffered as an African American.
The listeners, most of them white women, gasped when Harper described the brutality she had experienced while traveling by streetcar and train. She impressed upon her audience that for her and many like her, their rights as women and their rights as African Americans could not be disentangled—and that the two causes must be aligned.
“We are all bound up together,” Harper said, “in one great bundle of humanity.”
And, for a time, they were. The seeds for women’s suffrage first grew among the abolitionists, with people such as Mott, Stanton, Douglass, and Sojourner Truth active in both causes. They were united in their wish to be treated as full citizens of the United States. But after the Civil War, the groups fractured over whose rights came first.
What the suffragists wanted was universal suffrage. “No country ever has had or ever will have peace until every citizen has a voice in the government,” Stanton declared. But many states were reluctant to cede their authority over who could vote. So the 14th and 15th Amendments, two of the amendments addressing African-American rights, were drafted to prohibit states from denying the franchise to eligible voters, who were explicitly defined for the first time as male.
Stanton and Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment because it removed race but not sex as a barrier to voting. Turning away from longtime friends and allies such as Frederick Douglass, Stanton decried granting the franchise to “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung” rather than to “women of wealth and education,” whom everyone understood to be native-born whites.
Not all white suffragists took that route. Some saw an opportunity in the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 and granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” That included recently freed slaves. Arguing that citizenship should include the right to vote, hundreds of women, along with Anthony, showed up at the polls in the early 1870s, with uneven results. After her arrest for voting in Rochester, Anthony hoped to take her case to the Supreme Court, but a technicality squashed that plan.
Of all the attempts to exercise the franchise, Virginia Minor’s bid to register to vote in St. Louis proved to be the most significant. When she was denied, the Missouri suffrage leader sued the election official in charge—or rather, her husband sued him because, as a woman, she did not have the legal right to do so. Her case, Minor v. Happersett, made it to the Supreme Court, where the Minors argued that the state of Missouri had violated the 14th Amendment by abridging her privileges as a citizen, which included the right to vote.
The outcome was devastating. The court ruled that “the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone.”
If suffragists’ interpretation of the amendment had been accepted by the Supreme Court, says historian Ellen Carol DuBois, author of Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote, “we ourselves would not be in the situation where states are constantly depriving people of the right to vote, what we call voter suppression.” If Minor had won, it would have set a strong precedent for universal suffrage.
In 1913, Ida B. Wells, a journalist and civil rights leader in Chicago, refused to be shunted to the sidelines. Woodrow Wilson had just been elected president, and Alice Paul, a young militant, organized a large suffragist parade in Washington, D.C., on the day before his inauguration.
Paul, who would go on to lead the National Woman’s Party, was intent on launching a nationwide campaign. In a strategic move with far-reaching consequences, she and other white voting rights activists opted to cultivate the support of southern white women—and to diminish the role of Black women.
Wells had faced off against lynch mobs in Tennessee and founded the first African-American women’s suffrage group in Chicago. She was one of the strongest voices for women’s suffrage in Illinois. But when she arrived in Washington for the parade, she was told she would not be marching with the Illinois delegation. Instead, she could bring up the rear of the procession with other Black women. She refused.
“If the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade, then the colored women are lost,” she declared. Her voice trembled with emotion and her face was set in lines of grim determination, according to newspaper reports. “I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.”
When the parade began, Wells wasn’t in it. But midway through, she walked out of the crowd and assumed her place among the Illinois women. No one dared remove her. When Illinois opened the vote to women later that year, she led a registration drive among African Americans that eventually helped elect the first Black alderman in Chicago.
Like Wells, Mary Church Terrell was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). A prominent Washington educator, she chose to demonstrate her solidarity by marching in the procession with Delta Sigma Theta, a newly formed African-American sorority from Howard University. One hundred years later, in 2013, the influential organization staged an anniversary suffrage march. This time sorority members led the procession.
At the time of the original parade in March 1913, nine states, all in the West, had passed laws allowing for the enfranchisement of women. Several more, including Illinois, were on the brink of doing so. Elected officials now had women as their constituents, women they had to answer to. The time was ripe to push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
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But President Wilson did not show much inclination to support women’s right to vote. After Wilson was reelected in 1916, Paul ratcheted up the pressure, recruiting activists, including Terrell and her daughter Phyllis, to stand silently in front of the White House, many holding signs that read “Mr. President what will you do for woman suffrage?” and “How long must women wait for liberty?” These picketers—known as the Silent Sentinels—were treated with curiosity at first; no one had ever protested the president like that.
Things took a more violent turn once the United States entered World War I in April 1917. Dissent was seen as disloyal, and people ripped the banners from the protesters’ hands and spit on them. At one point a mob chased them to the nearby headquarters of the National Women’s Party, where the crowd tried to pull women from the balcony.
Rather than protecting the protesters, police arrested them for blocking traffic or, in the case of Alice Paul, just for walking toward the demonstration. Most of the women were jailed at the Occoquan Workhouse prison in Lorton, Virginia, but Paul was put in solitary confinement at the D.C. jail, where she went on a hunger strike for three weeks. She was tied down and force-fed by a tube thrust up her nose. “I confess I was afraid of Dr. Gannon, the jail physician,” she said later. “I dreaded the hour of his visit.”
Conditions were no better at Occoquan. Some 15 women went on hunger strikes, and a few of them were force-fed. “Food dumped directly into stomach feels like a ball of lead,” said Lucy Burns, who led the imprisoned women. On what became known as “the Night of Terror,” Burns was handcuffed to her cell door overnight, while other suffragists were thrown against iron furniture. One woman had a heart attack and was refused medical care.
By late November 1917, news of this brutal treatment began to shift public opinion in the women’s favor. They were released from jail; soon all charges were dropped, and the Senate and the House took up the proposed amendment. Even Wilson started to thaw (two of his daughters supported the suffragists).
None of the 12 states fully enfranchising women by then were in the South. Yet ratifying the amendment would require support from at least some of the southern states, where white supremacy ruled and Black men had been effectively disenfranchised by local regulations. The language of the 19th Amendment echoed that of the 15th:
“The right of the 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.”
It did not guarantee anyone’s right to vote, and Jim Crow laws, which enforced racial segregation, had proved that there were other ways to block access to the ballot box. “Everyone knows that the same impediments that are keeping Black men from polls—poll taxes, literacy tests, understanding clauses, white primaries, grandfather clauses—that these things are going to keep Black women from the polls,” says historian Martha S. Jones, author of the upcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All. “There’s good evidence that the promoters of the 19th Amendment were counting on that assumption.” They signaled to southern states that they had nothing to fear from women getting the vote: Whites would be enfranchised, and Blacks still wouldn’t.
Ratification of the amendment took more than a year, but on August 18, 1920, Tennessee pushed it over the finish line. The southern state did so by just one vote, that of a 24-year-old legislator named Harry Burn, whose mother had urged him to “vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.”
It was, at best, a qualified victory. Women had worked for more than 70 years to gain access to the ballot, and now they finally had it. But Black women still faced nearly insurmountable hurdles to voting in the south. Native Americans—men and women—weren’t even citizens until 1924; Chinese Americans had to wait until 1943. The real watershed moment for many minority women would be Congress’s passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ninety-eight years later, in 2018, the first majority-female legislature in the United States was elected, in Nevada. According to Democratic state senator Nicole Cannizzaro, that wasn’t the intention. The parties were looking for the best candidates. But “when we were looking at candidates,” she says, “we weren’t discounting women. We weren’t discounting their experience, and we weren’t discounting their ability to come in and do the job.” Cannizzaro ended up becoming the first female senate majority leader in the state’s history.
Such an achievement was a long time coming. “The movement never put much emphasis on women gaining office,” says historian DuBois. Instead, once the 19th Amendment was ratified, voting activists dispersed into other causes: the NAACP, labor unions, and peace organizations, to name a few. A lot of women—their energy spent from the movement and the war—dropped out of politics. Alice Paul and her colleagues at the National Women’s Party switched to advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was first introduced in Congress in 1923. The amendment was finally approved by the Senate in 1972 but was ratified by the required 38th state, Virginia, only this year, well past the 1982 deadline. The constitutional future of the amendment, which would “guarantee equal legal rights” for women and men, is unclear.
At a high point during the 1920s, nine women served in Congress; those numbers didn’t start inching up until the 1950s. The 2018 election saw the biggest increase in female representation since 1992. “We’ve made strides,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “but we’re talking about less than a quarter of the members of Congress are women. We’re at 29 percent women as state legislators.” Twenty-six women serve in the 100-member U.S. Senate, and women are 101 of the 435 voting members of the House. One governor in five is female and, of course, there has not yet been a woman president or vice president.
The balance began to shift when women recognized they couldn’t rely on political parties to recruit and fund female candidates. They needed to create their own organizations.
“We were just furious at how difficult it was to get our women elected to office,” says Ellen Malcolm, who in 1985 founded EMILY’s List, a group focused on getting Democratic women who favor abortion rights elected to office. “Over and over again, they’d be qualified, have a political base, have a success record or a track record,” but they couldn’t secure campaign funding.
EMILY’s List bundled donations together to throw behind candidates. (EMILY stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast; “it makes the dough rise,” Malcolm says.) Eventually the organization also began training candidates and staffers. Rutgers and the Campaign School at Yale provide similar training that’s nonpartisan.
Such foundational work has made it possible for the arrival of first-time congresswomen like “the Squad”—as the diverse quartet of liberal Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib are known—and enabled Pelosi’s rise to become the most powerful woman in American politics. Clinton, also a Democrat, would not have won nearly 66 million votes in 2016 without such backing.
Republicans have some catching up to do. The party’s female representation actually shrank in 2018. In the House, where Republicans have 196 seats, there are 13 women, while Democrats have 88 women. Among the 26 women senators, nine are Republicans and 17 are Democrats.
“From the Republican perspective, we’re about 20 years behind the Democrats in terms of building the pipeline and infrastructure to support wider female races,” says Ariel Hill-Davis, a co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, one of several groups recently created to support female Republican candidates. “There are more Gregs and Mikes in the Republican conference on the House side than there are women.”
Representation matters. Shortly after the 19th Amendment was passed, when women were just beginning to vote, Congress passed a law providing federal funds for maternal and child health care. Suffragists had led the way in lobbying for the bill, the first of its kind.
The suffragists wanted to break free from the subordinate role society had assigned them. But Susan W. Brooks, a Republican congresswoman from Indiana who was co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues in 2017-19, holds up the traditional tasks that many women still fulfill as a reason for political involvement.
“They are often the person who is primarily responsible for health care in their family, the person who is responsible for eldercare, for care of parents, the person doing groundwork on childcare issues,” she says. “They have a strong voice.”
Brenda Lawrence, a Democratic congresswoman from Michigan who is co-chair of the caucus, runs through a litany of issues that she believes are being addressed only because women are at the table: sexual harassment and abuse, maternal mortality, raising the minimum wage, training women in skilled trades and engineering, and ensuring that clinical trials include women and their specific medical needs.
“My role,” she says, “is teaching women how to take on a position of power, a collective voice, in raising those issues.”
It seems that each generation of women finds ways to exercise its collective voice. Much like the suffragists who gathered in 1913 before Wilson’s inauguration, some 470,000 people descended on Washington in 2017 to support women’s rights after Donald Trump’s inauguration. Their signature pink hats may be gathering dust, but for many women the political awakening continues.
The suffragist legacy—the determination “to do and dare anything”—lives on in other ways too. Michelle Duster, a great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells, raised $200,000 in small donations in 2018 to complete fundraising for a “people’s monument” to Wells in Chicago.
“I never thought of myself as an activist,” Duster says. “But so much time had passed that I thought, This has to be done.”