Women’s Suffrage @100

The woman suffrage amendment passed in 1920, the culmination of what Juliet Mitchell called “the longest revolution, ” because it took 80 years of activism for American women to win the right to vote ...

The woman suffrage amendment passed in 1920, the culmination of what Juliet Mitchell called “the longest revolution, ” because it took 80 years of activism for American women to win the right to vote. What could better illustrate the depth of resistance to sex equality?  But for two reasons, 1920 was not the decisive year. First, the 19th amendment empowered only white women, because the vast majority of African Americans—and a major proportion of Mexican Americans—of both sexes remained disenfranchised. Second, several states already allowed women to vote in state and local elections. New York did so a century ago, in 1917, and not with ease.  So we have to understand the struggle for women’s rights through a longer, more varied feminist history.

The road to the vote was complex. First, despite references to the women’s-rights movement as a suffrage campaign, in fact the movement’s early demands did not include the vote. Until the 1880s or 1890s, most feminists—and there is controversy about whether they could be called feminists—thought that asking for suffrage was too radical, too provocative. Woman suffrage would mean invading male control of public space and public policy, and most 19th-century women’s-rights advocates were not challenging the gender system that assigned separate spheres to men and women. Instead they were asking for rights within the conventional women’s sphere: the right to education, because educated mothers would produce better male citizens; the right to retain her own property after marriage (to help women protect themselves from abusive and gold-digging husbands; and the right to child custody, easily the reform most valuable to women, few of whom were willing to leave an abusive man if it meant losing one’s children. Only in 1878 was the first bill calling for a woman suffrage amendment introduced.

Second, the 19th constitutional amendment, ratified in 1920, did not enfranchise women for the first time. Feminists had won limited voting rights in numerous states and localities for several decades, by using arguments that avoided a direct challenge to male political power. Women sometimes gained the right to vote for county and state school boards, judges, clerks of the courts, for example. Male voters could be more generous when women’s votes could help particular causes, as when Utah granted full suffrage to women in 1869 in an attempt to increase the Mormon vote. (It worked for a while, but in 1887 the federal government, influenced by the sectarianism of several Protestant denominations, disfranchised them, on the grounds that Mormonism was anti-Christian.) Still, women had already won at least partial suffrage in 27 states and the Alaska territory prior to the national amendment. These victories, between 1890 and 1919, began in the western states, in part out of the desire to attract women to areas where they were scarce, and in part because in rural and sometimes pioneering conditions, the gendered separate spheres were less imbedded. But as late as 1915 advocates were still arguing for woman suffrage not as a matter of rights but as a means of producing “better-trained children.”


Although New York was no trailblazer on the issue, it was the first eastern state whose male voters agreed to enfranchise women, and this only after several painful defeats. A major 1915 referendum on a proposal to allow women to vote in state elections lost by huge margins, 2 to 1 in many locations. The New York Times editorialized that enfranchising women would “result in needless political turmoil, weaken the state, stir up discord in society and in the home … It is the privilege of men to care for the woman.”1 The loss must have been galling for suffrage advocates.

The NY State bill finally passed in 1917, after Republican Governor Charles Whitman endorsed it. By then support for woman suffrage had become the central feminist cause, and the suffrage movement had developed sophisticated lobbying and promotional strategies. Moreover, the class implications of the vote were changing. Then, as still today, feminism seemed to many an elite cause, of limited relevance to immigrant, poor, and working-class women and families. The upstate New York suffragists were mainly well-to-do, even society women, and small-farming and working-class men were unlikely to see reasons to support it. New York City, however, was a different story: in both the 1917 vote on state suffrage and the 1919 vote on the federal constitutional amendment, the greatest margins of victory came from the working-class neighborhoods in New York City.2 Female labor leaders, particularly in the garment industry where the majority of workers were women, were crucial in producing the hefty New York City majority. They argued for woman suffrage in terms directly relevant to working men and women: that female voters would be more progressive, particularly on labor issues.

Despite references to the women’s-rights movement as a suffrage campaign, in fact the movement’s early demands did not include the vote.

The usual story of woman suffrage is also wrong for a third reason: the 19th amendment of 1920 did not enfranchise all women by any means. The vast majority of African Americans of both sexes had been disenfranchised by southern state governments in the late 19th century. The southwestern states had similarly disfranchised Latinos.3 (And in 1920, relatively few American citizens of color lived in the northern states where racial discrimination was less dug in.) Yet still today many textbooks refer to the suffrage after 1920 as “universal.” So to understand the significance of the woman suffrage amendment we can’t avoid considering what happened to male suffrage: it was only 100 years after the Civil War, in 1965, that Congress made a move to extend suffrage to African Americans—and even now the battle for the right to vote is not over.

African American women were among the earliest feminists, and like white feminists they began their activism in the movement against slavery, known as abolition. One of the first, 1830s Boston black abolitionist Maria Stewart, a charismatic orator, became steadily more feminist, in part because she was forced to defend her activism against criticism that speaking in public was unwomanly. Later other abolitionists followed her lead, but textbooks typically mention only white ones, notably Sarah and Angelina Grimké, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan Anthony, Lucy Stone. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman have become symbols of enslaved women activists, but free African American women abolitionists like Mary Prince, Sarah Mapps Douglass, and Charlotte Forten are unknown to most Americans, and they are all usually identified only with abolition—although they were also women’s-rights advocates. In other words, labeling feminism as a white construction is not only inaccurate but conceals the history of black feminism, which was there from the start.

All these women incurred vilification and name-calling (the precursor to what is today called slut-shaming) for daring to enter the world of politics. Their decision to call for women’s rights—i.e., to become feminists—was in a sense forced on them by their critics. In other words, in order to fight slavery, they had to become feminists. They were supported by several feminist male abolitionists, found on the Left of the movement, such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison.4

Although generated by Civil War military necessity, the Emancipation Proclamation provided not only a victory but also an opportunity to establish universal suffrage. But that effort ended in a tragic defeat for democracy, and its destructive consequences live to this day. Women’s-rights supporters hoped for a universal suffrage amendment, enfranchising all adult citizens. Stanton, Anthony and Douglass founded the American Equal Rights Association to fight for it. But Congressional Republicans, many of whom had endorsed women’s rights previously, betrayed the feminists and instead proposed constitutional amendments—numbers 14 and 15—that enfranchised only African American men. Even Frederick Douglass, an early advocate for feminism, shifted to support the amendments.

In the debate about these amendments, an ugly competition arose between, supposedly, women’s rights and black rights. Consider this excerpt from a debate between Douglass and Stanton at a women’s rights convention in 1868:5

Douglass: “I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to woman as to the negro. With us the matter is a question of life and death … When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”

To which Stanton replied: “I do not believe in allowing ignorant negroes and foreigners to make laws for me to obey.”

Douglass: “Woman has a thousand ways by which she can attach herself to the ruling power of the land that we have not.”

Consider what was being said and what was not being said. First, black women were erased. Douglass says he supports giving the ballot to “the Negro.” But despite his characteristically powerful rhetoric, despite his reminder of what was at stake for black people, when he says “negroes” he is referring only to Negro men.6 Second, Stanton reveals the mindset of most white abolitionists, condemning slavery as a sin and a vicious cruelty, but by no means recognizing the equality of black people. As a relatively privileged woman, daughter of a prominent attorney who served as Congressman and judge, Stanton was galled that less educated people would have power over her. The voting rights coalition created before the Civil War was an alliance among the most progressive reformers of the time—Susan Anthony called it a triple alliance of women, Negroes and working-men—formed to support the most basic premise of a democracy, universal suffrage. The 14th and 15th amendments destroyed that alliance.

This was not, of course, the only source of some African American suspicion of feminism, but it was surely one source.

Consider also what happened to the black men who had been promised the vote in the 14th and 15th amendments: Southern states systematically disfranchised them, at a time when the vast majority of African Americans lived in the south. Everyone except white men were the losers in this post-Civil War settlement. White women won suffrage in 1920, but black people had no secure voting rights until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (And today those rights are shrinking due to the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the Act, Republican gerrymandering, and a conservative campaign to disfranchise Democratic-leaning voters by requiring new documents to prove their eligibility.)

The 14th and 15th amendments also produced a split in the women’s rights movement, between the Stanton-Anthony and Lucy Stone-Julia Ward Howe factions. Both established organizations that were overwhelmingly white. Although some members objected, both accepted southern all-white segregated chapters.

Over the next 50 years the women’s-rights cause won considerable gains, mostly at the state level: married women’s property rights, access to higher education, civil rights in the courts, some divorce and child-custody rights. These were hugely important, sometimes life-and-death matters for women. In fact, part of their importance lay in contributing to women’s ability to conceive themselves as rights-bearing citizens.

The movement remained split for more than two decades, and the expansion of women’s rights during that period demonstrates that organizational unity is by no means the only route to success. The two groups merged in 1890, as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). But winning the vote still took 30 more years, although some western states earlier gave women the right to vote in local elections.


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Once the women’s-rights movement united, its predominant ideology shifted. Unlike Stanton and Anthony’s insistence that rights should be sex-neutral, the later suffragists tended to emphasize gender difference. In their gender analysis, women were more moral, more nurturing, less tempted by corruption and sin; giving them the vote would benefit the country precisely because of women’s uniqueness. This shift illustrates a remarkable and continuing contradiction within feminism, between assertions that men and women are basically similar—united in their human rights, differentiated only because they had been confined by male supremacy—and assertions that women are not only unlike men, but also in some ways superior.

In the early 20th century NAWSA began to modernize the movement’s strategy and tactics. It won celebrity endorsements, trained and paid organizers, set up a PR office in Washington, lobbied politicians, mounted parades and pageants, built alliances with other progressive organizations, including labor unions and women’s clubs. Its leaders were becoming professionals, helping to inaugurate a style of political activism based on paid staff to which we are now accustomed. We cannot know, of course, whether this model was responsible for the final victory of the 19th amendment; the fact that other social and political movements contributed support figured importantly. Progressive-era reformers were at the time campaigning against corrupt politicians, built settlement houses, initiated urban public-health programs, fought to ban child labor and supported labor struggles, and these activisms brought more vocal support for woman suffrage.

Still, as late as 1915, although Republicans and Progressive Party Congressmen supported a suffrage bill, two-thirds of Democrats opposed it, more than enough to defeat it. In 1918 a bill finally passed the House. President Woodrow Wilson endorsed it only after he knew it would pass. In 1919 the Senate approved it, 56 to 25. Ultimately 36 of the 48 states ratified the amendment.

Given NAWSA’s promise that woman suffrage would purify American politics, the immediate results were surely disappointing. Women’s electoral participation did not equal men’s for another 60 years, and few women gained national public office. Indeed, for another 70 years, political historians claimed that woman suffrage made little if any difference in government policy. (That conclusion was challenged in a 1999 study that found increases in state government expenditures, more liberal voting patterns for federal representatives, effects that grew over time as more women voted.7 The gender gap in voting preferences, widely recognized today, was not much noticed until the 1990s.)

Making U.S. Ensign. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress

The fact that woman suffrage made no dramatic difference seemed to support the claim that suffrage was not the most valuable of women’s rights, a claim made by many progressive as well as conservative intellectuals and strategists. The elite appearance of the movement contributed to the crass Leftist notion that feminism was a “bourgeois ideology,” another idea that continues in some circles today. In that view, suffrage was not the route to popular power. That the leaders of the suffrage associations were mainly white and elite added to this view, even though working-class women had been the strongest proponents of woman suffrage. (So too, working-class men were more likely to support it than were more middle-class men.) As the labor movement grew, some leaders (including a few women, like “Mother” Jones, an organizer for the Knights of Labor and the United Mine Workers) argued that progressive activists should not bother with the woman suffrage campaign, that labor unions were more effective than political rights as a means of improving the lives of poor and working people.

But most labor unions of the time were men’s clubs, not only refusing to organize women but denying that women’s wage labor was a permanent phenomenon. In fact, many working-class advocates clung to the hope that when male workers got better wages, their wives would return to unpaid domesticity. Worse, many clung to the fiction that working women didn’t need equal wages or equal access to jobs because they only earned “pin money” to supplement the wages of their breadwinners. It was this fiction that was the real “bourgeois ideology,” because it ignored the many women who were sole supporters of their families and the still more families that depended on women’s wages. Even some Left feminists prioritized social and economic over political justice, and at the beginning of the women’s liberation movement in the late 1960s many activists considered the whole woman suffrage campaign as a priority of privileged women. The suffrage, they argued, was less fundamental to social justice than equal wages and welfare rights, for example. I confess that I once leaned toward that analysis.

We haven’t given universal suffrage a real test because we still don’t have it.

But studying the history of the women’s-rights movement—of which I learned absolutely nothing through grade school, high school, college, and graduate school—convinced me otherwise. My reconception was solidified by Ellen DuBois’s influential article, “The Radicalism of the Woman Suffrage Movement.”8 The “separate spheres” ideology that confined women (in theory) to the domestic sphere, she argued, was fundamental to women’s inequality, to their uncitizenship. Women could never achieve respect, or even a sense of themselves as citizens, without participation in this key democratic process. Besides, disfranchisement was fundamental to economic and social inequality, not just between women and men but also between whites and people of color, between the rich and the poor. Women’s poverty, low wages, exclusion from better jobs and education, lack of reproductive rights, and vulnerability to violence affected everyone outside the 1 percent, and could be overcome only if women are welcomed into the public sphere, the arena of political power.

I say “welcomed” intentionally, because women still face significant obstacles to participation in the public sphere. Women politicians have less money and can raise less money than men. They must reassure audiences of their womanliness by focusing on “women’s issues” but must also show command of the whole political world. Their speeches and campaign methods will always evoke disdain from some quarters. Their appearance, dress, and personalities remain vulnerable to scathing insults. They mustn’t appear too young or too old; too sexual, too pretty or too fat; too sophisticated or too naïve; too dramatic or too boring; too authoritative or too weak. All these disadvantages are multiplied for non-elite women and all women of color. The public culture still says to many women: enter at your peril.

The problem here could be called gender. It concerns men as well as women, and it is constructed by women as well as men.  For many feminists, like me, the Trump victory was particularly painful because he won the support of 53 percent of white women. We should not imagine that women’s equality is a dominant concern for all women.  (As an example, in my book on the 1920s KKK, there is a chapter on KKK feminism, now excerpted on Buzzfeed.)

Obviously, then, universal suffrage cannot guarantee democracy. In fact, American electoral democracy today may call into question the importance of suffrage, given the power of wealth in choosing and selling candidates, in gerrymandering electoral districts, in controlling legislators and judges.

But we haven’t given universal suffrage a real test because we still don’t have it.  Millions are excluded, millions more don’t find it worth bothering, and a lot of money goes into reducing the electorate still further. Still, if universal suffrage is not a sufficient condition, it is surely a necessary condition for democracy. Women were certainly not wrong to prioritize it, and it should remain a priority today. icon

  1. Quoted in Carol Kammen, “The Women’s Suffrage Movement in 1915 Tompkins County,” Ithaca Journal (November 12, 2015).
  2. In 1917 the NYC margin of victory was 104,000. Ronald Schaffer, “The New York City Woman Suffrage Party, 1909–1919,” New York History, vol. 43, no. 3 (1962), pp.269–287.
  3. Black population of New York City, for example, was 150,000 out of a total of 5.5 million. On disfranchisement of Latino/as, see Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Harvard University Press, 1999).
  4. Frederick Douglass’s speech “How I Became a Woman’s-Rights Man” can be found here ; a Garrison statement can be found here.
  5. The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader, edited by Ellen DuBois (Schocken Books, 1981), p. 167.
  6. That erasure of African American women has been memorialized in the title of a major second-wave feminism book, All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave.
  7. John R. Lott, Jr., and Lawrence W. Kenny, “Did Women’s Suffrage Change the Size and Scope of Government?” in Journal of political Economy, vol. 107, no. 6, pt. 1 (1999).
  8. Ellen DuBois, “The Radicalism of the Woman Suffrage Movement,” Feminist Studies, vol. 3, no. 1–2 (1975); also in DuBois, Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights (NYU Press, 1998).
Featured Image: Picketing in all sorts of weather, NY Day Picket, January 26, 1917. New York United States Washington D.C, 1917. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress