Posted on August 17 2020
By Becky Sicking
In the United States, March is Women’s History Month. To celebrate and better understand women’s history in this country, we need to look at voting rights. When the country was founded, women did not have the right to vote. It took the efforts of numerous women suffragists, those who fight for voting rights, before women’s voices counted as equal to men’s at the polls.
Interest in American women’s rights began to take hold in the early nineteenth century. At that time, women had very little freedom. Married women were not legally recognized as individuals; instead they were essentially governed by their husbands. Challenged by this disenfranchisement and inspired by the growing women’s rights movement in Europe, feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 in her hometown in New York state. She and prominent women’s rights activist Lucretia Mott co-authored the Declaration of Sentiments—a document outlining the discrimination against women—and presented it at the convention. Stanton first suggested women’s suffrage in Seneca Falls, but was met with strong opposition. It would not be until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, almost seventy years later, that women would finally be granted the right to vote.
At this same time, very little emphasis was placed on women’s education. Women were expected to become housewives and mothers, and many believed that if women became academics they would lose interest or even capability in these traditional roles. However, by the late 1800s, over 40,000 women had gotten a college education. Women became more aware and interested in the societal ills of the time. They wanted to find a way to help. Many women supported abolishing slavery and enacting child labor laws. Supporters of women’s suffrage suggested that women’s traditional nurturing role made them more interested in the welfare of children and of marginalized groups. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and longtime friend Susan B. Anthony founded the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1869. They believed that getting involved in politics was the key to bringing about social reform.
Other women’s groups began to spring up in the late nineteenth century. The American Woman Suffrage Association was formed in 1869 and merged with NAWSA in 1890, taking its name. The association functioned primarily in the interest of white women, so the National Association of Colored Women was formed in 1896. Together, these groups organized protests and marches. They even picketed the White House. On the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, March 3, 1913, thousands of women took to the streets of Washington D.C., in the Woman Suffrage Procession.
With World War I occupying the nation in the early twentieth century, many men had to leave America to fight. Women took their place in factories around the country, making munitions and other goods to support the war effort. With more women in the workplace, the need for voting rights was clearer than ever. In 1919, an amendment which would grant women suffrage made its way to Congress. This was not the first time an amendment of the type had been proposed, but all prior attempts had been defeated. The 1919 amendment passed the House of Representatives and then the Senate, before it began the process of ratification by the states. At least 36 states needed to approve the amendment before it could be instated. It stalled for about a year before Tennessee, the last state needed, finally ratified what then became the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. This ensured that women in every state would not be denied the right to vote, based on sex.
At first, not all women exercised their right to vote. It was still not considered socially acceptable. Women often voted along the same lines as men. It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that women of color could be assured an equal vote at all. Today, however, women tend to vote more often than men, and also exhibit a marked difference in the candidates they support as compared to men.
It is important to remember that it was not until relatively recently in history that women became major players in American politics—and only after years of protesting. During Women’s History Month, we recognize the suffragists’ hard work as well as the continued efforts made by women every day.