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Women's Right to Vote - A Hard Fought Battle.

August 18, 1920 - The 19th Amendment became law, guaranteeing women the right to vote. The right of 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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

On the anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, I thought it would be a good opportunity to look at this important constitutional right. Too many American citizens are complacent about their right to vote; some never bother to exercise their right. Perhaps they do not realize that this is one of very few rights citizens of this country have? Meaning that our Constitution guarantees many rights to individuals living in this country, but the right to vote is guaranteed only to citizens of the United States of America. This precious right was not easily won.

Colonial America

Voting was granted only to land-owners, specifically adult white males, in the English colonies. When a man cast a vote, regardless of the subject of the election, his vote was cast on behalf of his family. Under English Common Law when a woman married her legal rights and obligations were subsumed, or absorbed by, those of her husband’s; making them one person. An unmarried (feme sole) had the right to own property and enter into contracts under her own name; however, she was unable to vote. Perhaps the status quo would have continued for a longer period of time were it not for the King’s need to finance his long-running war with Napoleon Bonaparte which led to increased legislative conflicts as well as the levy of hefty taxation. The conditions spurred Richard Henry Lee of Virginia to present his resolution which was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on June 7, 1776:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted to the respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.

The Lee Resolution led to the Declaration of Independence from the “King of Great Britain.” Following his eloquent preamble, Jefferson's Declaration listed the grievances upon which the declaration were primarily the King’s refusal to honor laws along with imposing unfair laws, his control and interference with the judiciary, posting soldiers among the colonists, lack of trial by jury and dissolution of Colonial legislatures, unjust taxation/taxation without representation, inciting Native Americans on the frontiers to attack with “undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” as well as interference with ships and abduction of citizenry on the high seas.

The Declaration was followed by a bloody eight year war (1775-1783) between the 13 former colonies (joined under The Articles of Confederation) and Great Britain. Unfortunately, that loosely formed confederacy was not structured well enough to sustain a collaborative government and the very real threat of dissolution and anarchy were bubbling. Thankfully, another Virginian, James Madison, Jr., set his great mind to address the issues which resulted in a document called The Virginia Plan. This document was presented at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia by Virginia Governor Edmund Randolph. After much heated debate and several alterations, The Virginia Plan became The Constitution of the United States of America. Under the Articles of Confederation, the states acted together for specific purposes. The Constitution united the separate states and their peoples as a whole entity, with power vested in the people through a representative government - a democratic republic. Article IV, Section 4 is more specific in that it is a "Republican Form of government."

Our Constitutional Right to Vote

The original verbiage of our Constitution did not define who was eligible to vote, permitting each state to determine eligibility. In some states the colonial tradition continued and only white male adult property owners were eligible. Some states did not specify race and freedmen (formerly enslaved men) could vote in four states provided they could meet the property requirements. [1] Women and non-propertied men could not vote, with the exception of New Jersey where, until 1807, women could vote if they met the property requirement.

The move away from property ownership to gender and race-based qualifications began around 1790 and most states disenfranchised women and non-white men. By 1856 white men were allowed to vote in all states without property requirements, though they had to be tax-paying citizens. In that same period most states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, stripped free black males of the right to vote. Fortunately, Madison and the other founders created a constitution that could be amended for the people and by the people through their republican[2] government.

The 14th Amendment

With the Constitution in place and a new country formulated under a new republican government, the process of growing a nation began. Perhaps the most vital amendment to the Constitution was the 14th, ratified on July 9, 1868. Amendment 14, Section 1 reads:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

The 14th Amendment is arguably the foundation for the civil rights work that followed throughout the last 152 years. While most states ratified the amendment prior to 1870, four waited until the 1900s: Delaware (1901), Maryland (1959), California (1959), and Kentucky (1976).

Who Got to Vote and When?

Through the laws of coverture and history of practice, land-owning men and later all white men had the right to vote in the young United States of America. What happened to effect change? The Abolition and Women's Suffrage movements were the catalysts for change.

Women’s suffrage, the crusade for the vote, is one of several great examples of the power of the people and their ability to effect change through the constitutional process. The women’s suffrage movement is intertwined with the abolitionist movement; it actually has its roots within that movement.

Both men and women joined the anti-slavery movement in the 1830s to free enslaved black African-Americans. However, only men could lead an abolition organization and/or speak/provide lectures.

Women were not allowed to hold thee positions and if they defied the rules and spoke out against slavery in public, they were mocked and derided. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were barred from attending the world Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840. This was the catalyst that prompted them to organize a national meeting in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 that launched the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Perhaps Lucretia Mott expressed the ideology of many women when she stated:

I have no idea of submitting tamely to injustice inflicted either on me or on the slave. I will oppose it with all the moral powers with which I am endowed. I am no advocate of passivity.

While there were many women who were involved in the anti-slavery crusade there is one other who was a leader in both causes: abolition and women's rights - Susan B. Anthony. Anthony was a writer, lecturer, abolitionist, temperance activist, and then a leading figure in the Women's Suffrage movement, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She focused her writing talents on abolition and temperance throughout the American Civil War. With the end of the war and the full emancipation of African-Americans , Anthony became more focused on the rights of women. In 1866, Anthony and Stanton founded the American Equal Rights Association. The group demanded the same rights to be granted to all - regardless of race or sex. The ladies also began publishing a weekly publication advocating women's rights titled "The Revolution" in 1866.

But how were women to make changes? How were they to effect change when those in power would not listen? Speeches, rallies, marches, newspapers and periodicals helped inform and gain additional supporters (and detractors). Unfortunately, those efforts only carried them part of the way. Women needed the right to vote. To vote is to have a voice and having a voice in the constitutional process is powerful.

In 1869 the ladies formed the National Woman Suffrage Association which Anthony led. Anthony put all of her time and energy into the "cause," giving speeches around the country to convince others to join and support a woman's right to vote. While she was able to gain additional supporters, she also gained detractors; even from her own sex. She was parodied in newspapers and magazines, and other women were often rude and demeaning toward her. Undaunted, undefeated she and many others labored on, hoping to realize their goal in 1870.

In 1870, there was an Amendment to the Constitution, however, it provided only that all adult male citizens had the right to vote. Section 1 reads:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Frustrated, Anthony took matters into her own hands in 1872. Four days prior to the election, she entered a temporary registration office and citing the 14th Amendment demanded to be added to the list of eligible voters. After a bit of arguing, she was added to the list and on November 5th Anthony and 14 other women cast their ballots in the presidential race between Grant and Greeley. They knew what they did was "technically" illegal, but voted regardless of the consequences. It was a short and the local government singled her out and arrested her on the charge of voting unlawfully. Her trial took place in Federal Court in June 1873. Judge Ward Hunt did not allow the jury to deliberate, rather, he instructed them to find her "guilty." Throughout the proceedings, she was not allowed to speak. It was only after the judge decreed her guilty that she was given the opportunity. And speak she did, repeatedly ignoring the judge's orders to stop talking and sit down. She was find, but never paid, $100. (Note: On August 18, 2020, the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, Susan B. Anthony received a presidential pardon.)

George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (reproduction no. LC-DIG-ggbain-00111)

It took another 50 years of marching, lobbying, protests and arrests for women to obtain the right to vote. On August 18, 1920 the 19th Amendment was ratified and became law: adult women had won the right to vote.

September 8, 1920 issue from Collection at The James Madison Museum of Orange County Heritage; Gift from Ms. Sally O'Brien.

It would be another four years before Native Americans would gain their right to vote.

In Museum Collection

[1] Murrin, John M.; Johnson, Paul E.; McPherson, James M.; Fahs, Alice; Gerstle, Gary (2012). Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (6th ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. p. 296. ISBN 978-0-495-90499-1.

[2] Article IV, Section 4 of The Constitution of the United States guarantees a “republican form of government.”


Crusade for the Vote.

The American Battlefield Trust,

The Constitution Center,

The National Archives

National Women's History Museum

Encyclopedia Britannica on line.

[1] Murrin, John M.; Johnson, Paul E.; McPherson, James M.; Fahs, Alice; Gerstle, Gary (2012). Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People (6th ed.). Wadsworth, Cengage Learning. p. 296. ISBN 978-0-495-90499-1.

[2] Article IV, Section 4 of The Constitution of the United States guarantees a “republican form of government.”

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