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When Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby affixed his signature to the 19th Amendment on August 26, 1920, women across the United States gained voting rights. The new constitutional amendment, however, brought no change to one region of the country where women had been casting ballots for decades, one often thought of as a bastion of rugged masculinity and “no place for a woman”—the Wild West.
While the right of women to vote had not been specifically enshrined in the U.S. Constitution prior to the 19th Amendment, it hadn’t been prohibited either. For instance, single women owning property “worth fifty pounds” were allowed to vote in New Jersey between 1776 and 1807 before the right was restricted to white males. In 1838 Kentucky allowed widows with school-age children to vote in school elections, and Kansas followed in 1861.
READ MORE: The Women’s Suffrage Movement Started with a Tea Party
Women’s suffrage, however, was still nearly nonexistent when in 1869 William Bright, a saloonkeeper and president of the upper house of the Wyoming Territory, introduced a bill granting all female residents 21 years and older the right to vote. According to the Wyoming State Historical Society, the territorial legislature had already passed progressive measures guaranteeing women teachers the same pay as men and granting married women property rights apart from their husbands. Bright’s measure backing universal women’s suffrage, however, would be groundbreaking in the United States.
The bill passed both houses of the all-male legislature and was signed into law on December 10, 1869, by Republican Governor John Campbell. The following September, 69-year-old Louisa Swain, described by a local newspaper as “a gentle white-haired housewife” became the first women to cast a ballot under the law in her town of Laramie, Wyoming. There was no protest. “There was too much good sense in our community for any jeers or sneers to be seen on such an occasion,” reported the Laramie Sentinel. The new law also allowed women to serve on juries and hold public office. Esther Morris became Wyoming’s first female justice of the peace in 1870, and she tried more than 40 cases during her tenure.
Why was this sparsely populated territory on the rough edges of the frontier in the vanguard of women’s rights? While Bright and others believed in ideals of gender equality, the Wyoming State Historical Society says there were other factors as well.
In a territory where men outnumbered women by a 6-to-1 ratio, some hoped the publicity from the measure might attract single women to Wyoming to rectify the gender imbalance as well as to help it achieve the population threshold required to apply for statehood. Politics also played a role as some Democratic legislators hoped the bill would put the Republican governor in a tough spot. If Campbell, whose party championed African American voting rights, vetoed the measure, he would look hypocritical. If it passed, Democrats thought women voters would reward them for introducing the measure.
READ MORE: Women Who Fought for the Vote
Much to the chagrin of those Democrats, however, Republicans gained seats in the territorial legislature and won the vote for the territorial representative to Congress in the two years after Campbell signed the law. Blaming the newly enfranchised voters for their defeats, Democrats passed a bill to outlaw women’s suffrage, but they fell one vote short of overriding Campbell’s veto.
“Wyoming is the first place on God’s green earth which could consistently claim to be the land of the free!” declared women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony. The neighboring territory of Utah quickly followed Wyoming’s lead by passing women’s suffrage in February 1870. The Western territories of Washington and Montana passed similar measures in the 1880s.
When Wyoming sought statehood two decades after its historic vote, the territory’s citizens approved a constitution that maintained the right of women to vote. When Congress threatened to keep Wyoming out of the Union if it didn’t rescind the provision, the territory refused to budge. “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women,” the territorial legislature declared in a telegram to congressional leaders. Congress relented, and Wyoming became the first state to grant women the right to vote when it became the country’s 44th state in 1890.
The West continued to be the country’s most progressive region on full women’s suffrage. Colorado approved it in 1893, and Idaho did the same three years later. Congress had disenfranchised women along with outlawing polygamy in Utah in 1887, but women regained the right to vote when the territory became a state in 1896. After 1910, they were joined by Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota and the territory of Alaska. (Even before the passage of the 19th Amendment, Montana elected a woman, Jeannette Rankin, to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1916.) According to the National Constitution Center, by 1919 there were 15 states in which women had full voting rights, and only two of them were east of the Mississippi River. The dozen states that restricted women from casting ballots in any election were primarily in the South and the East.
Even after the adoption of the 19th Amendment, Wyoming continued to blaze a trail for women in politics when Nellie Tayloe Ross was elected the country’s first female governor in 1924. For its trailblazing role, Wyoming has adopted the nickname of the “Equality State,” and its motto is “Equal Rights.”
READ MORE: 19th Amendment: A Timeline of the Fight for All Women's Right to Vote
The State Where Women Voted Long Before the 19th Amendment - HISTORY
No one knows whether New Jersey meant to do it. Later though, the state constitution’s signers made it clear they meant to keep it.
In the summer of 1776, the colonies were about to collectively declare independence, and the Provincial Congress in Trenton was in a rush to write a state constitution. The state’s framers wrote and passed it in only five days.
In the document, where it explains rules for elected officials, the governor is referred to as “he” each assembly member, “he” each county’s sheriff and its coroners, a “he.”
But for some reason, when it describes the rules for the electorate, it says “they.” All inhabitants who are worth at least 50 pounds and have lived in New Jersey for a year, “they” shall have the right to vote.
An 1880 engraving by Howard Pyle in Harper’s Weekly is titled “Women at the Polls in New Jersey in the Good Old Times." Researchers recently found evidence in poll logs that women voted in New Jersey in the late 1700s and early 1800s. (Museum of the American Revolution)
And that is how, for the first three decades of American independence, it was legal for some New Jersey women to vote, more than a century before the passage of the 19th Amendment.
Even if it started out as an accidental loophole, a 1790 statute clarified that “they” meant “he or she” in seven New Jersey counties with large Quaker populations. In 1797, another statute expanded female suffrage from those counties to the entire state.
For decades, there has been mostly anecdotal evidence that any women actually used this right — newspaper accounts complaining about women voting, and a copy of a poll list with two names that could have been women’s names, or men’s names incorrectly transcribed.
“This is the kind of detective work that historians love, because it’s an untold story,” said Philip Mead, chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia.
Starting in 2018, museum staff led by curatorial fellow Marcela Micucci dug into the New Jersey State Archives, local historical societies and other cultural institutions looking for harder evidence.
After months of searching, they hit pay dirt.
“We found a poll list … from an election in Montgomery Township, Somerset County, in October of 1801. There were 343 voters on that list and 46 of them were women,” Micucci told The Washington Post. “I barged into [Mead’s] office, the list printed out in my hands, jumping up and down. It was very exciting.”
Since then, museum researchers have found 18 more poll lists, ranging from 1797 to 1807, nine of which contain women’s names. In total, they have identified 163 women who voted.
“This was not just some women, but quite a substantial number of women,” Micucci said.
Philip Mead, chief historian at the Museum of the American Revolution, and curatorial fellow Marcela Micucci led the research that found women's names on New Jersey poll lists, such as this one from 1801. (Museum of the American Revolution)
The women’s names often appear together, indicating that they arrived at the polls in groups, perhaps for their own protection, Mead said.
“That in itself, I think, is an expression of bravery,” he said.
There were limitations. At the time, married women generally had no property rights — a woman’s property went to her husband upon marriage — meaning only single and widowed women could meet the property requirement to vote.
But there was also another surprising benefit — that “they” in the state constitution wasn’t just gender neutral but race neutral. The museum team has found evidence that at least one free Black man legally voted in 1801. And though it is theoretically possible that free Black women voted, too, the team has yet to prove it happened. It’s already difficult to track White women in the historical record, Micucci explained, and even more so Black women. It is possible there is a Black woman among the 163 names already found, and researchers just haven’t been able to find biographical information about her in other extant records yet.
And though researchers know now that female voting was widespread, the team hasn’t found evidence of any type of organized proto-suffrage movement in the colonial era, Mead said.
That doesn’t mean it escaped notice in the young nation.
Nelly Custis, George Washington’s step-granddaughter, was once described by John Adams as having “jumped on a horse and galloped off to the polling place demanding the vote” as a property owner, Mead said.
In a 1797 letter to her sister, then-first lady Abigail Adams asked her to tell a losing candidate in a local race that if the Massachusetts state constitution “had been equally liberal with that of New jersey and admitted the females to a Vote, I should certainly have exercised it in his behalf.”
And there is, of course, Abigail’s famous letter to her husband in 1776, urging him to “remember the ladies” as he and the other founders deliberated on independence.
Both of these letters, along with the unearthed poll lists, will be included in a new exhibit at the museum called “When Women Lost the Vote: A Revolutionary Story 1776-1807.” Originally scheduled to open in August, it has now been delayed until October because of the pandemic.
A woman's name appears on a 1801 Montgomery Township, N.J., poll list from the New Jersey State Archives. (Museum of the American Revolution)
So how did New Jersey women lose the vote?
In a most American way — on the altar of partisan politics.
By the time Washington left office in 1797, fights between the nascent political parties — the Federalists and the Democratic Republicans — were becoming so bitter that the first president spent much of his farewell address warning against them.
The situation worsened over the next decade, and with that came a rise in accusations of voter fraud. In 1802, political leaders in Hunterdon County urged the New Jersey legislature to overturn a local election, claiming some people on the poll lists were Philadelphia residents, immigrants, enslaved and, in particular, married women, Micucci said.
In 1806 in Essex County, women and people of color were blamed again when more votes were mysteriously cast than there were eligible voters.
“This was a moment, in 1807, where Americans were having serious doubts about their democracy,” Mead said. “I think [legislators] were looking for a big action they could take to restore confidence in the voting system, and they crudely scapegoated women, people of color, immigrants.”
The law was changed to remove the property requirement and limit the franchise to White men only.
“And, of course, that wasn’t a solution. Voting problems continued,” Mead said.
Eight years later, in neighboring New York, a woman named Elizabeth Cady was born. She grew up to be an activist, married fellow abolitionist Henry Stanton, and, in 1848, met with other supporters of women’s rights at Seneca Falls, where she presented a draft of the Declaration of Sentiments.
By 1880, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was living in New Jersey, and since she had to pay taxes there, decided she would attempt to vote. She went to the polling place donned in her “Sunday attire,” she recounted, with her friend Susan B. Anthony, who was “always ready to make an escapade on the ballot-box.”
Created by Adelaide Johnson, a marble monument to suffragists Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony stands in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)
The inspector refused to give her a ballot, explaining there was no precedent for a woman to vote.
On the contrary, she told him, “On the sacred soil of New Jersey, where we now stand, women voted thirty-one years, from 1776 to 1807.”
The inspector said he knew nothing about the matter. He had never read the state constitution.
About this story
Illustrations by Bárbara Malagoli for The Washington Post. Editing by Lynda Robinson. Art direction by Amanda Soto. Design and development by Madison Walls. Design editing by Suzette Moyer. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine. Photo editing and research by Mark Miller.
Utah women had the right to vote long before others — and then had it taken away
Today marks the 150th anniversary of women’s first votes in the United States under an unrestricted women’s suffrage law. On Feb. 14, 1870, 23-year-old schoolteacher Seraph Young cast her ballot in Salt Lake City’s municipal election on her way to work. She and about 24 other women voted that day, and that summer, thousands of Utah women followed suit in the general election. A full 50 years before the 19th Amendment became national law, female citizens in Utah made history as the first to exercise equal suffrage rights.
In February 1870, Utah’s territorial legislature passed a bill extending suffrage rights to female citizens. The territory of Wyoming enacted women’s suffrage in December 1869, but because of the timing of elections, women in Utah were the first to go to the polls. Some American women had previously been able to vote in limited circumstances — property-holding (single) women had voted in New Jersey until they and black men were disenfranchised in 1807. In the time after that, a few states such as Kentucky and Kansas had allowed certain women to vote in school board or other local elections. But the Wyoming and Utah territories were first to extend voting rights to female citizens for all elections without property restrictions. (Still, discriminatory citizenship laws excluded Native Americans and other women of color.) Significantly, while Utahns made history as the first voting women with equal suffrage, they were later disenfranchised as part of the federal government’s efforts to end the practice of polygamy.
This story reveals a historical truth overlooked in many centennial celebrations of the 19th Amendment — that the suffrage movement was a long slog with setbacks, divisions and mistakes along the way. Suffrage history has not been a linear progression. Women’s voting rights did not expand evenly to women of color. Nor did they expand permanently: History and current events show that voting rights are difficult to protect and maintain.
From the beginning in 1870, Utah women’s voting rights were entangled in the national controversy over the practice of polygamy among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The church believed that polygamy — plural marriage — was based on divine revelation and argued that polygamy was a superior social and religious system. But opponents argued that polygamy was oppressive and degrading to women and that it threatened the principle of individual liberty at the heart of the American republic.
After the Civil War, Congress turned its attention toward the “Mormon Question.” The 1856 Republican platform had called for the eradication of polygamy and slavery, the “twin relics of barbarism,” in the territories. Previous federal anti-polygamy legislation had not been enforced, and the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and increasing attention to the West made it time to finish the job.
Some suffragists saw an opening and suggested that enfranchising Utah women might be the best way to end polygamy. If women had the vote, perhaps they could free themselves from the practice. In fact, Susan B. Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) urged Congress to enact a women’s suffrage law for Utah “as the one safe, sure and swift means to abolish the polygamy of that Territory.” It was also a way to experiment with women’s voting rights in a far-off western territory.
The bills stalled in Congress, but Utahns themselves took up the conversation about women’s voting rights, with a twist. The church-owned Deseret News editorialized: “If the wish is to try the experiment of giving females the right to vote in the Republic, we know of no place where the experiment can be so safely tried as in this Territory. Our ladies can prove to the world that … women can be enfranchised without running wild or becoming unsexed.”
Utah women would provide an example to the world on yet another front if they gained the vote. With some strategic agitation from leading Latter-day Saints women to position themselves as trusted political partners, and an anti-polygamy law working its way through Congress, Utah’s territorial legislature unanimously passed a law in February 1870 extending voting rights to female citizens.
At that time, the territory of Wyoming was the only place with a similar women’s suffrage law on the books, but Wyoming’s female population was one-tenth the size of Utah’s. So into the next decade, Utah women were the only substantial population of female voters. Their ballots immediately attracted national attention and scrutiny. When Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton visited in 1871, they urged Utah women to “use the ballot for their own good” and “rid themselves” of polygamy.
National reformers watched hopefully, but it soon became clear that women were not voting against church leaders. So anti-polygamists came to see Utah women’s suffrage as a factor upholding polygamy. They argued that these women should be removed from the electorate, so they lobbied Congress to repeal Utah women’s voting rights and brought lawsuits attempting to invalidate Utah’s suffrage law.
Latter-day Saints women in Utah fought to stave off their disenfranchisement for more than a decade. They mobilized to speak on a national stage and began one of the longest-running women’s newspapers, the Woman’s Exponent, in 1872. In its first issue, the Exponent declared, “It is better to represent ourselves than to be misrepresented by others!” Latter-day Saints women used the network of the Relief Society, the church’s women’s organization, to stage protest meetings, petition federal officials and lobby lawmakers in Washington. This political engagement was doubly transgressive, supporting two practices — polygamy and female suffrage — very much at odds with 19th-century American culture. It made a splash.
Foreshadowing the debate over suffrage that would play out in the early 20th century, Latter-day Saints women in Utah defended their political rights by defending their experience as voters. They countered claims that they were voting only as their husbands directed, that voting compromised their ability to fulfill their domestic duties and that they were too stupid, emotional or brainwashed to vote properly. Instead, they argued, as in this 1878 petition to Congress, “We have exercised the ballot with our own free will and choice, having fully demonstrated that honorable women command as much respect at the polls, as in the drawing-room, the parlor, and the Church.”
But their presence caused tension in the suffrage movement. Suffrage leaders didn’t initially know what to do with polygamous voting women, and the more mainstream American Woman Suffrage Association refused to work with them or defend their voting rights. So Latter-day Saints suffragists forged a mutually beneficial relationship with the more radical NWSA. They gathered more petition signatures than from any other state or territory in support of a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage and secured an invitation to the NWSA convention in 1879.
Latter-day Saints women became fixtures of these conventions, seated prominently, given the platform to speak and highlighted as legitimate political actors. The NWSA never endorsed polygamy, but it raised a welcome voice against congressional attempts to disfranchise polygamous women.
But by 1887, the campaign against polygamy had won out. The Edmunds-Tucker Act passed by Congress disincorporated the church, changed marriage and inheritance laws and revoked all Utah women’s voting rights.
Latter-day Saints suffragists organized in 1889 under the NWSA to win suffrage back. Polygamy never fully disappeared as an issue in the suffrage movement, but it became less of a dividing wedge after the church announced the official end of the practice in 1890. The Woman Suffrage Association of Utah soon had thousands of members across the territory who lectured on equal rights, equal pay and other political issues, wrote columns in local newspapers, threw events and worked to get an equal-suffrage clause included in Utah’s constitution when it became a state. In all of this, they enjoyed widespread support from their local community and church leaders.
In these and other ways, Utah women broke ground for the broader women’s suffrage movement in the United States. When Utah joined the Union in 1896 and reinstated women’s voting rights, there were just two other suffrage states — Wyoming and Colorado. (Idaho passed a constitutional amendment later that year.) It would take 14 years for the next state to join them. Although national suffrage organizations were led from New York and Washington, western women gathered petitions, raised funds, went on the speaking circuit and showed that the sky didn’t fall when women voted. They pressured their elected congressmen, who greeted suffrage parades on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, spoke at rallies and continued to advance the “Susan B. Anthony” Amendment slowly forward.
Western women gained decades of experience as voters and elected public officials before most (white) American women first went to the polls in 1920. Voting women often testified before congressional committees about the “practical working of woman suffrage.” They showed that, contrary to anti-suffragists’ arguments, voting hadn’t degraded them, made them mannish or caused them to neglect home and family. Instead, as the nation’s first female state senator, Martha Hughes Cannon, testified in 1898, the experience of women in Utah showed that “none of the unpleasant results which were predicted have occurred.”
As we revisit suffrage history this year, let’s remember the women in the west who voted first and paved the way.
The Long, Hard Battle for the 19th Amendment and Women's Right to Vote
Sometimes it feels like the United States, as a society, has made major strides in the ongoing fight for gender equality. And sometimes reality rears its ugly head and you realize, well, the country still has a long way to go. The truth is, women continue to fight every day for equal rights, and it wasn't that long ago that the female population (roughly half of the United States) was prohibited from participating in politics — until the 19th Amendment changed that.
Passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment finally granted women the right to vote in America. "The 19th Amendment prevented states from limiting the right to vote based on sex," says Allison K. Lange, Ph.D., assistant professor of history at Boston's Wentworth Institute of Technology and author of the upcoming "Picturing Political Power: Images in the Women's Suffrage Movement." "Women started voting in Wyoming in 1869 and won the vote in other states in later years. They also could often vote in local city elections or school board elections before the 19th Amendment. Even so, the 19th Amendment was revolutionary because it enfranchised more people than any other law in U.S. history."
The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention
Well before the Civil War broke out, many women were beginning to push back against the idea that their role nothing more than a submissive wife and mother dealing with her home and family. At the same time, women were playing leading roles in reform groups, religious movements and anti-slavery organizations. All of these actions helped redefine what it meant to be woman in 19th-century United States.
But that was just the beginning of a battle for female political input that wasn't won quickly or easily. The first real proposal for the idea of women's suffrage as a goal began at the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention in the United States. It was held in July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. More than 300 people — both men and women — attended, including African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass and leading women's rights advocate, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the meeting organizers. She kicked off the event with a rousing speech:
The delegates wrote a "Declaration of Sentiments" describing women's grievances and demands, and called on women to fight for equality. The convention passed a list of 11 resolutions, including a ninth resolution that encouraged women "to secure themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise" — their right to vote. It was by far the most controversial — even prompting many women's rights supporters to pull their support — and barely passed. But it also became the foundation of the women's suffrage movement going forward.
What Came After Seneca Falls
In the years following, women of all ages began writing about, marching for and practicing civil disobedience — even referring to the Declaration of Sentiments — in an effort to change the Constitution, which originally permitted only land-owning, white men, aged 21 and older to vote.
By the time the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was well established. It was formed in 1890 by suffragists Lucy Stone, Alice Stone Blackwell, Susan B. Anthony, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Rachel Foster and Elizabeth Cady Stanton when the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) merged.
Members were encouraging women's rights supporters to join in the war effort and arguing that women deserved to vote because their experience and voices were critical in the political conversation. NAWSA's work, in addition to the protests of the National Woman's Party's (NWP), led to a widespread interest and fight for women's suffrage.
"'Suffrage' was a popular term in the 19th century, and it means the right to vote," Lange says. "Americans discussed male suffrage, female suffrage, black suffrage, etc. Today, people often associate the term with the women's voting rights movement."
The 19th Amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878, but it took more than 40 years of organizing, petitioning, picketing and more to finally get it ratified. Over the decades, different strategies were employed to try and get the amendment passed. Some attempted to get suffrage acts passed in each individual state. The tactic worked to an extent: By 1912, nine western states adopted woman suffrage.
Other advocates went to court to challenge male-only voting laws, and some suffragists organized and participated in parades, hunger strikes and silent vigils. Regardless of the type of action these supporters took, these women almost invariably encountered countless forms of verbal, and even physical, abuse.
By 1916, almost all the major suffrage organizations formed a united front to pass a constitutional amendment. New York officially adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and a year later, President Woodrow Wilson changed his original position on the matter and declared support for the amendment.
Finally, on May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and the Senate followed two weeks later. In 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment — with three-fourths of the states in agreement, the U.S. was finally able to officially adopt the new policy. The 19th Amendment states: "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."
But Women Still Had to Fight to Vote
As impactful as the 19th Amendment was, it didn't end the struggle for female political representation. "It's important to keep in mind that the 19th Amendment did not grant all women the right to vote," Lange says. "Many poorer women and women of color were still subject to poll taxes, literacy tests and other restrictive laws. American women gained greater access to the polls through other laws like the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Puerto Rico granted women the vote in 1929. So, the 19th Amendment opened up opportunities, but many women still had to fight for the vote."
While the suffrage movement didn't put an end to sexism in society, its participants and leaders left lasting legacies. "My research examines the ways that women used pictures to persuade Americans to support women's rights," Lange says. "Some of the women who did this most effectively were Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Church Terrell and Alice Paul. All of them challenged popular cartoons that mocked suffragists as manly monsters who threatened American values and gender roles."
Lange's research has turned up countless tales of how these women, in particular, upheld, strengthened and propelled the suffrage movement.
"In the 1860s, Sojourner Truth sold her portrait to support herself and emphasize that black women were respectable, hard-working people who deserved freedom from enslavement and rights," Lange says. In the 1870s and 1880s, Susan B. Anthony also became an icon of the movement, offering supporters an image of what female political leaders could look like.
"In the 1890s, Mary Church Terrell, first president of the National Association of Colored Women, responded by distributing her own images of highly educated, elegant black women to win respect for the reforms she sought."
Lang also says in the 1910s, Alice Paul used new image technology that allowed her to reproduce photos from the newspapers. She staged parades and the first-ever pickets of the White House to get attention and win support for the cause (see more in the sidebar below). These kinds of photos of women in such visible, political spaces proved to be very newsworthy, and convinced Americans of the suffragists' dedication to the cause.
ST. CLOUD WOMEN GOT THE VOTE 2 YEARS BEFORE 19TH AMENDMENT PASSED
Florida's elections season prompts a look back at St. Cloud's role in women's suffrage.
In late August 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted women the right to vote nationwide. Forty-nine years later, the Florida Legislature ratified the amendment.
That doesn't mean Florida women did not get to vote during that long stretch.
The Florida Historical Society documents that women became voters in city elections as early as 1917 in Florence Villa, Moore Haven, Palm Beach and Pass-a-Grille.
Women's suffrage came to St. Cloud in 1918, writes Alma Hetherington in The River of the Long Water. She quotes from the Sept. 28, 1918, issue of the St. Cloud Tribune, the newspaper founded by the Union veterans who had started the city only a decade earlier.
The newspaper's banner headline read, "St. Cloud is proud this day to say: Our women have the vote."
The article added, "The amendment to the city charter of St. Cloud permitting women to vote was adopted by a vote of 179 to 82 in the city election held on Tuesday. . . . This will mean an additional list of voters totaling about 500."
Sparsely populated Wyoming was the first territory to allow women to vote, partly to gain enough "citizens" for statehood.
Historians say the women's suffrage movement started in the West and spread to the East, taking a longer time to gain acceptance in the South.
The women's suffrage movement began in Florida with Eleanor "Ella" McWilliams Chamberlain in Tampa. In 1893, Chamberlain began organizing women to demand the right to vote.
When she approached a weekly newspaper about writing a column, the editor of The Tampa Journal suggested she limited her topics to children and "women's interests."
She responded, "The world was not suffering for another cake recipe, and the children seemed to be getting along better than the women."
Instead, she used her column to lobby for women's rights. Eight men and a dozen women joined her in the Florida Woman Suffrage Association in 1893.
She represented Florida at a national women's rights convention in Washington, D.C., later that year and again in Atlanta in 1895, the same year she led a state convention in Tampa that drew 100 members.
Charlton W. Tebeau writes in A History of Florida that the movement "collapsed when she [Chamberlain] moved away in 1897 and remained dormant until 1912 when it was revived in Jacksonville" where women who owned land demanded the right to vote on sewer bonds.
They were denied the vote, but their demands drew statewide attention. The Legislature took notice, but not action.
Women took up the temperance movement and other social reforms in the early 1900s.
They would help win passage of Prohibition with the 18th Amendment in 1919.
Mary Mann Jennings, wife of William Jennings, Florida's governor from 1901 until 1905, lobbied Florida lawmakers in 1919 for the three-fifths vote necessary to give women the right to vote statewide.
She was the president of the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs and the most influential women in the state, but she could not win the vote.
Tennessee would be the 35th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, the last of the required three-quarters of the states needed.
With the adoption of national women's suffrage without Florida in 1920, the next session of the Legislature "saw no need to get on the bandwagon," Tebeau writes.
The first statewide election in which women could cast votes came in the fall of 1920. The men won landslide victories over women.
Eight years later, Florida voters elected the state's first woman to the state Legislature and Congress.
Edna Giles Fuller of Orlando won election to the state House of Representatives in 1928, and Ruth Bryan Owen of Miami won her race for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Florida lawmakers didn't get around to the token gesture of ratifying the 19th amendment until 1969.
St. Cloud in pictures. Bob Fisk, who has spent a great deal of his life assembling a collection of hundreds of old photographs of St. Cloud, worked with Jim Robison on a pictorial history book titled St. Cloud, which will be published in October as a fund-raiser for the St. Cloud Main Street to encourage restoration and promotion of downtown St. Cloud.
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Nineteenth Amendment, amendment (1920) to the Constitution of the United States that officially extended the right to vote to women.
Opposition to woman suffrage in the United States predated the Constitutional Convention (1787), which drafted and adopted the Constitution. The prevailing view within society was that women should be precluded from holding office and voting—indeed, it was generally accepted (among men) that women should be protected from the evils of politics. Still, there was opposition to such patriarchal views from the beginning, as when Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, asked her husband in 1776, as he went to the Continental Congress to adopt the Declaration of Independence, to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” In the scattered places where women could vote in some types of local elections, they began to lose this right in the late 18th century.
From the founding of the United States, women were almost universally excluded from voting and their voices largely suppressed from the political sphere. Beginning in the early 19th century, as women chafed at these restrictions, the movement for woman suffrage began and was tied in large part to agitation against slavery. In July 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, then the hometown of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Seneca Falls Convention launched the women’s rights movement and also called for woman suffrage. The American Civil War (1861–65) resulted in the end of the institution of slavery, and in its aftermath many women abolitionists put on hold their desire for universal suffrage in favour of ensuring suffrage for newly freed male slaves.
Gradually throughout the second half of the 19th century, certain states and territories extended often limited voting rights to women. Wyoming Territory granted women the right to vote in all elections in 1869. But it soon became apparent that an amendment to the federal Constitution would be a preferable plan for suffragists. Two organizations were formed in 1869: the National Woman Suffrage Association, which sought to achieve a federal constitutional amendment that would secure the ballot for women and the American Woman Suffrage Association, which focused on obtaining amendments to that effect in the constitutions of the various states. The two organizations worked together closely and would merge in 1890.
In 1878 a constitutional amendment was introduced in Congress that would enshrine woman suffrage for all elections. It would be reintroduced in every Congress thereafter. In 1890 Wyoming became a state and thus also became the first state whose constitution guaranteed women the right to vote. Over the next decade several other states—all in the western part of the country—joined Wyoming. In 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt ran (unsuccessfully) as a third-party candidate for president, his party became the first national party to adopt a plank supporting a constitutional amendment.
In January 1918, with momentum clearly behind the suffragists—15 states had extended equal voting rights to women, and the amendment was formally supported by both parties and by the president, Woodrow Wilson—the amendment passed with the bare minimum two-thirds support in the House of Representatives, but it failed narrowly in the U.S. Senate. This galvanized the National Woman’s Party, which led a campaign seeking to oust senators who had voted against it.
A subsequent attempt to pass the amendment came in 1919, and this time it passed both chambers with the requisite two-thirds majority—304–89 in the House of Representatives on May 21, and 56–25 in the Senate on June 4. Although the amendment’s fate seemed in doubt, because of opposition throughout much of the South, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee—by one vote—became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, thereby ensuring its adoption. On August 26 the Nineteenth Amendment was proclaimed by the secretary of state as being part of the Constitution of the United States.
The full text of the amendment is:
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.
The State Where Women Voted Long Before the 19th Amendment - HISTORY
1907-1930: We are a diverse nation, confronting our differences
January 1, 1919
Map: States grant women the right to vote
While seeking to amend the U.S. Constitution, the women’s suffrage movement also waged a state-by-state campaign. The territory of Wyoming was the first to give women the vote in 1869. Other western states and territories followed.
States granting women the right to vote prior to the 19th Amendment:
New York 1917
South Dakota 1918
Full Voting Rights before 19th Amendment and before statehood
Territory of Wyoming 1869
Territory of Utah 1870
Territory of Washington 1883
Territory of Montana 1887
Territory of Alaska 1913
Could vote for President prior to the 19th Amendment
North Dakota 1917
Rhode Island 1917
Gained Voting Rights after the passage:
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19th AMENDMENT: First the West, then the rest of the nation
Editor’s note: In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, author Chris Enss shared this excerpt with The Union from her new book “No Place for a Woman: The Struggle for Suffrage in the Wild West,” which is available at the Bookseller in downtown Grass Valley. Visit http://www.chrisenss.com for more information.
On Sept. 6, 1870, 70-year-old housewife Louisa Ann Swain pinned a clean apron over her gray serge dress and marched down the dirt streets of Laramie, Wyoming, to cast one of the first votes for her sex in America.
That momentous event was made possible by a number of women and men over the course of a 90-year period — starting with Abigail Adams. In March 1776, she implored her husband John Adams and other framers of the Constitution to “remember the ladies.”
Years before Mrs. Swain’s vote, the battle for woman suffrage was officially being discussed in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, at the first women’s right convention. It was a time when women were legally recognized as little more than chattel. Social activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the speakers at the convention, made a bold prediction: “The right (of suffrage) is ours. Have it we must. Use it we will. The pens, the tongues, the fortunes, the indomitable wills of many women are pledged to secure this right. The great truth that no just government can be formed without the consent of the governed, we shall echo and re-echo in the ears of the unjust judge, until by continual coming we shall weary him.”
Although the women in New York were organized and determined, no one could have foreseen that the greatest strides in the suffrage movement would not be realized east of the Hudson River, but west of the Mississippi. And before any progress could be made out West, women had to make that rugged journey over the plains to the new frontier.
Starting in the 1830s, and reaching a peak between 1846 and the end of the Civil War, the Oregon Trail served as a pathway for nearly half a million emigrants who set off to the West to form new communities and societies from their individual stakes as farmers, settlers, ranchers, and miners. Most of the emigrants were men, but there were a few women who tackled the overland journey bent on mining or homesteading on their own. Men could make the journey alone as drovers for the large wagon trains or with a plan to mine, strike it rich, and return to their homes in the east.
Women traveled west as part of families and on their own to seek new opportunities. The experience of crossing the plains changed many of them — and helped demonstrate their grit, even as they held onto their identities as the protectors of family and morality. In their new homes, women took on public roles due to economic necessity and the needs of the community. They earned more authority, and combined with their perceived moral directive, they began to influence politics individually and pragmatically.
Women found plenty of opportunities in the West that were not available in the East: everything from the right to vote to equal pay for women teachers to more liberal divorce laws. Wyoming Territory passed a series of such laws in 1869, partly in an effort to attract more settlers. Thus, the West was the first home of women’s suffrage in the U.S., with nearly every western state or territory enfranchising women long before women won the right to vote in eastern states. Before the 19th Amendment, the amendment granting women the right to vote, was passed in 1920, almost every western state had already given women statewide suffrage. Four western states, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho had granted it before 1900.
The fight for woman suffrage in the West wasn’t a new, separate movement, distinct from the efforts in the East. But the fight proceeded with a sense of inevitability in the newly minted territories. The ideologies and reforming zeal that spread from the Great Awakening, to the fiery rhetoric of the abolitionist movement, to the emerging natural ally of the woman’s movement — the temperance movement — weren’t abandoned in the West. But those ideologies were tempered by circumstance and taken up by women who were part of the Cult of True Womanhood, but who had earned their reputation for Grit on the Overland Trail and as part of the new frontier. The women who agitated for their rights were sure of their worth — and aware of their power in the new communities springing up around gold strikes and homestead stakes. And they used the tools at their disposal to influence the outcome. They knew that their power came from the fact that they were women, not in spite of it.
The fight for woman suffrage across the country waged on.
Between Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and all those doughboys heading off to fight in World War I, women demanded to be seen as full citizens of the United States. Some historians refer to the years between 1890 and 1920 as the women’s era because it was in that time when women started to have greater economic and political opportunities. Women were also aided by legal changes like getting the right to own property, control their wages and make contracts and wills. By 1900, almost 5 million women throughout the nation worked for wages, mainly in domestic service or light manufacturing like the garment industry.
American women in every part of the country were active as reformers and those reform movements brought women into state and national politics before the dawn of the progressive era. Unfortunately, one of their greatest achievements, prohibition, was a detriment to the cause.
‘A WIDER FREEDOM IS COMING’
Women’s greatest influence came through their membership and leadership in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. The WCTU was founded in 1874 and by 1890 had 150,000 members making it the largest female organization in the United States. Under the leadership of Frances Willard, the WCTU embraced a large reform agenda including pushing for the right for women to vote. The feeling was that the best way to stop people from drinking was to pass local laws that made it harder to drink, and to do that it would be very helpful if women could vote — because American men were alcoholic scoundrels who darn well were not going to vote to get rid of beer. Consequently, men were reluctant to give women the right to vote for fear of losing the pleasure of drinking.
Being deprived of alcoholic beverages wasn’t the only objection men had to denying women the right to vote, opposition to woman suffrage ran a wide gamut. There were those who believed that voting would damage women’s health and those who turned the argument that women would vote as their husbands did, arguing that women didn’t need to vote when they had a male protector to do it for them.
In 1895, Willard boldly declared, “A wider freedom is coming to the women of America. Too long has it been held that woman has no right to enter these movements … politics is the place for woman.” The movement Willard referred to continued to spread in the West. Overland pioneers like Abigail Scott Duniway, who was one of the leaders of the Suffrage Movement in Idaho, quickly became part of the movement to extend votes for women in the region. She organized many campaigns and protests until a bill was passed in 1896 that allowed women the right to vote in Idaho, and a year later, Duniway was the first woman to register to vote in Idaho. In addition to advocating for women’s rights in her own state, Duniway was instrumental in establishing Oregon’s Equal Suffrage Proclamation.
Women also protested to gain the right to vote in Colorado. Suffragists established the Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association and approached women’s organizations, churches, political parties and charity groups to gain allies for their cause. And after agitating nonstop from 1877 on, the Women’s Suffrage Referendum passed on Nov. 7, 1893. The following year, Colorado became the first state to have elected female legislators.
Martha Hughes Cannon, the first woman elected to the Utah state senate — in 1896 — was a polygamist wife, a practicing physician, and an astute and pioneering politician. Her husband was the Republican candidate. She, a Democrat, defeated him in that historic election.
And in 1916, four years before she would be legally allowed to vote in an election, Montana’s Jeannette Rankin was sent to Washington D.C., as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Montana. Four years later, in 1920, Nellie Taloe Ross would be elected governor of Wyoming.
The passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment was a significant event in American history and it’s also a recent event. When my grandmother was born women could not vote in the United States. Women’s long fight to gain the right to vote ended with the ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 18, 1920. The suffrage wind had blown from west to east. The West had made it possible for the world to see what it meant for women to have the right to vote. It had been extremely persuasive in convincing other states and Congress as to the value of women voting.
Women’s suffrage associations across the country congratulated one another on the victory and promised to continue the fight towards equal rights in other areas. On Aug. 26, 1920, Carrie Chapman Catt, one of the movement’s key leaders, summed up the importance of the conquest best, “The vote is won. Seventy-two years the battle for this privilege has been waged, but human affairs with their eternal change move on without pause. Progress is calling to you to make no pause. Act!”
Chris Enss, who lives in Grass Valley, is an author and screenwriter. She has written more than 20 books on the subject of women in the Old West.
Why Do We Blame Women For Prohibition?
One hundred years later, it’s time to challenge a long-held bias.
Mark Lawrence Schrad is assistant professor of political science at Villanova University and author of the new book Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State.
One hundred years ago this month—on January 16, 1919—the 18th Amendment was ratified, enshrining alcohol prohibition in the U.S. Constitution. And for the past hundred years, we’ve largely blamed women for that. Why?
With the obvious exception of the women’s rights movement—from suffragism to #MeToo—perhaps no other social movement in American history is as synonymous with women as temperance, and none is as vilified. Histories dismiss prohibition derisively as a “pseudo-reform . carried about America by the rural-evangelical virus,” and a “wrongheaded social policy waged by puritanical zealots of a bygone Victorian era.” We describe prohibitionists in the same way we talk about Al Qaeda or ISIS: They were “ruthless” “extremists,” “deeply antidemocratic” “fanatics and fools,” who posed a “threat to individual freedoms.” These evildoers are almost universally understood to be women.
The standard trope back in the 1920s, when prohibition was in full force, was that the policy was “put over while the boys were away” fighting World War I—if only the men had been home, prohibition would have been avoided. Surprisingly, this gendered conspiracy theory has endured, despite being completely unfounded. There was no popular referendum on 18th Amendment, and most women couldn’t vote anyway since, chronologically, the 18th Amendment came before the suffragist 19th Amendment. (A handful of western states granted women full voting rights before the 19th Amendment.) The only woman who voted for the 18th Amendment was Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the country’s first—and at that time, only—congresswoman. In 1918, hers was but one of the bipartisan supermajority of 282 yeas (to 128 nays) in the House that passed the prohibition amendment. In the all-male Senate, the vote to submit the amendment to the states for ratification was even more lopsided: 65-20.
In January 1919, the 18th Amendment was the first order of business for many state legislatures elected in the 1918 midterms. With unprecedented speed, 46 of the 48 states voted for prohibition, in some cases unanimously. With 80.5 percent of state legislators in favor (5,033 to 1,219), support for prohibition was even greater at the state level, where 99.8 percent of representatives were men.
Well, if not the vote—one might protest—then surely the temperance movement itself was women’s work? Think of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)—or one of its greatest celebrities, Carrie A. Nation. She famously led bands of women into Kansas saloons, smashing them with hatchets, singing Bible hymns and quoting scripture! As her celebrity rose, she even trademarked the name “Carry,” in order to coin the phrase “Carry A. Nation for prohibition.”
Anecdotally, I’ve long asked colleagues, students and historians: “Who’s the most famous prohibitionist?” The answer is Carrie Nation, every time. Little wonder: Today, she plays a starring role in virtually every temperance history, features prominently in Ken Burns’ documentary “Prohibition” and was the first personality you’d meet at the prohibition exhibition at the National Constitution Center. Carrie Nation embodies everything we think we know about prohibitionists: a scorned, white, protestant, evangelical, Midwestern woman. She was imposing in stature, prone to violence and—claiming God spoke to her, urging her to attack saloons—slightly unhinged. In sum: the perfect Maleficent for American historians.
The only problem is that Carrie Nation died in 1911, almost a full decade before the 18th Amendment was ratified. So why do we blame her for something that happened years after her death, while exonerating those directly responsible for prohibition? Why do we remember Carrie Nation, but forget the “father of prohibition” Neal Dow? Or Anti-Saloon League “dry boss” Wayne Wheeler, who in 1922 was described as “the man who is as much or more than any other single person, directly responsible for the able leadership bringing prohibition”? Or Andrew Volstead, the man whose name is on the prohibition-enforcement act? Based on Google’s Ngram dataset of over 500 billion words from some 15 million digitized books, we can chart the notoriety of individuals over time. The data suggests that, since prohibition’s repeal in 1933, the men responsible for prohibition have begun largely to vanish from history, while the image of Carrie Nation endures.
The Forgotten Prohibitionists
Yearly frequency of names mentioned in Google’s corpus of digitized books, 1900-2000.
If you asked me, I would say progressive stalwart William Jennings Bryan was the most famous American prohibitionist. He fought vehemently against the liquor traffic where rich capitalists got richer by getting workers addicted to booze. “The Great Commoner” had far more political clout than Carrie Nation. Or consider Frederick Douglass—perhaps the most famous orator of the 19th century, back when abolitionism was virtually synonymous with temperance. On his temperance tour of Britain in 1845, Douglass, who, like Nation, died well before nationwide prohibition was passed, claimed, “If we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery. Mankind has been drunk.” In his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: American Slave, he explained that keeping slaves stupefied with liquor was “the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” on the plantations.
Such details largely disappear from contemporary biographies, perhaps because they don’t fit our image of temperance as an angry, white, female, Bible-thumping crusade against individual liberty. While their political legacies are obviously variegated, Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan and Carrie Nation all held the exact same positions on abolition, suffragism and prohibition. Yet even the titles of their biographies belie their differential treatment by historians: Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. William Jennings Bryan: A Godly Hero, or Champion of Democracy. And Carrie Nation? Vessel of Wrath. Historians give William and Fredrick a free pass for their role in prohibition along with Neal, Wayne and Andrew we’re told that Carrie is the real villain.
So, why do we blame women for prohibition? Misogyny is the easy answer but more fundamentally, we need to better understand not just who the prohibitionists were, but what motivated them in the first place. Perhaps they weren’t the “deeply antidemocratic” monsters that we now make them out to be.
Contrary to popular description, prohibitionists weren’t hellbent on taking away the individual’s “right to drink.” From its very inception, the temperance movement targeted not the drink, or the drinker, but the drink seller. Just as abolitionists objected to the slave trader who profited from subjugating others, prohibitionists aimed at a predatory liquor traffic of wealthy capitalists and saloonkeepers who—together with a state that, before the income tax, relied disproportionately on liquor revenues—got rich from the drunken misery of the poor. The 18th Amendment doesn’t even outlaw alcohol or drinking. It prohibits the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” This wasn’t some oversight the target was the traffic, not the booze.
Prohibitionists were very clear about this. The 18th Amendment was very clear, too. That we have a hard time believing it today—scoffing that outlawing booze or booze sales has the same practical outcome of restricting the rights of the individual—says more about our changing understandings of liberty than theirs. It is only in more recent generations (with the rise of Hayekian neoliberalism after World War II) that any interference with the free market is deemed a constraint on our citizenship rights. For most of American history, political liberty and economic liberty were understood to be distinct from each other. There is no “right to buy” anywhere in the constitution.
Ultimately, we need to stop vilifying prohibitionists as “antidemocratic” simply because our understanding of liberty has changed. In fact, prohibitionists championed the right of self-determination, and the right of the community to defend itself against extortionate businesses and government corruption. Prohibitionists encouraged grassroots power—especially for communities, counties and states to vote themselves dry at the ballot box. Such Jeffersonian commitments made prohibitionists natural allies of abolitionists and suffragists from the very beginning. (Prohibitionists who cheered the 18th Amendment’s ratification in 1919 also cheered when the 19th Amendment gave women the vote the following year.) At its core, prohibition was a populist attack against predatory capitalism and its corrupt ties to government power.
It was no fluke that the ultimate victory of prohibition came at the high point of the Progressive Era: like other reforms of its day, prohibition was fundamentally progressive. Prohibition protected consumers from unscrupulous sellers of potentially dangerous substances, just like the progressive Pure Food and Drug Act, and Federal Meat Inspection Acts of 1906. Prohibition targeted the corrupting power of big business, just like the Federal Trade Commission Act and Clayton Anti-Trust Acts of 1914.
Moralizing Bible-thumpers like Carrie Nation were only one part of a broad prohibitionist coalition. Focusing only on activists like her, though, produces a wildly incomplete picture, which our brains try to make whole by filling in the gaps with deeply rooted—and misogynist—social biases.
Centennials are a time for reassessment—and since prohibition’s centennial comes in the #MeToo era, it is high time to unpack our highly gendered received wisdom.
Mississippi Didn't Ratify the 19th Amendment Until 1984. Here's Why Some States Waited Decades
W hen Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Aug. 18, 1920, that was enough: as the 36th state to approve the amendment, the Volunteer State made sure the U.S. Constitution would enshrine into law “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.&rdquo
And while this summer’s centennial is remembered as a landmark moment in history for American women, 1920 only tells part of the story. The ratification did not mean that all American women gained the constitutional right to vote immediately in 1920 numerous barriers to voting remained for several communities, including Black women, Native American and Indigenous women, Asian American women and Latinx women. African American women and men’s voting rights would not be incorporated into the country’s law until Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And on a more symbolic level, some states did not ratify the amendment until as recently as the 1970s and 1980s. That delay did not affect women’s right to vote, but it did send a message about just how controversial such an idea was.
Several states reacted actively rejected the Amendment in 1919 and 1920. Eleven states ratified it after it had already been certified in 1920&mdashbut not all at once. It would be fifty years before South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana would do so, with Mississippi becoming the last to join in 1984. From state to state, several factors were at play. In Virginia, which ratified in 1952, the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage distributed pamphlets that argued that the vote would actually have a negative impact on the every day lives of women, that it was the “vanguard of socialism” and that it would undermine the role of husbands in the family. Similarly in Alabama, which ratified in 1953, the Women&rsquos Anti-Ratification League put forward the idea that Alabama women should be more concerned about raising families than participation in civic life, and in Florida, which ratified in 1969, opposition from newspapers and politicians to suffrage was fierce.
In some states, opposition during the suffrage campaigns of the 1910s was founded on the fear that if the 19th Amendment were ratified, it would also mean that the federal government would then enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments, requiring the states to allow Black men to vote. It was also seen as interference in the states’ rights to decide on who could vote and who could not. In February 1920, Mississippi’s legislature rejected the ratification of the 19th, and was one of two states in the country, alongside Georgia, which argued that women had missed the registration cut-off, that still did not allow women to vote in the November 1920 election.
“The biggest lesson for me from the suffrage movement is that you need to fight to win the war, not the battle,” says Sally Roesch Wagner, historian, author and editor of The Women’s Suffrage Movement anthology.
There is some irony in Southern resistance of suffrage. As Wagner points out, the white suffragists who were the fact of the movement in 1920 had devoted much of their energy to winning over the votes of Southern states, including those that initially refused to ratify. In doing so, they “sold out the movement,” she says, by “using racism as organizational policy.”
When states ratified the 19th amendment well after 1920 it was more of a ceremonial gesture, but one that still did carry great symbolism.
It was an all-male Senate that voted on Mississippi’s ratification of the 19th amendment in 1984, in what was called a “housekeeping measure.” Yet it was introduced by two female state representatives Frances Savage of Brandon and Margaret Tate of Picayune. On its ratification, Savage suggested that the reason for the delay was that it was simply not a priority during the years of the Depression, World War II and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But by then, it had once again risen to the top: As historian Marjorie Julian Spruill writes, when Mississippi was debating the proposed Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, “many Mississippians regarded the state’s failure to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment as an embarrassment,” especially as North Carolina became the penultimate state to ratify the Amendment in 1971.
On the day it was ratified in Mississippi, on March 22, 1984, Savage said that the action “reaffirms the right of women to participate in government in Mississippi.” Others were more surprised that the state had taken this long overdue step, given that women in Mississippi had already been voting for a long time. Newspapers reported that Jan Lewis, the state director of the ACLU at the time “burst into laughter when told the news” and said “well, the state seems to find itself a day late and a dollar short.”
Historian Martha S. Jones, author of the forthcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All., points to the later ratifications as reflective of states’ changing electorates and demographics. And the 19th Amendment was not alone: notably, the 13th and 15th Amendments, which banned slavery and gave Black Americans the right to vote in the wake of the Civil War, were also formally ratified by several states in the 1960s and s, well after they had been added to the Constitution.
“It’s deeply symbolic because even the late ratifications are manifestations of the ways in which the allocation of political power has shifted in an individual state,” Jones says. “Black lawmakers, women lawmakers [and] Black women lawmakers are key to these shifts and it is a way of signaling their rise to political power.”
But while these late ratifications may be surprising, they actually fit right in with one of Jones’ primary arguments about the history of suffrage: that the ratification of the 19th Amendment was more of a touchstone in a series of decades-long struggles for marginalized communities, rather than the cornerstone event in achieving women’s suffrage.
For many Americans, that longer struggle stretched well beyond 1920 in ways that were not just symbolic. African American women and men alike continued to face Jim Crow laws, voter intimidation and suppression, lynching, discriminatory literacy tests and other barriers to voting across the country, particularly in those Southern states. Similarly, Wagner’s research on the Haudenoshaunee women of the Iroquois confederacy highlights how Indigenous women’s longstanding political power and voice within their communities influenced the thinking of white suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Cunningham Fletcher, even as Native American women were unable to vote until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. For Asian American women too, 1920 did not bring immediate change. In 1912, the New York Times described Chinese-American suffrage activist Mabel Ping-Hua Lee as “the symbol of a new era, when all women will be free and unhampered.” But it wouldn’t be until 1943 that Chinese Americans were first permitted to become citizens, and until 1952 that the McCarran-Walter Act granted all people of Asian ancestry the right to become citizens, and therefore to vote.
And that story still continues. The current Congress is the body’s most racially and ethnically diverse, with a record number of women representatives, and yet the fight for all Americans to be able to vote continues today&mdashwhether or not all states have ratified the 19th Amendment.
Amendment added to U.S. Constitution
The Nineteenth Amendment was at last added to the Constitution, however, in August 1920 after Tennessee became the 36th and final state to ratify. It had taken almost 75 years for suffragists to achieve this victory.
The final indication of Mississippi's negative response to the Nineteenth Amendment was that the state was one of only two in the nation that did not allow women to vote in the November 1920 election. Instead, an all-male electorate voted on a state constitutional amendment for woman suffrage that received more yes than no votes, but not the majority of all votes cast. Therefore, the amendment failed. Suffragists had not bothered to campaign for it since they were enfranchised by national law and the state law would not matter. Nevertheless, it was still very disappointing to them that Mississippi, their home state, had not approved woman suffrage. Yet, a mere two years later, in one of the many ironies in Mississippi history, the state's two leading suffragists, Somerville and Kearney, were elected to the state legislature.
By the 1970s, when Mississippi was debating the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, many Mississippians regarded the state's failure to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment as an embarrassment as Mississippi was the only state that had never done so. Thus, on March 22, 1984, the Mississippi Legislature on a day when few legislators were even listening and with no opposition finally ratified the Nineteenth Amendment.
Marjorie Julian Spruill, Ph.D., is associate vice chancellor for institutional planning and research professor of history at Vanderbilt University. Previously she was professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi. She is the author of New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States, Oxford University Press, 1993. She has edited three books: One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement, NewSage Press, 1995, Votes for Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation, University of Tennessee Press, 1995, and a new edition of Mary Johnstons 1913 pro-suffrage novel, Hagar, University Press of Virginia, 1994.
Jesse Spruill Wheeler, her son, studied Mississippi history while in the ninth grade during the 2000-2001 school year.