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The 19th Amendment

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – Ratified: August 26, 1920

Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution. Few early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920.

Between 1878, when the amendment was first introduced in Congress, and August 18, 1920, when it was ratified, champions of voting rights for women worked tirelessly, but strategies for achieving their goal varied. Some pursued a strategy of passing suffrage acts in each state–nine western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912. Others challenged male-only voting laws in the courts. Militant suffragists used tactics such as parades, silent vigils, and hunger strikes. Often supporters met fierce resistance. Opponents heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused them.

Suffrage Parade, New York City, ca. 1912 (208-PR-14M-1)

By the early twentieth century, suffragists had successfully convinced an increasing number of people that the interests of the family itself extended beyond the four walls of the home and had to be protected in public by voting wives and mothers. They claimed that women would bring a purifying influence to politics and public life.

William Howard Taft had cautiously told women to collect more signatures on their petitions before he would take up their cause. Theodore Roosevelt did not include women in his ‘progessive” campaign of 1912. Neither did Woodrow Wilson in his agenda. When the latter president ran for re-election 1916 on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” suffragists retorted “He kept us out of suffrage.” Female demonstrators surrounded the White House in 1917. They were arrested on charge of obstructing traffic. When jailed, they asserted rights of political prisoners and went on a hunger strike.

By 1916, almost all of the major suffrage organizations were united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.

"During World War I, militant suffragists, demanding that President Wilson reverse his opposition to a federal amendment, stood vigil at the White House and carried banners such as this one comparing the President to Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Photograph by Harris and Ewing Record Group 165 American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs National Archives and Records Administration ( 165-WW-600A-5 )

The suffrage amendment was reintroduced by Jeannette Rankin of Montana on January 20, 1918. She herself was from the first region to grant the vote to women and was the first woman to be elected to Congress. The amendment passed amidst the cheers of women who sat knitting in the galleries. Other women gathered on the steps of Capitol were described by the New York Times as “cheering like collegians after a football victory.”

The vote was indeed close, only one more than the required two-thirds. One congressman left the deathbed of his suffragist wife to cast his vote and then returned to her funeral. Two congressmen came from hospitals to cast affirmative votes. Tennessee was the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment. On August 26, 1920, final passage was achieved and Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920, changing the face of the American electorate forever.  Times had changed.

Susan B. Anthony did not live to see the consummation of her efforts to win the right to vote for women. She died at the age of 86 in 1906. She showed her strength and optimism until the end. Her final public utterance was, “Failure is impossible.” She and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had been succeeded as heads of the suffrage movement by Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt.

Sources: The National Archives: www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/amendment_19/

Susan B. Anthony Center for Women’s Leadership, University of Rochester: www.rochester.edu/sba/suffrage_sba_ecs.html

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