Re-Imagining Government By "the People": Women's Suffrage

  • The first women's rights convention in the U.S. was held 166 years ago in Seneca Falls, New York.

  • It took 72 years of advocacy following the Seneca Falls Convention for women to gain the right to vote.

One hundred and sixty-six years ago, 300 women and a few men gathered in the small, upstate New York town of Seneca Falls at the first convention to discuss and advocate for women’s’ rights. At the close of the two-day event, 100 of those gathered signed a “Declaration of Sentiments” that included a resolution supporting women’s right to vote.

Seventy-two years later, on Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution became part of the Constitution, giving women the right to vote in national elections.  (15 states and one territory had already extended full voting rights to women before passage of the 19h Amendment, and an additional dozen states allowed women to vote only in presidential elections.) Along the way, there were disputes over strategy and tactics shifts between legal initiatives and civil disobedience, between peaceful protests and disruptions and arrests.

But the flexible and resilient founding documents of our democracy provided us with the capacity to expand our definition of the political body, to enlarge our understanding of who “the people” of the United States are.  

Our democratic institutions and values forced us to confront the fact that only white men who held property were eligible to vote in most states when the country was formed.  By the 1820s and 1830s, the property requirement was dropped and the franchise was extended to virtually all white men. But slaves, non-white immigrants, and women were still not considered fit to govern themselves.

By the 1830s, women were winning fights for greater inclusion in other social institutions.  For example, they were allowed to pray in front of men in their churches. Some states were expanding property rights to women. By the 1840s, both the temperance and abolition movements were gaining steam, and women were among the most prominent and outspoken leaders in each. A couple of these leaders – Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott – convened the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention to fight for the idea that under the Constitution, all men and women are equal. Many leaders believed that when black men were provided political and economic rights, it would be impossible to deny women the right to vote.   

When the Civil War ended, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony joined abolitionists and African-American leaders in founding the American Equal Rights Society in 1866 to work for racial and gender equality before the law.

By the 1830s, women were winning fights for greater inclusion in other social institutions.


In February 1869, Congress passed the 15th Amendment, stating “the rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” But it did not extend this right to women. The loss split the women’s movement.

Some leaders, including Stanton and Anthony, opposed the 15th Amendment as states considered ratification because women were left out. They formed the National Woman Suffrage Association and focused on advocating for a new federal constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. Lucy Stone led a different group of women in forming the American Woman Suffrage Association, which focused its energy on winning voting rights at the state level. Stone and her followers had some quick successes. In 1869, Wyoming became the first state to grant women over 21 the right to vote and to hold state and local elected positions.

Despite Stanton and Anthony’s efforts to oppose the 15th Amendment, it was ratified by the requisite number of states on Feb. 3, 1870 and became the law of the land. The women’s movement and their allies had failed to win inclusion of women in the most sweeping expansion of voting rights since the establishment of the Republic.

While Stone and the Association worked at the state level, Stanton and Anthony pressed the fight at the federal level. In 1872, Anthony attempted to vote in a presidential election. She was arrested and fined $100, nearly a year’s income for an average working family ($129 a year, according to the census of 1870.) Two years later, women’s suffrage advocates pressed their cause at the U.S. Supreme Court, in Minor v. Happersett. The Court found that the right to vote “was not necessarily one of the privileges or immunities of citizenship,” and neither the 14th or 15th Amendments accorded women the right to vote.

Undaunted, the NWSA continued to pursue federal legislation to establish political rights for women. In January 1878, Sen. A.A. Sargent of California introduced the Women’s Suffrage Amendment, written by Susan B. Anthony. (The amendment was introduced in each subsequent Congress until it was finally passed.)

In 1890, 20 years after the split, the two factions of the suffrage movement were reunified as the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), led by Stanton. Yet by 1913, only twelve of the 48 states in the union allowed women to vote in state and local elections.

At that time, Alice Paul, an American who had studied in England, returned to the United States after witnessing the militancy of the Suffragettes in England. Paul founded the National  Woman’s Party and led large protest marches, including a parade of 5,000 women the day before Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated (more than 100 women were injured in the near-riot that followed) and an ongoing vigil of “Silent Sentinels” picketing outside the White House. During the throes of World War I, the Sentinels carried placards reading “Democracy Should Begin at Home.” Between 1917 and 1918, more than 500 Silent Sentinels were arrested and 168 sentenced to jail – Alice Paul for seven months.

In January 1918, the District Court overturned the sentences owing to the harsh conditions in the jail. The very next day, Wilson announced his support for the “Susan B Anthony amendment.” The day after that, it passed the House of Representatives.  

As Paul and the National Women’s Party agitated outside the White House fence, Stanton and the NAWSA mobilized state and local networks for a national constitutional amendment.  On June 4, 1919 – nearly 71 years after the Seneca Falls Convention, the 19th Amendment, banning exclusion from voting on the basis of sex, was passed by the Senate and sent to the states for ratification. Fourteen months later, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, and eight million American women gained the right to vote – 132 years after the Constitution was ratified. Though in force throughout the country, organizers continued their fight to have the amendment formally ratified by all the states. Mississippi was the final state to ratify, in 1984.

It took 72 years of intentional activism for women’s political rights to be viewed as democratic value.


It took 72 years of intentional activism for women’s political rights to be viewed as democratic value, an issue of fairness and inclusion, and for these values to be translated into political and legal protections.  This was a fight that spanned three generations of activists.  It began when there were only 30 states in the Union, before telegraphs, before a transcontinental railway linked the country together, when it took a month for a letter to traverse the breadth of the country. When the 19th Amendment was ratified, telephones and telegrams made instantaneous communication possible, a train ride across the country took less than a week, and radio was becoming a major source of entertainment. 

Although with fits and starts, waves forward and retrenchment, the history of American democracy has been a history of expanding the electorate.  And the methods used to push for more inclusion look surprisingly similar – push at the federal level, and push at the state and local level, win the hearts and minds of the existing electorate, and watch democracy grow.

Image by flickr user HM Larson, used under a Creative Commons license.

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