On August 18, 1920, American women finally secured the right to vote. Calling the victory hard-won would be an understatement: Denounced by many, the 19th amendment had an ugly, uphill, decades-long road to ratification.
1. IN 1797, NEW JERSEY TEMPORARILY GRANTED VOTING RIGHTS TO UNWED WOMEN.
New Jersey's original state constitution, adopted in 1776, declared that “all inhabitants” who were “worth fifty pounds” could vote. Because some found this wording rather vague, clearer legislation was drafted, and in 1797, the State Assembly explicitly granted certain female New Jerseyans suffrage.
For the next 10 years, single women were permitted to cast ballots. Married ladies, on the other hand, weren’t given this privilege because their husbands legally controlled every piece of property they owned—so they failed the “fifty pounds” requirement. In 1807, the State Assembly passed a new law, one that forbade anyone but “free, white male citizens” who were at least 21 (and paid taxes) from voting.
2. THE WYOMING TERRITORY LED A NATIONWIDE CHARGE FOR SUFFRAGE.
Today, it’s called “the equality state,” and in 1869, Wyomingites really earned that nickname. During this pivotal year, a game-changing bill sponsored by Councilman William Bright was approved by the Territorial Legislature. “[Every] woman, of the age of twenty-one years," the document read, "residing in this Territory, may at every election to be holden under the law thereof, cast her vote.”
Though suffragists cheered this news, some feared that the celebration would be short-lived. Just two years after women were given the right to vote, Wyoming was one vote short of repealing the act. But eventually, women’s right to vote became so entrenched in Wyoming that when Wyoming applied for statehood, Congress threatened to deny it unless Bright’s bill was revoked—but the local legislature wouldn't back down: “We will remain out of the union [for] 100 years rather than come in without the women.” Congress caved, and Wyoming—with all her female voters—became America’s 44th state in 1890.
3. THE 19TH AMENDMENT WAS FIRST PROPOSED—AND DEFEATED—IN 1878.
“The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” So read an amendment that California Senator Arlen A. Sargent put forth for discussion on January 10, 1878, at the urging of his friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Hearings were held by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, but they weren’t encouraging—while advocates voiced their support, several committee members busied themselves by reading newspapers or staring off into space. The bill was rejected, though it would be re-introduced every year for the next 41 years.
4. BEFORE 1920, VOTING RIGHTS DIFFERED GREATLY ACROSS STATE LINES.
In January 1919, suffrage laws varied considerably: 15 states allowed women to vote in all elections, while 21 others barred them from certain contests (for instance, Texas ladies could only cast ballots during primaries). The remaining 12 prohibited female voting altogether.
5. TEDDY ROOSEVELT'S "BULL MOOSE" PARTY CAMPAIGNED ON WOMEN'S ENFRANCHISEMENT.
During his presidency, T.R. was quite mum on the subject. “Personally,” Roosevelt wrote in 1908, “I believe in women’s suffrage, but … I do not regard it as a very important matter.”
But he made voting equity a central issue while seeking a third term. When William Howard Taft’s 1912 re-nomination dashed Roosevelt’s hopes of running again as a Republican, he launched his own Progressive Party, which incorporated suffrage into its official platform.
One day into the campaign, T.R. made history. At the party’s convention, social reformer Jane Addams became the first woman to ever second the nomination of a major presidential candidate. “It was a spectacular proceeding,” opined Woodrow Wilson backer Charles W. Elliot, “but in exceedingly bad taste, because a woman has no place at a political convention.”
6. TAFT HAD MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT IT.
As “Big Bill” told The Saturday Evening Post in 1915, he favored a gradual approach to female voting rights. Taft believed that “the immediate enfranchisement of women would increase … the hysterical element of the electorate.” However, if such a reform could be “delayed until a great majority” desired it, the change would—in his mind—“be a correct and useful extension of the democratic principle. The benefit will come slowly and imperceptibly.”
7. NOT ALL ANTI-SUFFRAGISTS WERE MEN.
Alice Hay Wadsworth was among the most prominent women to denounce what became the 19th Amendment. The wife of Senator James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr., she was once president of the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage. A now-infamous pamphlet published by this group claimed that “90 percent of women either do not want it or do not care,” and that new voting rights would mean “competition with men instead of cooperation.” The group was founded by Josephine Dodge, daughter of Grant’s Postmaster General, in her apartment in 1911.
8. SUFFRAGE ADVOCATES THREW THE VERY FIRST WHITE HOUSE PICKET PROTEST.
Activist Alice Paul had little trouble getting under Woodrow Wilson’s skin. She broke new, nonviolent ground by establishing a group called the Silent Sentinels, which began protesting outside the White House on January 10, 1917. Over the next 2.5 years, they spent six days a week holding up pro-enfranchisement signs with such captions as “How long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?”
9. HUNGER STRIKES PROMPTED WILSON TO TAKE ACTION.
Eventually, policemen began arresting Silent Sentinels—including Paul herself—for “obstructing traffic.” While incarcerated, she organized a hunger strike, which drove guards to begin force-feeding captive suffragettes. And it got worse: Guards denied the protestors water; one of the protestors was manacled to the bars and nearly placed in a straitjacket and gagged for talking to her fellow inmates; and three emerged from the ordeal so weak that doctors feared for their lives. Wilson’s stance on enfranchisement shifted from tepid support to total advocacy.
10. WILSON TRIED TO PASS NATIONAL SUFFRAGE IN 1918, BUT FELL TWO SENATE VOTES SHORT.
With World War I still raging on, Wilson officially endorsed what later became the 19th amendment. One day after he released a statement to this effect, the House passed the measure. Riding high on that victory, the commander-in-chief addressed the Senate in person, saying, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite these passionate words, the amendment didn’t break through, falling short just two votes. A few months later, Congress tried passing it again—and missed the mark by exactly one senatorial vote.
11. ONE SUFFRAGETTE DIED FOR THE CAUSE.
On June 4, 1919, the Senate finally passed the amendment. Now, its life depended upon the states, three-fourths of which were needed for ratification.
Enter Aloysius Larch-Miller, the Oklahoma State Suffrage Ratification Committee’s enthusiastic young secretary. Stricken with influenza during the winter of 1920, she was ordered by her doctor to remain in bed. However, when a prominent anti-suffragist arrived at her local Democratic convention, she made a beeline for the event. After eloquently defending gender equality, Larch-Miller returned home. Two days later, she passed away. Her martyrdom became a rallying cry and, just a few weeks later, Oklahoma voted yes on the 19th.
12. ONE STATE REPRESENTATIVE SINGLE-HANDEDLY GUARANTEED THE AMENDMENT'S SUCCESS—AT HIS MOTHER'S REQUEST.
When Tennessee passed the bill on August 18 of that year, it became the 36th state to ratify, providing the necessary three-fourths majority. A 24-year-old politician named Harry Burn—who had previously opposed suffrage—tipped the scales in Nashville’s House of Representatives. What changed his mind? On the day of the vote, he received a letter from his widowed mom, Febb Burn, who urged him to support the amendment. He voted yes, and led Tennessee to ratify by a margin of 49 to 47. Since the state senate had already passed it, the measure won out. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” Burn noted, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”
13. EIGHT DAYS AFTER THE 19TH AMENDMENT WAS RATIFIED, 10 MILLION WOMEN JOINED THE ELECTORATE.
On August 26, the 19th amendment officially took effect. As legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out, the sheer volume of brand new voters created by this legal action made it “the single biggest democratizing event in American history.”
14. MULTIPLE CITIZENS HAVE BEEN CITED AS THE FIRST TO VOTE UNDER THE NEW AMENDMENT.
South St. Paul, Minnesota scheduled a special bond election at 5:30 a.m. on August 27 in which 87 women voted (but women could vote in these elections anyway; their votes just didn’t count—they were recorded for public interest). Nevertheless, it’s often reported that Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum of Hannibal, Missouri cast the first female ballot in post-amendment history in a local alderman race four days later.
15. RUMORS CIRCULATED THAT A WOMAN MIGHT APPEAR ON THE DEMOCRATIC TICKET IN 1920.
Prominent Republican May Jester Allen allegedly heard that the Dems were weighing a 35-year-old DNC committeewoman named Anna Dickie Olesen for their vice-presidential nomination. Instead, this honor went to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
16. FDR BECAME THE FIRST PRESIDENT WHOSE MOTHER WAS ELIGIBLE TO VOTE FOR HIM.
17. IN 1922, SOME SAID THE AMENDMENT WAS UNCONSTITUTIONAL.
Because Maryland’s constitution reserved voting for men, Judge Oscar Leser and other anti-suffragists charged that the federal government had unlawfully infringed upon their state’s rights. In Leser v. Garnett, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected this and similar arguments against the 19th amendment, thus ensuring its long-term survival. Apparently Chief Justice William Howard Taft decided that the “great majority” were finally for it.
18. MISSISSIPPI DIDN'T RATIFY IT UNTIL MARCH 22, 1984.
Other holdouts include Louisiana and North Carolina, which waited until June 11, 1970 and May 6, 1971, respectively. Still, Mississippi was, by a noticeable margin, the very last state to go through with ratification.
19. A STATUE CELEBRATING TENNESSEE'S ROLE IN THE AMENDMENT'S PASSAGE WILL BE ERECTED THIS OCTOBER.
Sculpted by Nashville native Alan Lequire, the monument will depict five “indomitable” suffragettes: Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga, Sue Shelton White of Jackson, Frankie Pierce and Anne Dudley of Nashville, and League of Women Voters founder Carrie Chapman Catt. On October 27, it will be unveiled on the Tennessee Performing Arts Center Bridge, near the state capital’s War Memorial building.