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19 Facts About the 19th Amendment

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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so entrenched in Wyoming that when Wyoming applied for statehood, Congress threatened to deny it unless Bright’s bill was revoked—but the local legislature wouldn't back down: “We will remain out of the union [for] 100 years rather than come in without the women.”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. 

Harding’s, Coolidge’s, and Hoover’s had already died by the time they ran for the Oval Office. Sara Roosevelt, on the other hand, lived to see her boy win his unprecedented third term.  

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.

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Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
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Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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