The Women’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, was the first meeting organized to call for women’s rights. During the convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton read “The Declaration of Sentiments.” “[B]ecause women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights” she proclaimed in powerful language modeled on the Declaration of Independence, “we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.” “The Declaration of Sentiments” articulated the foundational arguments for women’s rights, but it was a single step in the lengthy campaign that followed. Most considered equality between the sexes a radical concept, and the convention excluded African-American and poor women—a precedent that would mark the women’s suffrage movement as it advanced.
In late 1865, abolitionist and women’s suffrage advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson penned a pamphlet titled “The Nonsense of It” that refuted the typical arguments against women’s suffrage, most of which concerned the supposedly delicate nature of women and the need for them to remain at home to care for their husbands and children. In early 1866, women—including suffrage leaders Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Antoinette Brown Blackwell—petitioned Congress for universal suffrage; further, they specifically called for an amendment to the Constitution that prohibited disenfranchisement based on sex. Congress was then considering the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, granting citizenship and the right to vote to formerly enslaved African-American men. Women wanted suffrage extended to them as well: “[W]e ask that you extend the right of Suffrage to Woman—the only remaining class of disfranchised citizens—and thus fulfil [sic] your Constitutional obligation ‘to Guarantee to every State in the Union a Republican form of Government.’”
In 1878, Clemence S. Lozier, a resident of Manhattan, New York, signed a petition for “relief from political disabilities” and demanded the right to vote. Although the petition itself is an unremarkable form petition created by the National Woman Suffrage Association, the title “M.D.” following her name is notable—Lozier was one of the first female physicians in the country. She was also active in the women’s suffrage movement and served as president of the New York City Woman Suffrage Society for a number of years. Her signature on this petition was no accident. The National Woman Suffrage Association looked for well-known women in the community to sign its petitions.
Another noteworthy petition for women’s suffrage was presented to Congress in 1878. Frederick Douglass Jr. and his wife and other residents of the Uniontown neighborhood in Washington, DC, asked the House and Senate to amend the Constitution to allow women to vote. Douglass’s famous father, Frederick Douglass, became an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, and writer after escaping slavery. Following his father’s path, Douglass Jr. provided the first signature on the Uniontown petition. These signers altered the printed document to better reflect who they were and where they lived. “State of” is crossed out and replaced by “Dist. of Col.” and the headings for “Men” and “Women” have been altered to read “Colored Men” and “Colored Women.”
By 1886, women’s suffrage organizations continued to inundate Congress with petitions calling for a constitutional amendment. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1874, was one of the most influential women’s movements at the turn of the 20th century. By the late 1800s, the WCTU’s membership was nearly 150,000 strong and included auxiliary groups at the national, state, city, and even county levels. Like their compatriots throughout the country, WCTU members in Nebraska rallied around temperance and suffrage issues.
More than 30 years after Thomas Higginson penned his pamphlet countering common arguments against women’s suffrage, another man, Henry B. Blackwell, defended women’s right to vote. Blackwell and his wife Lucy Stone were influential members of the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements. Henry and his daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, edited The Woman’s Journal, the weekly paper in which the leaflet appeared. Pamphlets like these were sent to the Judiciary Committee, which considered legislation related to women’s suffrage before the creation of the Committee on Woman Suffrage. Blackwell’s article “Objections to Woman Suffrage Answered” refuted much of the same “nonsense” Higginson had addressed: that women did not want to vote, that only “bad and ignorant” women would want to vote, and that suffrage would “diminish respect for women” and create “domestic discord.”
At the close of the century, it was possible to say that some progress was made in the effort for women’s suffrage. In 1882, the Senate created a Select Committee on Woman Suffrage to consider the question. Two of the major women’s suffrage organizations consolidated their efforts into the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890. Some states allowed women to vote in elections at the state or local level, but only four states had granted complete suffrage. In Iowa, for example, women could vote on bond issues after 1894, but they could not vote for candidates for office. In 1902, citizens of Ottumwa, Iowa, sent a letter to Representative John Lacey requesting a congressional commission to investigate full voting rights for women in the states where it was legal.
By 1916, when the president of the Texas Woman Suffrage Association, Minnie Fisher Cunningham, sent this letter to Representative Harry Dale, a new generation of activists took a confrontational approach to achieving the goal of women’s suffrage. Cunningham’s letter demanded that the Susan B. Anthony amendment be reported out of the House Judiciary Committee and brought to the floor for a vote. The letter repeats a common argument for suffrage: Women were taxpayers, yet had no representation in Congress because they could not vote. Cunningham later became the first woman from Texas to run for the U.S. Senate.
Although it seems counterintuitive in retrospect, not all women supported suffrage for their sex. In the lead-up to the United States entry into World War I, suffrage opponents commonly branded its advocates as anti-American. Ellen French Vanderbilt, wife of Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and a resident of the wealthy enclave of Newport, Rhode Island, signed her name to a leaflet denouncing women’s suffrage. Authored by two Senators and three Representatives, the leaflet tied women’s suffrage to pacifism and socialism and argued that it subverted “the will of the people.” Undaunted by the attacks on women’s patriotism—and just a few days before the United States entered the war in April 1917—the first woman elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was sworn in and introduced a resolution for a women’s suffrage amendment that same day.
A few days after Congress voted to declare war on Germany, long-time suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt, serving a second time as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, wrote Speaker of the House Champ Clark to ask the House to create a Committee on Woman Suffrage: “Our Republic stands upon the threshold of what may prove the severest test of loyalty and endurance our country has ever had. It needs its women; and they are ready -- as fearless, as willing, as able, as loyal as any women of the world.” On September 24, 1917, the House voted to establish a Committee on Woman Suffrage in the House, and Jeannette Rankin was named Ranking Member. The creation of the committee facilitated the consideration of a women’s suffrage amendment by allowing resolutions to be referred to the new committee, rather than to the Judiciary Committee, which had proved hostile to previous amendments.
On January 3, 1918, hearings began in the newly established committee on the women’s suffrage amendment. That same day, Alice Wadsworth, the president of The National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and wife of Senator James Wadsworth Jr. of New York, authored a leaflet accusing suffragists of spreading false rumors that President Woodrow Wilson would throw his support behind the federal amendment. Titled “A Defense of the President and Congress of the United States against Suffrage and Socialist Canards,” the leaflet repeated the common anti-suffrage themes of the day: Suffragists were socialists and the suffrage amendment undermined states’ rights. The most vocal and visible female opponents of suffrage were upper class women accustomed to traditional roles for women. Suffrage for women of other classes and races potentially threatened their lives of ease and privilege (PDF). Their ideas about what was “feminine,” therefore, frequently echoed the anti-suffrage claims of their often powerful husbands.
In 1918, the resolution for a women’s suffrage amendment, led by Jeannette Rankin, was successful in the House. The Senate, however, narrowly failed to pass it. In the next Congress, Representative James Mann introduced House Joint Resolution 1 on May 19, 1919, and the House passed it two days later on May 21, 1919. The Senate quickly passed it this time as well; then, the resolution moved to the states where three-fourths had to ratify the amendment for it to be added to the Constitution. The Tennessee general assembly passed the amendment on August 18, 1920, becoming the 36th of the then 48 states in the Union to do so. With the requisite approval of three-fourths of the states, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the 19th Amendment to the Constitution on August 26, in time for the 1920 general elections.
Although the viewpoint of these House records shows the arc of the movement over decades and how women's suffrage ultimately became enshrined in the Constitution, it does not completely capture the many others who pushed the movement forward to the moment of ratification. In fact, for many women, particularly women of color, the passage of the 19th Amendment was not a culmination, but just the beginning of another decades-long effort for unfettered access to the polls, which did not come until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Sources: RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration; Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006); Jeanne Howard, “Our Own Worst Enemies: Women Opposed to Woman Suffrage,” The Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, vol. 9, issue 3 (September 1982); Juliana Tutt, “‘No Taxation Without Representation’ in the American Woman Suffrage Movement,” 62 Stan. L. Rev. 1473 (2010); Humanities Texas, “Texas Originals: Minnie Fisher Cunningham,” https://www.humanitiestexas.org/programs/tx-originals/list/minnie-fisher-cunningham; State Historical Society of Iowa, “Women’s Suffrage,” https://iowaculture.gov/history/education/educator-resources/primary-source-sets/womens-suffrage; Mary Walton, “A Woman’s War,” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/the-great-war-womans-war/; Tennessee Secretary of State, “Women’s Suffrage and the Passage of the 19th Amendment,” https://sos.tn.gov/products/tsla/womens-suffrage-tennessee-and-passage-19th-amendment; New York Times, January 15 January 1901; The New Northwest (Portland, Oregon), 29 June 1877.Follow @USHouseHistory