The women's suffrage movement began before the Civil War but faced numerous roadblocks before it reached its final Constitutional success in 1920.
Women’s voting rights were the result of a century-long struggle for sociopolitical equality. The 19th amendment to the Constitution of the United States required decades of public protests and demonstrations to ratify. Hundreds of thousands of American suffragists sacrificed their time and social standing for the good of women nationwide that the women's suffrage movement symbolized.
According to History, American suffragists couldn't agree on which strategies were most effective in spreading the women’s suffrage movement. Reformers and activists disagreed on the most viable approach to garner political support. Some pushed for a more aggressive form of protest and others for a gentler approach. These squabbles nearly brought the movement to its knees.
On Aug. 26, 1920, however, any lost battles were forgotten as the war had been won. For the first time in American history, all women were legally allowed to vote and had officially acquired the same rights and responsibilities enjoyed by their male counterparts decades earlier.
Of course, the road to acquire this right was long, winding, and paved with seemingly insurmountable hurdles. As we approach the centennial anniversary of this historic achievement, an in-depth analysis of the women’s suffrage movement — its beginnings, obstacles, and the brave American suffragists who vied for its victories — would serve well to contextualize just how monumental the endeavor was.
In order to do so, we’ll have to look into the past and far earlier than the early 20th century to best understand the sentiments and political landscape of 1800s United States.
At a time when kidnapped Africans were still enslaved and before the Civil War tore the country apart, the women's movement reared its head.
Women's Suffrage Takes Root
The women's rights movement was small but mighty in the decades preceding the Civil War. By the 1820s and '30s, most states in America had ensured a white man’s right to vote. Some states still required that men reach specific qualifications on wealth or land ownership, but for the most part, male U.S. citizens who weren’t enslaved could participate in the democratic process. Women were all too aware that the right to vote was becoming more inclusive.
While legislation to abolish slavery wouldn’t be enacted for multiple decades more at this point, America’s deep sense of religious purpose played an imperative role in motivating women’s suffrage, and particularly in American suffragists who themselves felt deeply religious. Temperance leagues, moral-reform groups, and anti-slavery organizations sprung up across the nation, many of which were led by women.
Additionally, many American females were fed up with their supposed role in society which historians have since called the "Cult of True Womanhood." This role required that women (white women, rather) be relegated exclusively to housework, her husband’s will, and her children. But this notion simply wasn’t appealing to American suffragists.
In the midst of a desire for reform outside of their own rights, a fertile ground had been laid for the suffrage movement. Without this foundation, the women’s rights gathering in upstate New York that kicked off the movement would not have been possible.
Welcome to Seneca Falls.
Seneca Falls Convention: The Beginning Of The Women's Suffrage Movement
According to The Smithsonian, married women had no right to property or ownership of their wages by the time the Seneca Falls Convention gathered in 1848. The mere concept of casting ballots was so unfamiliar to women that even those attending the convention had to process the idea.
The Seneca Falls Convention led to a vital precedent. Attended by mostly women, the gathering was centered on finding solutions to a woman’s inability to own her own wages and property rights. The female abolitionists — invited by founding suffragists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott — were met with heartening prospects as most attendees believed themselves to be on the correct side of history, agreeing that (white) American women were independent people who deserved the right to be autonomous political participants.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," the Declaration of Sentiments created by the delegates read, "that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The meeting saw unanimous support for the issue and passed resolutions to support a woman’s right to her own wages, to divorce abusive husbands, and to have representation in government. But all the progress in women's suffrage achieved at the Seneca Falls Convention would be momentarily hampered by impending war.
Women's Suffrage On A Civil War Hiatus
As history is not entirely without a sense of irony, the beginning of the Civil War saw a radical shift in focus from women's right to the rights of slaves. Women’s suffrage lost steam and even white suffragists who began in the abolition movement returned to the issue of racial division.
It was the "Negro’s hour," as white abolitionist Wendell Phillips proclaimed. He urged women to do the right thing and yo stand back while the fight to liberate slaves gained increasing attention. Unfortunately, black women at the time were the most overlooked demographic in the U.S.
As the Civil War came to a close, the notion of liberation continued to extend to outer territories. On Dec. 10, 1869, Wyoming passed the first law in the U.S. which gave women the right to vote and hold office. Though Wyoming was not yet a state, it also would not revoke women's suffrage when offered to the join Union. In 1890, when it did become an official state, women still possessed the right to vote.
Though that battle was won, the war for women's right to vote was not over. In 1913, over 5,000 people participated in a parade for women’s rights on Washington D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue. Led by Swarthmore graduate Alice Paul, the demonstration was filled with supposed radicals of a new generation eager to pick up the baton.
While many of the tens of thousands of onlookers were gathered there for Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration the following day, the parade was a huge public success replete with music, mounted brigades, floats, and more.
"No one had ever claimed the street for a protest march like this one," wrote Rebecca Boggs Roberts in Suffragettes in Washington, D.C.: The 1913 Parade and the Fight for the Vote. Over a century later, the Women’s March, too, has become a similar record-breaking public demonstration against social injustice.
During President Wilson’s second inauguration four years later, hundreds of suffragists protested outside the White House. Seeing a dedicated group of ambitious young women brave the freezing rain was "a sight to impress even the jaded senses of one who has seen much," a correspondent wrote.
Unfortunately, almost 100 protesters were arrested for things like "obstructing sidewalk traffic" that day. After being taken to a workhouse in Virginia or the District of Columbia jail, many of them initiated a hunger strike. Subsequently, they were force-fed by the police via tubes shoved up their noses.
"Miss Paul vomits much. I do too," one of the inmates, Rose Winslow, wrote. "We think of the coming feeding all day. It is horrible."
Women’s suffrage made a giant move forward on Jan. 10, 1918, when Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) became the first woman elected to Congress in Montana. She boldly opened up the discussion around Susan B. Anthony's proposed amendment (aptly named the Susan B. Anthony Amendment) to the constitution which asserted that states could not discriminate against sex in regards to the right to vote. On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to pass Susan B. Anthony's Amendment or the 19th Amendment and became law eight days later.
Regardless, women’s social and political rights were still violated for decades following this historic precedent for women's right to vote. From making the process of voting inaccessible in numerous ways to blatant racial discrimination, the road toward complete equality was far from over.
The Legacy Of Earning Women's Right To Vote
After the sexual revolution and psychological shifts of the 1960s, many women seemed to generally think of themselves as independent political participants in the U.S. By the 1970s, the rise of women in the workplace was notable — as was the pay gap between men and women in the workplace. But the struggle for women's rights was not over.
Though women of the 1980s voted in greater numbers than men, they still had to raise awareness of gender-specific issues that continued to be ignored by men with power. Even though the ratio of men to women in Congress remains off balance, things certainly have changed for the better. As it stands, there are a record 131 women serving in Congress and there are still more records to be broken.
"We’re in a new era of women’s engagement," said Debbie Walsh, director of the nonpartisan Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Indeed, the Women’s March annually breaks records in cities across the globe, numerous highly accredited women are in the running for President of the United States, in many ways it appears that the political landscape in America has come a long way since women’s suffrage.
However, not all battles have been won. The war hasn't ended and women must remain vigilant to their efforts as long as democracy can hold. As it stands, however, women can be proud of the efforts they’ve collectively made to fight for what is right thus far — and continue that struggle with every passing election.
After experiencing the women's suffrage movement through these inspiring photos, take a look at 23 stunning photos of the Ziegfield Follies: the 1920s' sexist Broadway revue. Then, check out a brief history of the 1960s hippie movement that changed America.