2020 marks 100 years since suffragists won women the right to vote. Ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment reads, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
As it says on my website bio, I’m a bit of a history nerd, so before we move on to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage, let’s unpack how the women of early America achieved this goal. The National Park Service starts its timeline in 1648, when Margaret Brent, the first female lawyer in America, demands but is denied a vote in Maryland’s colonial assembly.
Another early fighter for women’s rights was Sojourner Truth, an antislavery reformer. Black women were instrumental in the suffrage movement. To tell their stories, Evoke, Melinda Gates’ platform, created a substantive summary of Black women suffragists called Truth Be Told. The women’s suffrage movement was not intersectional, but much of its success can be credited to Black women; as they were working through the antislavery movement to be recognized as full citizens, they also led the movement to win the right to vote for all people.
Truth sold her portrait in the 1860s to combat racist stereotypes of Black people, and she inspired Susan B. Anthony to do the same for herself and other suffragists. Many Black women, including Frances Harper and Harriet Tubman, created groups to work towards abolition of slavery and full suffrage for men and women. However, Susan B. Anthony’s National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) was not inclusive, and she did not allow Black women or women of color to join the local clubs.
The history we are a bit more familiar with starts in 1848 when Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott held A Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. During the convention, Stanton authored the Declaration of Sentiments, a manifesto that declared women’s equality and called for their right to vote. One of the most prominent voices at the convention was noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was one of 32 men to sign the declaration. After the Seneca Falls Convention, women’s groups continued to work towards reforms for suffrage and equality for women in American society. After the 15th Amendment granting Black men the right to vote was ratified in 1870, leading suffragists Anthony and Stanton realized that the best way forward was to advocate for a national amendment.
As the movement continued, NAWSA had some success in the states, and by 1913, the suffragists had won the right to vote in six states. After Stanton and Anthony died in 1902 and 1906 respectively, Alice Paul became a leader in the movement, joining NAWSA. She organized the suffrage parade of March 3, 1913, one of the movement’s largest protests, which also stole attention from President Woodrow Wilson on the eve of his inauguration. Another figure at the 1913 march was Ida B. Wells-Barnett. First told to march in the back to appease the Southern delegation, the Black journalist told them: “Either I go with you or not at all. I am not taking this stand because I personally wish for recognition. I am doing it for the future benefit of my whole race.” She marched with her own Illinois delegation. To learn more about Wells and her work, read Sarah Larson’s blog here.
A radical tactic at the time, the protest caused Paul to split from the NAWSA. She joined with Lucy Burns to form the National Women’s Party and continued the movement with their “radical” strategy of peaceful demonstration. Between 1917 and 1919, more than 200 women were arrested during suffrage protests. The women demanded to be treated as political prisoners, and Paul led them in a hunger strike while imprisoned. In 1920, Congress passed the Susan B. Anthony Amendment and suffragists continue to fight to achieve a three-quarters majority in the states for ratification. Tennessee was the last state to ratify the amendment.
This is by no means a full history of the suffragist movement. The retelling of this history often focuses on white women like Anthony, Stanton, and Paul, but the heroes of the movement were often Black women who fostered political momentum. Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar told the New York Times: “Although the responsibilities of wage-earning work and domestic duties created a difficult balancing act, Black women found the time to advocate on multiple fronts: to end slavery, offer citizenship to African-Americans and to give Black men and women the right to vote.”
The totality of the movement is important to consider as we look back on a century of the women’s vote. It is a rich history of political dissent and how women used their voices to protest through the press, photography, demonstrations and more to fight for their rights. To learn more, take a look at these resources:
- Evoke, Truth Be Told
- National Park Service, US Women’s Suffrage Timeline 1648 to 2016
- National Park Service, From Mannish Radicals to Feminist Heroes: Suffragists in Popular Culture
- New York Times, Suffrage at 100
- Suffragist Memorial, A History of Suffrage
- Washington Post, 100 Years of Women’s Suffrage
The ratification of the 19th amendment was a landmark moment for American women, but we have spent the entire century since still working toward equality and inclusion for women, people of color, and many other marginalized groups. As we reflect on the anniversary of this watershed moment in U.S. history, we take note of another momentous milestone: Kamala Harris becoming the first Black, Indian-American woman candidate for Vice President on a major party ticket. Regardless of partisan politics, I hope we all can appreciate why, a century after women’s suffrage, this is a turning point for all women in the United States. It reminds me of Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
The 19th Amendment was a step forward for the United States of America, and its success and shortcomings reverberate through our culture today. I hope that, in the decades to come, we continue to move towards justice and equality for all.
Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage and Learn More
Many cultural institutions are hosting celebrations of the 19th Amendment and discussions on how we can continue to work to achieve inclusion and equality in our society. Learn how you can participate here:
For more DE&I resources, please visit our Diversity, Inclusion, Equity & Anti-Racism Resource Center.