100th Anniversary of Women’s Constitutional Right to Vote in the U.S.

Caption

Suffragists stand in front of a billboard supporting the women's suffrage amendment in 1917.

In 2020, the United States marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which says that “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.” The 19th Amendment was a hard-won success of the U.S. women’s suffrage movement, but work remains to meet its promise for all American women.


The women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. has a long and complex history, and simplified accounts of it often leave out fractures within the movement and the voices of the women who did not so readily benefit from it. In many retellings, the American women’s suffrage movement story begins with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention and ends with the 19th Amendment’s passage in 1920. The convention produced a declaration that women and men were equal, including in their rights to own property, practice their religion or access education or a divorce. The right to vote was the one area of discord, considered by many at that time still solely a male domain.

The movement’s roots, however, are deeper and more diverse than that chronology would imply. Historians have observed, for example, that some 19th-century suffragists drew considerable inspiration from women in the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, who historically had great power and authority in various spheres of their lives, participating in all major decisions and selecting chiefs. Native American women played an important role in the suffrage movement, though this role is rarely highlighted.

“Haudenosaunee women ignited the revolutionary vision of early feminists by providing a model of freedom and agency.” – New York Heritage

In the years preceding the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, women had the right to vote in some parts of the country. When the states were tasked with developing their own election codes, however, women were summarily disenfranchised in every state except New Jersey, which eventually followed suit in 1807.

As the movement gained momentum in the early years of the U.S., anti-slavery and women’s rights advocates forged powerful partnerships. The suffrage movement owed a great deal of tactical and spiritual inspiration to the abolitionist movement – but after the Civil War, political expedience and racism divided the movement.

After the Civil War, some activists tried to secure women’s voting rights in the court system by applying a broad interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the U.S. The Supreme Court’s 1875 decision in Minor v. Happersett, however, held that the constitutionally protected privileges of citizenship did not include the right to vote. The first constitutional amendment proposing a right to vote for women was introduced in Congress soon after but failed to pass.

The suffrage movement continued apace, constantly churning to move the effort forward, sometimes putting its activists at great peril. Despite the considerable risks and setbacks, the freedoms of speech and association guaranteed in the Constitution afforded the women’s movement the space to continue to advocate for the vote. The text that became the 19th Amendment was proposed again in 1919 and ratified on August 18, 1920. It offered a legal justification for extending suffrage. Still, it did not address other barriers to voting that continued to disenfranchise many women.

Native American women were not recognized as citizens or voters until a pair of landmark court decisions in 1948, though state-level legal barriers to the Native American vote persisted into the 1950s and 1960s. Considerable legal obstacles also endured for Asian Americans until the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act removed barriers to citizenship. Black women and men, particularly in the South, quickly saw their 19th Amendment rights supplanted by entrenched obstruction at the polls that was not formally lifted until the Voting Rights Act was signed into federal law in 1965.

Since the 1960s, the number of women voters has exceeded the number of male voters in every presidential election – and by proportion since 1980.

Effective use of the right to vote is still complicated, however, by race, gender identity, immigration history, disability and economic status – and by challenges posed by the U.S.’s complex and sometimes disproportionately burdensome voting process.

In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court considered elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to seek and obtain preclearance, or approval, before changing voting rules. The Supreme Court’s decision effectively eliminated the preclearance process, leaving it to Congress to establish new criteria – which they have not yet done – and ushering in a flurry of new voting rules in some jurisdictions.

While women have some kind of de jure right to vote in every country with elections, they face a thicket of challenges in practice, some similar to those in the U.S. There are no global comparative statistics on women’s turnout, but we know that women’s rights are often governed by custom rather than statute in many countries. These customs are based in deeply entrenched cultural attitudes and exacerbated by economic and educational marginalization and violence against women.

1920 is an important moment for suffrage in the U.S., but it is neither the beginning nor the end – rather, it is a bookmark somewhere in the middle of an epic volume.

After ratification, the fight for the vote for women – including Native American women, Black women, women of color, transgender women, women who are poor and women with disabilities – continued, and still continues today, its long arc.

Adapted from keynote remarks delivered by Erica Shein, director of IFES’ Center for Applied Research and Learning, to the American Bar Association International Law Section’s event on “The Right to Vote: Voices from Women Around the World” held on July 22, 2020.


Listen: 100 Years Later: The Complicated History of The Women’s Suffrage Movement

To learn more, RSVP for the Virtual U.S. Election Program! Once you do, you’ll be able to watch videos about the right to vote in the U.S. on demand.

Published on October 12, 2020.

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