The following is a guest post by Colleen Shogan, the Assistant Deputy Librarian of Collections and Services at the Library of Congress. She is also the Library’s designee on the Woman’s Suffrage Centennial Commission. The Library of Congress opens its newest exhibition, Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote, on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. This exhibition will tell the story of the long campaign for women’s suffrage–considered the largest reform movement in American history–which lasted more than seven decades.
One hundred years ago today, the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution, which removed legal barriers for women exercising the right to vote, received the required two-thirds vote in Congress to advance the proposed language to the state ratification stage. The political path to congressional passage was protracted and circuitous. The longest-lasting social movement in the United States, the woman’s suffrage movement spanned eight decades of American history. How did suffragists finally achieve a pivotal milestone on June 4, 1919?
Congress first considered the notion of female suffrage on January 23, 1866, when James Brooks (D-NY) asked why women had been excluded from the Fourteenth Amendment. After Brooks’ arguments failed to gain robust congressional support, the word “male” was inserted into the text of the amendment as a requirement for citizenship. Elizabeth Cady Stanton remarked that once the word “male” appeared in the Constitution, “it will take us a century at least to get it out.”
Although women’s voting rights were conferred earlier than Stanton’s prediction, her larger point held true. In 1872, Virginia Minor attempted to register to vote in the presidential election in St. Louis. When she was prevented from doing so, Minor and her husband sued the local registrar of voters. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the claim that the Fourteenth Amendment prohibited the disenfranchisement of women as citizens of the United States. After the high court’s decision, the judicial avenue for securing women the right to vote disintegrated. The path ahead became clear: the suffrage movement needed to secure legislative support to change the legal conclusion that citizenship did not confer upon women the right to vote.
The two existing suffrage organizations adopted divergent strategies to achieve this goal. The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) utilized a state-by-state approach while the National Woman Suffrage Association (NSWA) focused on changing federal law. Senator Aaron Sargent (R-CA) introduced a woman’s suffrage amendment in 1878, but at the time, there was little political momentum or support for the measure.
In 1890, AWSA and NSWA merged to create the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). At this point in American history, women began to join volunteer associations at higher rates. Female community participation proved beneficial for the suffrage movement, as women transferred their energies and organizing skills from local civic groups to NAWSA.
Initially, the movement continued to focus on gaining suffrage at the state level, with some significant success, particularly in the American West. However, in 1914, Lucy Burns and Alice Paul formed the Congressional Union (CU) for Woman Suffrage, an organization wholly dedicated to securing a federal amendment. The Congressional Union eventually became the National Woman’s Party (NWP), which employed more militant tactics (such as organized mass marches) than NAWSA or predecessor American suffragist groups. In 1917, the NWP organized the first picket of the White House, seeking to draw President Woodrow Wilson into the suffrage fight. This led to arrests and eventually the imprisonment of suffragists in a nearby workhouse.
The same year, Jeannette Rankin (R-MT) became the first woman to serve in Congress. Representative John Raker (D-CA) proposed a new committee to consider the woman’s suffrage amendment. President Wilson endorsed the Raker proposal, which passed the House of Representatives later that year. After hearings in early 1918, the amendment came to the floor, with Congresswoman Rankin beginning the debate. The night before, Wilson announced support for the amendment. On January 10, 1918, the woman’s suffrage amendment received its first favorable vote in Congress, with the slimmest possible margin in the House, 274-136. However, the amendment failed to receive the required votes in the Senate during the sixty-fifth Congress, even after the President delivered a speech in the chamber on September 30, imploring the body to approve the amendment.
The following year, the House once again passed the amendment on May 21, 1919. In the meantime, suffragists had focused their time and attention on securing Senate approval. Using an innovative lobbying method utilizing index cards, Maud Younger led an organized effort to change the hearts and minds of senators. After two days of debate, the upper chamber finally approved the amendment with no extra votes to spare (56-25) on June 4, 1919. Ratification by the states began only six days later, with Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin leading the way.