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Women’s Suffrage: Definition and U.S. History
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Laura Berlinsky-Schine,
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The women’s suffrage movement is an iconic period in feminism and the history of the United States as a whole. Women and men alike worked tirelessly, risking everything they had in pursuit of their own right to vote and that of women across the country.

In 1920, the women’s suffrage movement saw its reward: the 19th amendment was ratified, granting women the right to vote in the United States.

What Is Women’s Suffrage?

Women’s suffrage is the right for women to vote in political elections. Prior to the 19th century, women were not able to vote in any election in the U.S. Individual states began ratifying women’s suffrage amendments in the second half of the 19th century, and in 1920, the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, granting women the right to vote throughout the country.

What Was the Movement?

In the 19th century, women began campaigning in earnest for social reforms and equality. Women were instrumental in many movements and organizations, such as the abolitionist movement. Still, in many cases, they were unable to fully participate due to their gender; for instance, they were not allowed to attend the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

As women began to rethink their prescribed roles as dictated by the norms of society, a school of thought exemplified in Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century, suffrage came to the forefront of the agenda. This represented the first wave of feminism in the United States, which would largely focus on the right to vote and would pave the way for feminist movements in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The Seneca Falls Convention

After being shut out of the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and others, many of whom were already had or would become key figures in the women’s suffrage movement, organized a women’s rights convention to take place in Seneca Falls, New York.

Cady Stanton and members of the M’Clintock family drafted the Declaration of Sentiments. The document was meant to mirror the Declaration of Independence in style, but the contents focused on women’s lack of rights, particularly that of “elective franchise”—the ability to vote in political elections. Sixty-eight women and 32 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments, which sought women’s “equal participation with men,” at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

The document did not exclusively focus on suffrage, although it was a constant refrain throughout. It opened with a preamble mimicking the Declaration of Independence, including the following sentence: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident 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.”

This was followed by a series of statements of grievances.

Later Movement

After the Seneca Falls Convention, women and men alike began campaigning in earnest for women’s suffrage. After the passage of the 14th amendment, which granted black men the right to vote, suffragists sought to pass an amendment granting women the right to vote.

The National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association formed to further this cause, with the latter group emerging as a faction focusing on women’s suffrage at the state level. These groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns emerged as leaders of the movement in the early 20th century, forming the Congressional Union, which picketed the White House and led a march on Washington on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

State Laws and Final Ratification of the 19th Amendment

States began passing laws granting women the right to vote in 1869. Wyoming, then a territory, was the first to do so. The 19th amendment, which entitled women to vote throughout the land, was ratified and signed into law in 1920.

What Key Dates Are Related to Women’s Suffrage?

• 1868: 15th Amendment

The passage of the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, gave black men the right to vote but notably excluded all women, propelling the women’s suffrage movement further.

• 1869: National Woman Suffrage Association and American Woman Suffrage Association

The National Woman Suffrage Association was formed as a vehicle for championing a women’s suffrage amendment. Later, the American Woman Suffrage Association formed a faction seeking state-by-state amendments.

• 1869: Wyoming grants women the right to vote

Wyoming was the first U.S. territory to pass a women’s suffrage amendment.

• 1887: First Senate vote on the women's suffrage amendment

The Senate voted against the amendment in a 16 to 34 vote.

• 1890: National American Woman Suffrage Association

The two suffrage groups merged to form a single association with Cady State as president.

• 1893–1918: More women’s suffrage amendments 

States including Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon (1912), Kansas (1912), Arizona (1912), Alaska (1913), Illinois (1913), Montana, (1914), Nevada (1914), New York (1917), Michigan (1918), South Dakota (1918), and Oklahoma (1918) passed women’s suffrage amendments. 

• 1913: Congressional Union

Alice Paul and Lucy Burns formed the Congressional Union, later the National Women’s Party, to champion a federal women’s suffrage amendment. Members protested women’s lack of voting rights in an 8,000-person march on Washington on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

• 1918: House passage of the women’s suffrage amendment

The House of Representatives passed the amendment by one vote on January 10, 1918.

• 1919: Senate passage of the women’s suffrage amendment

After failing by one vote in the Senate, the amendment was returned to the House floor per President’s Wilson’s urging, where it passed by a margin of 42 votes. On June 4, the Senate passed the amendment.

• 1920: 19th Amendment to the Constitution

The 19th amendment granting women the right to vote was ratified by Tennessee, on August 18. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the amendment into law on August 26.

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