The right to vote is one that many American citizens now take for granted. For some demographics, this freedom to vote for election candidates has always been there. Some will decide not to use it over a dislike of politics. But, others had to fight for the right to cast a vote, and, among them, many see it as an opportunity to honor those that earned that freedom.
The right for women to vote came relatively recently in social history, but that freedom wasn’t the same for everyone even then. So, when was women’s suffrage, how did women get to this point, and what happened next?
When was women’s suffrage?
The term suffrage tends to relate to the period between the 15th Amendment and the nineteenth Amendment in the United States. Fed up with being refused the vote based on their sex, women fought through the latter part of the 19th century until finally earning the legal right in 1920. However, the issue wasn’t entirely settled. There was still a divide in civil rights where women of other races still struggled to have their say.
Losing the Right To Vote and the Position of Women Before the Civil War
The fight for the right to vote began with the moment that state laws removed this right in 1777. Women were seen as little more than property, with rights given up the moment their lives merged through marriage with their husbands. The ruling class before the Civil War was made up of wealthy landowning white men. By the time the 14th Amendment passed, it had become clear that the government defined voters as white males.
Emancipation and the Fight for Further Rights
In 1848, 300 women met at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York to discuss matters of equal suffrage and representation for American women. The meeting ended with a Declaration of Sentiments, a piece modeled on the Declaration of Independence but with language that better reflected the existence and rights of women. While this was more symbolic than anything else, it is still highlighted as a moment where women had clearly had enough of the status quo.
Things began to change around the time of the Civil War and Emancipation. In 1870, the 15th Amendment passed that gave a clearer platform for equal voting rights. It stated that the right to vote “should not be denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous conditions of servitude”.
While this was progress in many ways, there was nothing there that indicated that American women also had the right to vote. This was the clearest indication that women had no right to vote, so suffragists made it their mission to change that.
The Suffrage Movement and the 19th Amendment
Activists in the suffrage movement pushed forward with their attempts to gain the vote despite the United States Supreme Court ruling of 1875 that women were a special category of non-voting citizens and that states could prohibit them from doing so.
Various organizations rose to challenge the law, and the National Woman Suffrage Association and American Woman Suffrage Association merged in 1890, with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its president. Another leading suffragist figure was Susan B Anthony, who was arrested for registering to vote in Rochester in 1872. Over time, the movement grew and gained more attention, with future president Theodore Roosevelt adding suffrage to his platform for the Progressive Party.
Other notable American women in the suffrage movement who fought valiantly for future women voters include Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth (a famous African American woman), and Abigail Scott Duniway. At the same time, abolitionist Frederick Douglass also offered support to the suffragist cause and advocated for universal suffrage.
Changes to the Law and Constitution
At this point, there is an important distinction between federal and state law. While the Constitution denied the right of women to vote, many state laws were ahead of the curve. Wyoming was the first to pass laws granting women voting rights without other conditions in 1869. Kentucky had passed a more restrictive measure a little earlier.
Over time, more states followed suit and allowed for female votes in state elections. But, there was still the issue of the constitutional right for women to be viewed the same as men. Finally, in 1920, the government passed the 19th Amendment, where women could now vote with no threat of denial because of their sex.
Women’s Suffrage Beyond the Suffrage Movement
It is important to remember that this addition of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution didn’t fix all the problems. There was no instant and unrestricted voting process for all women in America. It wasn’t until 1925 that an act of Congress granted the suffrage of Native American Women. Also, while there was nothing to stop black women from voting based on the wording of the new amendment, there were still obstacles in place.
Some states continued to enforce a poll tax, meaning that residents had to pay a fee in order to vote. This discriminatory measure made it more difficult for those poorer citizens to vote. On top of that, there were literacy tests in place, which again worked against poorer black women that didn’t have the same education as other citizens. Of course, poor white citizens were restricted, too, as this was as much about protecting the votes of the wealthy as those of white men.
In the mid-sixties, both measures were abolished. The 24th Amendment prohibited a poll tax for federal elections in January of 1964, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act brought about a fairer system for every African American.
The Freedom To Vote in America
Today, most women in America can vote in federal elections without restriction. However, there are still criteria to meet. First of all, you have to be a citizen residing in one of the 50 states, which means that women citizens living in Puerto Rico are out of luck for now unless they move. There are also restrictions for some people with felony convictions and mental impairments. Finally, you have to be 18 years of age. If you meet all those needs as a woman in the United States, you can now cast your vote with relative ease.