The Long Road To Women's Suffrage

Aug 25, 2020

Women, including those representing the states of Wisconsin and Oregon, and delegations from Womans' clubs, assemble in first national suffrage parade (1913), Washington, D.C. (Library of Congress/National Woman's Party)
Credit Library of Congress/National Woman's Party

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. It was on this day in 1920 that the measure was certified. In observance of the centennial, WUWF looks at the long road to women’s suffrage.

In an excerpt from the PBS documentary, One Woman, One Vote, narrator, Susan Sarandon describes the 1913 Women’s Suffrage Procession, “Washington had never seen anything like it. Eight-thousand women from all over the country, flooding down Pennsylvania Avenue, demanding the right to vote.”

"One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement" by Dr. Marjorie Spruill, chronicles the history of the 19th Amendment.

The film was originally released in 1995, in conjunction with the companion book, One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement.  Written by historian, Dr. Marjorie Spruill, it’s a collection of essays by her and other historians on the subject.

“I actually prepared it 25 years ago, when we were celebrating the 75th anniversary,” said Spruill, who is an author and retired University of South Carolina history professor. “This was the companion volume to a documentary, One Woman, One Vote, which - by the way - has been reissued with an introduction and conclusion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.”

Dr. Spruill has written several books on women’s suffrage. She was invited to the League of Women Voters Pensacola Bay Area to be keynote speaker at a local centennial celebration. But, the visit is on hold due to COVID-19.

In chronicling the history, Spruill says the Women's Suffrage Movement can be traced back to the late 1780s, when the nation’s founding fathers were drawing up the Constitution.

“The constitution actually left the question of who would be eligible to vote to each state to determine.”

Over the next few decades, the push for equal rights for women gained momentum. A major milestone in the movement was marked in 1848, when leading activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott helped to organize the famous Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. 

Another significant turning point occurred in 1870, following the post-Civil War ratification of the 15th Amendment. It granted African American men the right to vote and prevented discrimination based on race.

“They (suffragists) were very disappointed when women were left out of that. But, the immediate concern of Congress was the safety of people who had been newly freed from slavery,” Spruill said. “And, they felt like they were going to have trouble already trying to get three-fourths of the state to ratify it and that if they included woman suffrage it would be too controversial.”

It would be another 50 years before passage of a constitutional amendment, that provided for and protected the right to vote based on sex. To make it happen, the suffragists began pressing their case from every possible angle.

“There were some court challenges. Susan B. Anthony and quite a few other women went to the polls and in some cases persuaded the registrars to allow them to vote,” stated Spruill. “What they hoping to do was; in Susan B. Anthony’s case, she was hoping to get arrested and then be able to appeal it all the way up to the Supreme Court, in hoping to win a case for woman suffrage there.”

In 1875, such a case would make it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which left the decision to the states. The ruling triggered a comprehensive state-by-state lobbying effort.

North Dakota Governor Frazier signing 1917 woman suffrage bills. (photo: State Historical Society of North Dakota)
Credit State Historical Society of North Dakota

“They realized that ultimately, what was going to have to happen would be they would have to persuade enough states to enfranchise women so that the representatives in congress from that state would be sure to vote for a federal woman suffrage amendment and then that the states would then be willing to ratify, once they reached them,” Spruill explained.

In 1890, the territory of Wyoming was first to allow women to vote. Colorado, Utah, and Idaho soon followed.

As the state-by-state campaign continued, the women’s suffrage movement was also playing out on the national stage, with numerous marches in Washington, D. C., most notably, the massive Women’s Suffrage Procession in 1913.

“Leading the parade, a lawyer named Inez Milholland. Three years later, she’d die of exhaustion, campaigning for the cause,” details another clip from the documentary, One Woman, One Vote. “Some men jeered.

Thousands of women took to the streets of Washington, D.C. for the Women's Suffrage Procession in 1913.

One man yelled, “Go home to your mother!” One marcher yelled back, “My mother is here,”

Support began to spread across the country and states began lining up to ratify the 19th Amendment. With 36 states needed to make it official, it came down to Tennessee.

Spruill says opponents in the state fought it ‘tooth and nail,’ until the end.

“Suddenly, one young 24-year-old man named Harry Burn changed his mind and voted yes,” said Spruill, referring to the legislator who said he voted for the amendment on the advice of his mother. “That put the opponents into a panic. The suffragists were thrilled, but the Speaker immediately used a parliamentary trick to call for a recount.”

Dr. Spruill says the action immediately called into question Tennessee’s Aug. 18th ratification vote, which delayed its actual certification for about a week.

“The actual day that the 19th Amendment became part of the Constitution was Aug. 26, 1920,” she clarified.

It took several more decades for southern states to come around. Alabama ratified the 19th Amendment in 1953. Florida did so in 1969. Mississippi became the last state to make it official in 1984.