August 26, 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which declared that neither the federal government nor the states could deny the right to vote of any U.S. citizen on account of sex. As we celebrate Constitution Day this year, it seems particularly appropriate to review the history of this amendment, why it was proposed and adopted, as well as what it has achieved and what it has not.
In a famous letter Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John shortly before the American Revolution, she asked him to be more generous to the ladies than his ancestors had been in the new code of laws she supposed would be necessary: “Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could.” But neither John nor his fellow revolutionaries heeded her entreaty. Women had been able to vote in some of the colonies, but among the new states, only New Jersey allowed women with property to do so.
The agitation for women’s suffrage grew out of the antebellum anti-slavery and temperance movements. In 1848, two abolitionists, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, organized the first conference on women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York, which culminated in the proclamation of a “Declaration of Sentiments.” Incorporating much of the language of the Declaration of Independence to show that women’s demand for the vote constituted an extension and application of the principles upon which the United States was founded, its authors declared: “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,” and that governments are instituted to secure these rights, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Following the logic of the American colonists before the Revolution, the signers of the Declaration of Sentiments then argued that lacking the electoral franchise, women had no voice in the formation or execution of laws to which they were unjustly subjected without their consent.
Suffragists worked hand in hand with anti-slavery forces until the end of the Civil War. However, after a 15th Amendment was proposed that forbade denial of the right to vote of any citizen on the basis of race, but not sex, leading suffragists like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed it. Others supported the 15th amendment and sought to obtain the vote for women more incrementally state by state. Neither group of suffragists had much success – nor did a new generation of suffragettes who, led by Alice Paul, adopted more radical forms of protest. And like their 19th century predecessors, these white suffragettes alienated their African-American associates by demanding that they march at the back of the parade of 5,000 women held at the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson. Only after women demonstrated their public service by serving as nurses during the Spanish flu pandemic and replacing men in jobs they had left to fight in World War I did it become possible to amass sufficient support to pass the 19th Amendment. Even then it was barely ratified by the necessary three-fourths of the state legislatures after one legislator in Tennessee, responding to the pleas of his mother, changed his vote.
In 1920, only 36 percent of the newly enfranchised female voters chose to exercise their right (in contrast to 69 percent of the males). And for the next three decades, women who did vote tended to vote the same way men did. But after women again replaced men in jobs they left to fight in World War II during the 1940s and were inspired by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s to demand equal rights for themselves, this began to change. In 1972 it looked as if a version of the ERA, first proposed by Alice Paul in 1921, would quickly be ratified – until it was opposed by a group of conservative women led by Phyllis Schafly.
Like men, American women continue to be politically divided. A majority of white women have voted for the Republican nominee in all but two Presidential elections since 1952, and a growing percentage of non-white females have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats. Pundits now say that the votes of “suburban women” may determine the outcome of the 2020 election. We don’t know exactly who these “suburban women” are or how they will vote, but it is clear that women’s votes now count.
Catherine Zuckert is the Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, Emerita, and a visiting scholar in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University.