The Nineteenth Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, and we celebrate its one-hundredth anniversary this year. The amendment famously removed bans on the American woman’s right to suffrage. Although some western states, notably Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho, allowed full women’s suffrage before this date, most of the United States had partial or full restrictions on women voting.
In early America, suffrage was largely dependent on an individual’s assets – voting was limited to those who owned a certain amount of property. In most cases, this rule excluded those who weren’t white men, but laws varied enough to allow women and/or free black men to vote in several locations. New Jersey allowed all qualified citizens (including women) to vote up until 1807.
Although property qualifications declined throughout the 1800s, calls for women’s suffrage were unsuccessful. That said, the women’s suffrage movement gained traction during this time and the most important arguments for women’s rights were made by such figureheads as Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Additionally, in some states married women gained rights that had previously been denied them. After challenging voting bans on the premise of the Fourteenth Amendment’s privileges and immunities clause (and failing in Minor v. Happersett), the suffrage movement began to focus on passing a suffrage amendment to the Constitution.
Thanks in part to the new statehood of pro-suffrage western territories, the proposed Nineteenth Amendment passed the House and Senate in 1919 before being put to vote in the 48 states. Tennessee was the final state needed to achieve a 3/4 majority and officially made the amendment law on August 18, 1920, just in time for the 1920 election.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing this important piece of American law. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Excerpt from “Is it a Crime to Vote?”, Susan B. Anthony, 1872-1873
“A year and a half ago I was at Walla, Walla, Washington Territory. I saw there a theatrical company, called the ‘Pixley Sisters,’ playing before crowded houses, every night of the whole week of the territorial fair. The eldest of those three fatherless girls was scarce eighteen. Yet every night a United States officer stretched out his long fingers, and clutched six dollars of the proceeds of the exhibition of those orphan girls, who, but a few years before, were half starvelings in the streets of Olympia, the capital of the far-off northwest territory. So the poor widow, who keeps a boarding house, manufacturers shirts, or sells apples and peanuts on the street corners of our cities, is compelled to pay taxes from her scanty pittance. I would that the women of this republic, at once, resolve, never again to submit of taxation, until their right to vote be recognized…
In all the penalties and burdens of the government, (except the military,) women are reckoned as citizens, equally with men. Also, in all privileges and immunities, save those of the jury box and ballot box, the two fundamental privileges on which rest all the others. The United States government not only taxes, fines, imprisons and hangs women, but it allows them to pre-empt lands, register ships, and take out passport and naturalization papers. Not only does the law permit single women and widows to the right of naturalization, but Section 2 says: ‘A married woman may be naturalized without the concurrence of her husband.’ (I wonder the fathers were not afraid of creating discord in the families of foreigners); and again: ‘When an alien, having complied with the law, and declared his intention to become a citizen, dies before he is actually naturalized, his widow and children shall be considered citizens, entitled to all rights and privileges as such, on taking the required oath.’ If a foreign born woman by becoming a naturalized citizen, is entitled to all the rights and privileges of citizenship, is not a native born woman, by her national citizenship, possessed of equal rights and privileges?“
Excerpt from “The Rights of Women,” Frederick Douglass, July 28, 1848
“A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the wise and the good of our land, than would be a discussion of the rights of women. It is, in their estimation, to be guilty of evil thoughts, to think that a woman is entitled to equal rights with man. Many who have at last made the discovery that the negroes have some rights as well as other members of the human family, have yet to be convinced that women are entitled to any. Eight years ago a number of persons of this description actually abandoned the anti-slavery cause, lest by giving their influence in that direction, they might possibly be giving countenance to the dangerous heresy that woman, in respect to rights, stands on an equal footing with man. In the judgment of such persons, the American slave system, with all its concomitant horrors, is less to be deplored than this wicked idea. It is perhaps needless to say, that we cherish little sympathy for such prejudices. Standing as we do upon the watch-tower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from an expression of our approbation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character of any members of the human family…
In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man. We go farther, and express our conviction that all political rights which it is expedient for man to exercise, it is equally so for women. All that distinguishes man as an intelligent and accountable being, is equally true of woman; and if that government is only just which governs by the free consent of the governed, there can be no reason in the world for denying to woman the exercise of the elective franchise, or a hand in making and administering the laws of the land. Our doctrine is, that ‘Right is of no sex.'”
Selected online resources on the Nineteenth Amendment:
The National Constitution Center offers introductory essays by top legal scholars that explain the meaning of the Nineteenth Amendment and speak on its relationship to the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Library of Congress has amassed a variety of resources on the Nineteenth Amendment, including primary documents from the time of ratification and related exhibitions and websites.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the National Archives has compiled resources on American women’s history, notable figures, as well as related historical films. The Archives’ DocsTeach website also includes several primary documents from the suffrage movement and other teaching aids.
The National Park Service features several historical sites related to the women’s suffrage movement and the Nineteenth Amendment. Professor Judith Wellman has written an article for the NPS highlighting many of these sites. An interactive Story Map indicates ratification sites for every state.
“On a hot and muggy summer morning in the month of August 1920, a young 24 year-old Republican lawmaker from Niota (McMinn County), in the southern valley of East Tennessee, changed his ‘Nay’ vote to an ‘Aye’ during a critical final ballot to decide the fate on ratification of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. Burn’s momentous decision to vote in favor of woman suffrage not only secured the elusive victory that suffragists had sought since the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 but also secured a place for both Burn and his widowed mother, Febb Ensminger Burn, in American history as they delivered Tennessee as the ‘Perfect 36’ state to ratify the 19th Amendment…”
Rita Koganzon at Harvard University: “Sophie Isn’t Oppressed: Sex, Freedom and Education in Rousseau’s Emile”
On February 7, 2019, the Program on Constitutional Government at Harvard University, a JMC partner program, hosted JMC fellow Rita Koganzon for a lecture examining philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view of women.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on influential American women, the Nineteenth Amendment, or its history and controversies, and would like your work included here, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.