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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Women weren’t given the right to vote in America — they took it

Alice Paul, chair of the National Woman’s Party, unfurls a banner after the ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug. 19, 1920, at the NWP’s headquarters in Washington.  (The Crowley Company/Library of Congress via the Associated Press)
By Pip Cawley For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: When did all women get the right to vote?

The short answer is in 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment barred voter discrimination on account of sex.

The road to women’s suffrage, however, was long and arduous. Three generations of women put their careers, families and even their bodies on the line to fight for the cause. Suffragists endured derision in the press, angry mobs and police brutality on the street and in the prison cell. One highly influential and effective suffragist, Alice Paul, went on a hunger strike while in prison. She demanded to be treated as a political prisoner (as she would have been if she were male) and for that, endured twice-daily forced feedings by the prison staff.

Let’s make something clear: Women were not given the vote in 1920. They took it.

From the beginnings of this nation, women have been demanding the right to vote. In 1776, Abigail Adams famously petitioned her husband to remember women at the Continental Congress. She warned of what would happen if men were to ignore women’s voices, stating plainly, “Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could.”

In its original form, however, the U.S. Constitution says nothing at all about voting rights. Congress could not come to an agreement on it, and so it passed the issue down to the states to sort out on their own. This decision, or lack thereof, by the Continental Congress came to have serious ramifications for women later fighting for the vote.

Women’s suffrage was one of the longest fights for civil rights in our history. Like other civil rights battles, women were fighting against societal ignorance and discrimination. They had to convince men, the very people prejudiced against them, to vote in their favor. This was no easy task. Society saw women as domestic creatures whose only purpose was to have and raise children, keep their husbands happy and keep the home running smoothly, all while making it look effortless.

Married women had no legal standing and could not own property or open a bank account. If their husbands permitted them to work outside the home, women had to hand their wages over to them. Women were considered too delicate, too emotional and too unintelligent to enter the man’s world of politics. To convince men that women deserved the right to vote, women had to first change how society perceived them. Women had to prove that they mattered enough as citizens to vote.

The modern fight for women’s rights in the U.S. formally began in 1848, at Seneca Falls, New York, where some 300 women gathered and signed the Declaration of Sentiments set forth by first Woman’s Rights Convention. The Woman’s Rights Declaration echoed the Declaration of Independence, declaring that “all men and women are created equal” and demanding their own inalienable rights. It was not until well into the 20th century, however, that enough states ratified the 19th Amendment for women’s right to vote to be recognized.

Differences in strategy and tactics divided the suffragists. While some women pushed for a constitutional amendment at the federal level, others focused on winning over individual states. In the end, both strategies proved necessary, as it was the votes of fully enfranchised women in the so-called Free Western States that tipped the balance toward ratification.

Idaho and Washington both played important roles in the struggle for women’s suffrage. Generations before passing the 19th Amendment, some states had already enfranchised their female citizens. In 1896, Idaho was one such state – one of the first in the country. The first four states to do so – Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Utah – were known as the Suffrage Column.

Washington state did not pass women’s suffrage until 1910, but when it did, it ended 14 long years of no real progress made in the movement. The victory in Washington reinvigorated the entire suffrage movement. It showed that, yes, suffrage was still possible. The win in Washington sparked a new wave of suffragists to join the cause and inspired many of them to take bold new actions. This was followed by waves of new demonstrations all over the country. Congress passed the 19th Amendment in 1919 and it was ratified in 1920.

In a simple world, that would be the end of the story, but life is rarely that simple.

The 19th Amendment barred states from prohibiting white women full use of their right to vote, but women of color weren’t able to exercise their full rights to vote until after the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Women of color, especially African American women, could no more vote in 1920 than African American men could vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870. During Reconstruction and for decades after, state and local government officials found other ways to keep African Americans from voting: poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses and brutal physical violence.

It should also be said that, although the original suffrage movement sought voting rights for all women, some suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, jettisoned their sisters of color from the movement when it became politically expedient to do so. Some suffragists also used racist arguments to make their case for the vote.

Rather than skipping over the less-flattering aspects of the women’s suffrage movement, it is important to acknowledge and discuss them. The tensions between some white suffragists and suffragists of color laid the groundwork for the issues surrounding intersectionality we see today whenever women more broadly try to come together for a cause.

Only by discussing our history clearly will we be able to fully understand our present day.

Pip Cawley is a Ph.D. candidate of political science at Washington State University in Pullman.

This article is part of a Spokesman Review partnership with the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.