On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified after decades of struggle by women’s rights advocates, bringing a successful end to the U.S. women’s suffrage movement.
Women Gain Suffrage
The 19th Amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878. Forty-one years later, it was passed by both houses of Congress on June 4, 1919, and sent to the states for ratification.
Women’s suffrage was supported in the west and north, but strongly opposed in the south. With Connecticut and Vermont slow to ratify and nine southern states plus Delaware entrenched against the amendment, it fell on Tennessee to be the 36th state to ratify, which would give the amendment the two-thirds majority it needed to become law.
The state Senate voted to ratify, but the state House of Representatives was deadlocked 48-48. Suffrage supporters and opponents descended on Tennessee ahead of the Aug. 18 vote on ratification, which appeared doomed to fail. But one representative, 24-year-old Harry T. Burn, changed his vote because of a note given to him by his mother: “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! … Don’t forget to be a good boy.”
With Burns’ vote, Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment. On Aug. 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the amendment, forever changing the American electorate and the place of women in American society.
“Women in fighting for the vote have shown a passion of earnestness, a persistence, and above all a command of both tactics and strategy, which have amazed our master politicians. A new force has invaded public life,” wrote The New York Times in an editorial shortly after the ratification.
The 19th Amendment reads:
1. 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.
2. Congress shall have power to enforce this Article by appropriate legislation.
The History of the Women’s Movement
Women had been advocating for their rights for decades before the amendment was passed, participating in marches and parades, lobbying, acts of civil disobedience, silent vigils, even hunger strikes. Some met with violent resistance and suffered physical abuse and jail time.
The suffrage movement grew out of the abolitionist and temperance movements of the mid-19th century, as women involved in those efforts became politically active. In 1848, about 250 suffragists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott gathered for the historic Seneca Falls women’s rights conference in New York.
After the Civil War, African-American men gained the right to vote with the 15th Amendment. In 1869, Susan B. Anthony and Stanton created the National Woman Suffrage Association to advocate for an amendment to the Constitution, and Lucy Stone formed the American Woman Suffrage Association to work with state legislatures on the issue.
The two groups later combined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1872, Anthony was arrested for trying to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the presidential election. Wyoming was the first state to grant full suffrage to women when it entered the Union in 1890, and 14 other states—most in the west—granted full suffrage by 1920. Most states in the midwest and northeast granted at least partial suffrage, such as the ability to vote only in presidential elections.
“By the beginning of the 20th century, the role of women in American society was changing drastically; women were working more, receiving a better education, bearing fewer children, and several states had authorized female suffrage,” according to History.com.
The era also brought about the rise of women’s groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National Council of Jewish Women, the National Association of Colored Women and the Women’s Trade Union League.
By 1916, the Democratic and Republican parties both endorsed the enfranchisement of women. The tide took a decisive turn in favor of women when New York adopted women’s suffrage in 1917 and President Woodrow Wilson announced his support of the amendment in 1918.
Several documents related to the 19th Amendment and the women’s suffrage movement are available at the National Archives Web site, including a 1868 resolution proposing an Amendment to the Constitution, a petition to Congress submitted in 1871 and the ratification of the 19th Amendment by the state of Tennessee.