Since the founding of the United States, women have been denied many of the rights granted to white male citizens. When the Constitution was ratified, women could not legally own land or property, and married women had no legal claim to their spouse’s money or children. They were generally expected to stay in the home and out of politics.
The women’s suffrage movement emerged to combat the anti-democratic gender norms that governed women’s lives, specifically the denial of voting rights. Advocates were spurred on by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment after the Civil War, which granted all male citizens the right to vote regardless of skin color but made no mention of women. Social changes such as the rise of the temperance movement and the expanded responsibilities of women during the Civil War and World War I continued to push women in the direction of political participation, although they were still unable to make their voices heard at the ballot box.
A women’s suffrage amendment was first introduced in the Senate in 1878, but it failed to garner the votes necessary to pass. A more limited amendment was considered in the House of Representatives ten years later that suffered the same fate. The suffragettes redoubled their efforts in 1890, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association and lobbying state legislatures to expand voting rights. When this proved unsuccessful, they again turned their attention to a national amendment. After many failed votes and significant pressure from the Woodrow Wilson presidency in support of the suffragettes, the suffrage bill was at last passed in June 1919 and ratified over a year later by the necessary 36 states, making it the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
“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.”
What Does It Mean?
Simply put, the Nineteenth Amendment allowed women to vote in elections at every level. Textually, the Amendment is similar to the Fifteenth Amendment, which states that citizens cannot be denied the right to vote based on their race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Both Amendments expanded suffrage and essentially doubled the eligible electorate of the time.
Major Court Cases
In 1922, a group of male citizens sought to challenge the authority of the Nineteenth Amendment by bringing suit against two women voters in the state of Maryland, in a Supreme Court case known as Leser v. Garnett. The plaintiffs argued that because the Maryland constitution denied women the right to vote and the state legislature had refused to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment enforcing its provisions threatened the state’s autonomy. The Court ruled in a unanimous decision that the Nineteenth Amendment was, in fact, constitutionally valid and thus applied to every state regardless of any objections, cementing women’s right to vote as established law.
Unfortunately, the suffrage movement has a complicated history with the abolition and civil rights movements. Several prominent suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment on the grounds that they deserved the vote as much or more than Black men. Further, the suffrage movement itself was made up of mostly wealthy white women, and no women of color were invited to the Seneca Falls Convention. While advocates like Sojourner Truth were able to fight for both abolition and women’s suffrage, the plight of African American women was too often overlooked in the battle for the ballot.
Even after the Amendment’s passage, women of color are much more likely to face discrimination at the polls. African American and Hispanic voters are disproportionately likely to be impacted by policies that suppress votes, such as voter registration restrictions, voter purging, and racial and partisan gerrymandering of legislative districts. Women in general, especially those who are low-income, minority, or married, are more likely to be impacted by laws requiring government-issued voter identification to be shown at the polls, due to factors such as a lack of access to drivers’ licenses or non-operator IDs and the name changes often associated with marriage and divorce. Finally, the right to vote itself has not solved all of the social problems that women face or the expectations that continue to influence their lives at every level, such as the gender wage gap, workplace discrimination, and the disproportionate housework and child care burden.
While the Nineteenth Amendment was a major political victory that re-shaped the U.S. electorate forever and allowed women to make their voices heard in government, there is still progress to be made before full equality of the sexes can be achieved. Recognizing the need to combat other forms of discrimination, the National Woman’s Party drafted the Equal Rights Amendment under the leadership of women’s rights activist Alice Paul. If passed, the ERA would make discrimination based on sex illegal, a provision many Americans incorrectly assume is already included in the Constitution. Despite being approved by Congress in the early 1970s, the ERA failed to be approved by the necessary 38 states by the ratification deadline. The ERA could be an important next step in the continued fight for gender equality in America. Right now, the right to vote is still the only right explicitly given to women in the Constitution.