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.
The Nineteenth Amendment
The Nineteenth Amendment prohibits the federal government or state governments from denying individuals the right to vote on the basis of sex. It also grants Congress the power to impose this rule through legislation.
The Constitution introduced in 1787 was a gender-neutral document: It actually did not prohibit women from voting. The Framers gave individual states the power to determine who could participate in elections. All states granted men suffrage. In 1797, though, New Jersey made history by recognizing the right of women to vote. Never before in all of recorded history had women exercised the right to vote.
Because the Constitution did not prohibit women from voting, no constitutional amendment was technically necessary for women to exercise suffrage. This is evident in the variety of strategies that the women’s suffrage movement used to secure the right to vote.
The first strategy involved the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 2 of that amendment prohibited denying “male inhabitants” the right to vote, suggesting that the Constitution granted only men the right to vote. Proponents of women’s suffrage argued that the Citizenship Clause and the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prevented states from denying women the right to vote in federal elections. In Minor v. Happersett (1874), however, the Supreme Court dismissed this argument.
The second strategy focused on convincing individual states to remove voting qualifications related to sex. These efforts were eventually quite successful. Wyoming entered the Union in 1890 with women’s suffrage, becoming the first state since New Jersey to allow women to participate in elections on an equal basis with men. By the time the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, 30 states already granted voting rights to women for members of the House, members of the Senate, or the President.
The third and final strategy involved amending the Constitution to prevent states from imposing sex-based voting qualifications. The first of such amendments was proposed in 1869. In 1897, a California Senator proposed what would become the Nineteenth Amendment. The Amendment was ratified in 1920 with essentially the same wording as the Fifteenth Amendment.
There has been little litigation over the Nineteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court addressed the amendment directly in Breedlove v. Suttles (1937), a case in which Georgia law exempted women from a tax but required men to pay it upon registering to vote. The Court ruled that the amendment protected the right of both men and women to vote but did not limit a state’s authority to tax voters.
Julia Shaw is Research Associate and Program Manager in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.
May 18, 2012