Guest Essayist: Rachel Sheffield


In the 2012 presidential election, 53 percent of the voters were women. Imagine if women, who make up about 51 percent of the American population, couldn’t vote. It wasn’t that long ago when that was a reality.

On June 4, 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which secured women’s right to vote. States ratified the Amendment in August 1920.

Although women were not guaranteed this right until the passage of the 19th Amendment, some states recognized this right for women well before 1920. In fact, New Jersey extended the vote to women  in 1797, which is the first time in recorded history women had been given this right. As noted in the Heritage Foundation’s First Principles series, “It is no accident that this happened in the United States, a country founded on the idea of equality.” (Ten years later, in 1807, the New Jersey Assembly voted to limit voting rights to free white men.)

However, the push for women’s suffrage (i.e. the right to vote) began several decades earlier. In 1848, women’s rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a group of Quaker women held the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, the first convention on women’s rights. Leaders of the convention drafted the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.

Similar in format to the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Sentiments outlined several women’s grievances, including that man had “not ever permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.” This statement on voting rights was highly controversial. Frederick Douglass, who attended the convention, fought for this provision to be included as an amendment to the declaration, and it remained. Douglass called the declaration the “grand movement for attaining the civil, social, political, and religious rights of women.”

The Seneca Falls Convention was followed by several other such conventions, eventually leading to the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1850. By this time, women’s suffrage had gained more prominence. In 1869 two suffrage organizations were formed. The first, the National Woman Suffrage Association, was led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The second, the American Woman Suffrage Association, was headed by Lucy Stone. In 1890, the two associations merged to become the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

“Suffragettes” attempted to push for women’s right to vote by utilizing the court system. Women attempted to vote and then filed suit when they were rejected. In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled against women’s suffrage in Minor v. Happersett, upholding the state of Missouri’s law restricting women from voting.

After the Supreme Court’s 1875 ruling, the suffrage movement rallied behind a constitutional Amendment. In 1878, Republican Senator Aaron A. Sargent introduced what would eventually become the 19th Amendment. More than 40 years would pass before it would be ratified, though. During these four decades, leaders of the suffrage movement attempted a state-by-state strategy to advocate for women’s right to vote.

Between 1878 and the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, a handful of states (some were territories at the time) granted women’s suffrage, including Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, California, Arizona, Alaska, Nevada, and Montana. Other states began allowing women to vote during this time, but limited the elections in which they could vote. In 1917, New York implemented women’s suffrage, a significant turning point. Another major turning point was in 1918 when President Woodrow Wilson declared his support for the women’s vote.

The amendment was brought before the House and Senate for a vote in 1918. It passed the House, but failed in the Senate. The following year, on May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, with the Senate following on June 4. The amendment was then ratified in August 1920, with Tennessee providing the final necessary vote to ratify the amendment.

The United States is founded on the principle that all men are created equal. This principle includes both men and women, even though it took nearly a century and a half for women nationwide to be guaranteed participation in the democratic process.

As The Heritage Foundation’s David Azerrad points out, “Ultimately, the seeds of women’s suffrage were sown in the Declaration of Independence’s dedication to equality.” Americans—both male and female—have the opportunity and the responsibility to uphold these principles by participating in government, including Presidential elections. This is not only done on Election Day, but also by participating as an active citizen in numerous other ways.

Rachel Sheffield focuses on welfare, marriage and family, and education as policy analyst in the DeVos Center for Religion & Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.  @RachelSheffiel2 


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