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Centennial Anniversary of Women’s Right to Vote

Contributed by Victoria Dinov, Communications Intern

Today, August 18th, 2020, will mark 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women their constitutional right to vote.

The struggle for the female vote was a hard-fought battle. Although small numbers of suffragists had been gathering for years prior, 1848’s Seneca Falls Convention marked the beginning of the organized fight for women’s suffrage in the United States. Seneca Falls was the first women’s rights convention in the country, launching the women’s suffrage movement and setting in motion 72 more years of lobbying, marching, picketing, and protesting for women’s right to cast a ballot. Following the Seneca Falls Convention, two rival women’s suffrage groups formed. The first was the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The other was the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone. There were two main differences between these groups, the first being that AWSA supported the passage of the 15th amendment and viewed it integral to the fight for female suffrage while the NWSA opposed the ratification of this amendment. The second major difference was the approach to attaining female suffrage, with the NWSA taking a more universal approach stemming from broad gender equality while AWSA focused mainly on attaining the female vote. Eventually, despite their differences, the two groups merged and bridged the gap between their approaches, leading to the creation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

Through the efforts of NAWSA leaders, suffragists began to paint a picture around the power of the female vote based on the idea that women could elect people in accordance with their domestic values to create a purer, more moral, and more "maternal" commonwealth. As many Southern and Eastern states continued to resist, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt introduced her “Winning Plan,” which was a peaceful campaign that mobilized state and local suffrage groups across the country to advocate for the 19th Amendment. Disheartened by the lack of provocative action, Alice Paul, a former member of NAWSA, formed the National Woman’s Party. This group aimed to garner dramatic publicity for the cause through a series of more radical, militant tactics, such as hunger strikes, pickets, and protests.

The aggressive campaigning of both these suffragist groups helped extend the vote to women even before the passage of the 19th amendment. Many states such as Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho gave women the right to vote before the turn of the 19th century. Others joined their ranks in the early 20th century. By 1920, women had full voting rights in the Alaska territory and 15 states, with another twelve states providing limited suffrage. Despite these advancements, states and the federal government bitterly resisted. The tipping point was perhaps the Night of Terror, which inspired men and women across the nation to re-evaluate their position on female voting.

On November 10, 1917, in what was known as the “Night of Terror,” 33 members of the NWP who were picketing outside the White House were arrested and jailed. Many of them were brutally manacled in their jail cells, beaten, tortured, force-fed, and worse — all because they were petitioning for their right to vote. After two full weeks of jail time, during which the torture and mistreatment of the women were hidden from the public, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit declared their arrests unconstitutional and allowed them to post bail. Following this fateful night, the Silent Sentinels (as the women of the National Woman’s Party were called) began to employ even more radical tactics such as street speaking, picketing for longer time periods, and sit-ins at the White House. As a result of these tireless efforts, NAWSA and the Silent Sentinels achieved their goal: The 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on August 18, 1920.

Although the 19th Amendment expanded voting rights to more people than any other single measure in American history, not all women took advantage of it at first. Nearly 10 million women turned out to the polls in 1920; this rate was about 36% of all women, compared to the 68% of men that turned out to vote that same year. These results disappointed many suffragists, and establishment politicians soon learned that female voting rarely affected an election’s outcome. Many suffragists had hoped the women’s vote would start changing the course of elections, but that soon became a myth of the past. In response, the suffragist movement redefined its strategy, determined to prove that the 19th Amendment was a major step forward in practice as well as theory. In 1924, the League of Women Voters began a massive campaign called Get Out the Vote, which marked a transformational shift in voter culture and helped establish large female voting blocs across the country.

As more and more women began to vote, the effects of the 19th Amendment became clear as women began to take greater advantage of their voting rights. By 1980, women outvoted men in presidential elections, a trend that has continued ever since. In 2008, the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University found that 65.6% of women reported voting in the presidential election, compared to 61.5% of men. In 2016, 63.3% of women voted compared to 59.3% of men. Since 1998, women have also outvoted men in midterm elections, doing so by a margin ranging from 0.5 to a whopping 4 more percentage points. In the 2018 midterm elections, 55% of women voted while only 51.8% of men did the same. Additionally, more women are registered to vote than men, with 2018 statistics from CAWP reporting 81.3 million women registered compared to 71.7 million men.

After many years of fighting for recognition of their inalienable right to vote, women succeeded. Now, 100 years later, women have utilized their power to foster positive change in our nation and its communities. As we continue to fight for gender equality, we must remember the words of the Declaration of Sentiments from back in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

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