On this day, June 4th, in 1919 the United States Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment and presented it to the states for ratification. It read, “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.” If ratified by at least 36 of the states, the passed amendment would grant all women citizens the right to vote. However, ratification was far from guaranteed. Though a huge victory for suffragists, the passage was not the end of the fight for suffrage or even the first time a women’s suffrage amendment had been introduced to Congress.
The first attempts at including women’s suffrage in a constitutional amendment occurred during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. After the war’s end in 1865, the abolition of slavery opened a debate about enfranchisement. As the Fourteenth Amendment was being proposed to define the rights of African Americans, suffragists saw an opportunity to push for “universal suffrage” that would promise unrestricted voting rights for all citizens. A group of these suffragists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucy Stone worked with leading abolitionists to create the “Petition for Universal Suffrage.” The petition called for a constitutional amendment that would, “prohibit the several states from disenfranchising any of their citizens on the ground of sex.” Although amendments on women’s suffrage specifically were proposed in the Senate in 1866 and 1868, neither were passed and universal suffrage was not included in any of the Reconstruction amendments.
Debate over the Fifteenth Amendment, a Reconstruction Amendment that outlawed voting discrimination based on race, color, and former condition of servitude, caused a split in the suffrage movement in 1869. Stanton, Anthony, and others who opposed its passage unless it was accompanied by a women's suffrage amendment formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). Suffragists who supported the amendment, including Stone, created the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). From that point on the two groups worked toward suffrage independently of each other and remained hostile until their merger in 1890.
In 1878, the amendment that came to be known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was introduced into the Senate by Senator Aaron Sargent. The amendment would have been the sixteenth and codified the right to vote among all adult citizens irrespective of sex. It was referred to the Committee on Privileges and Elections who heard testimony from several suffragists and reviewed 30,000 petitions supporting the amendment before recommending that further consideration be “indefinitely postponed.” The amendment was tabled until the Senate established a Select Committee on Woman Suffrage in 1882. The committee submitted a report indicating its support for adding a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution and a vote on the matter was eventually held in the Senate on January 25, 1887. While much excitement surrounded the vote, the suffragists’ hopes were again dashed and the Susan B. Anthony Amendment was defeated.
The movement for women’s suffrage continued both in Washington and around the country after the amendment’s defeat. However, there was a significant shift in focus from a national amendment to state level suffrage. In the 1880s and 1890s there were some limited wins for state-by-state suffrage rights, most of which were in western states. In Kentucky, after the founding of the Kentucky Equal Rights Association (KERA) in 1888, there was a significant campaign for suffrage in the state. KERA was able to win women in Lexington, Newport, and Covington the ability to vote in local school board elections and on educational matters in 1894, although these rights would be revoked by the legislature in 1901. KERA President Laura Clay also became active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) during these years, going on to spearhead their efforts to increase membership in the early 1900s.
Despite widespread suffrage action in individual states like Kentucky, there wasn’t another vote on a federal women’s suffrage amendment until 1914. After a “Siege of the Senate,” by suffragists wielding over 75,000 signatures in support of their movement, the petitions were formally submitted to the committee again in July 1913. On March 19, 1914, the Senate voted for a second time on the question of a women’s suffrage amendment. The amendment was again defeated.
In 1917 the first woman elected to Congress, Jeannette Rankin, introduced into the House of Representatives a resolution calling for a women’s suffrage amendment. The House established a Committee on Woman Suffrage to consider the issue. On January 10, 1918, the House passed the amendment by a count of 274 to 136. The suffrage amendment was now to be considered for a third time by the Senate. Without approval by the Senate the House’s vote would be useless, making this consideration all the more important. President Woodrow Wilson, now a supporter of the suffrage cause, addressed the Senate in its chamber on September 30, 1918 encouraging its members to pass the amendment. He referenced the debt owed to women who had contributed to the war effort in his appeal, saying, “we have made partners of the women in this war… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite Wilson’s call, the amendment failed once again, coming two votes short of a two-thirds majority. The Senate voted on the issue a fourth time in February 1919, this time failing to pass the Amendment by only one vote. As you can imagine, suffragists were frustrated. The amendment had been voted on by the Senate two times in two years and they still had not won the right to vote. How many more times would they be denied?
By the spring of 1919 the House’s passage of the amendment had expired. The measure was reintroduced into the House once more and it was approved on May 21, 1919. The matter was passed again to the Senate. 41 years since the first introduction of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, the Senate voted once more on women’s suffrage on June 4, 1919. As the amendment was considered, suffragists were holding their breath. Would it be passed or would they face yet another disappointing setback in their struggle for political equality? Finally, the amendment was approved by a vote of 56-25 and sent to the states for ratification.
After its passage, the amendment was largely celebrated by suffragists around the country. However, not all suffragists supported a national amendment. There was a vocal group of suffragists, especially from the southern states, who vehemently opposed the idea. These suffragists believed a national amendment would erode states’ rights and instead campaigned for each individual state to pass its own laws on the matter. Laura Clay, once president of KERA and an incredibly important figure in the Kentucky suffrage movement, was among the dissenting suffragists. Watch out for my next blog post which will cover Laura Clay’s departure from KERA and rejection of the Nineteenth Amendment.
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