Historian Emily Skidmore says the ongoing fight for women’s equality is as old as our country.
When the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920, it gave women throughout the nation the right to vote, achieving a goal as old as the nation itself. While the amendment marked a step forward in women's equality, it did not benefit all women equally, and work toward women's equality endures even a century later.
This is part one of a three-part series in which Texas Tech University faculty member
Emily Skidmore shares the history and impact of the 19th amendment.
Thanks to the widespread success this summer of "Hamilton" on Disney+, many people who may not previously have been familiar with the realities of women's inequality in early American history got a glimpse of them in the words of Angelica Schuyler:
"'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,' and when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I'm 'a compel him to include women in the sequel."
It's a humorous line in the musical but an important note about the founding of America: The Declaration of Independence didn't apply to women. So, for as long as this nation has existed, women have fought for rights equal to men.
"Historians can argue when the women's suffrage movement, or the women's rights movement, more broadly, begins in earnest," said Texas Tech University's Emily Skidmore, an associate professor of U.S. history specializing in gender and sexuality. "But, certainly, there were women as far back as the 1700s who were arguing for women to be included in politics."
On March 31, 1776, future first lady Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, John, who was in Philadelphia as a member of the Continental Congress. Specifically, she asked that in forming the new government, he and his colleagues would "remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors."
"It's an incredible document," Skidmore said. "I use it in my classes a lot, and my students are always surprised that we have this woman in the 1770s who is politically aware – aware of what's happening, aware of the moment – and provides a very eloquent explanation of why and how women should be involved in politics.
"And then, John Adams responds. He opens his letter and he says, 'As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh.' So, that gives you a sense of the history of how long women have been fighting for inclusion into politics and also this strong resistance to that inclusion."
The push for women's suffrage formed into a cohesive movement in the middle of the 19th century. Many of its earliest proponents became activists through the abolitionist movement.
"They'd been involved in fighting for the end of slavery, and many of them encountered sexism within those abolition organizations," Skidmore explained. "They had been working hard on this movement, and they felt frustrated that they weren't regarded as equals to their male counterparts in the movement.
"So, many of these politically active women began to find each other, and they began to have awareness that they were having a shared experience of being underappreciated, both within the abolitionist movement and in society as a whole. They shared the experience of being second-class citizens."
In July 1848, pioneers of the women's rights movement hosted a two-day convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Its organizers advertised it as a meeting to discuss the social, civil and religious condition and rights of women. About 300 people, many in family groups and not all female, attended the Seneca Falls Convention.
"What came out of that event was a document, interestingly, modeled on the Declaration of Independence," Skidmore said. "Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the document, known as the Declaration of Sentiments, and it begins based on the preamble of the Declaration of Independence. It says when there's a government that's acting unjustly, it's the responsibility of people to rise up and correct that."
Borrowing directly from the Declaration of Independence, it read, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal." In the same way the Declaration of Independence listed the ways in which King George III oppressed the American colonists, the Declaration of Sentiments listed the ways the U.S. oppressed women: in politics, religion, education, employment and more.
"It's a long list of all the ways in which women hadn't yet achieved equality," Skidmore said. "So the fact that it was based on the Declaration of Independence really highlights the inequity we have as a nation that's purportedly founded on the ideals of equality and, yet, in all of these ways in this enumerated list, women have not yet been able to fully participate in the experiment of democracy.
"At the end of the document, the women say, we know we're going to be ridiculed, we know the press is going to roundly criticize us, and yet, we know that what we're doing is just, because what we're doing is working to make America a better nation. And, they were right; they were roundly ridiculed, and the press coverage of the time was incredibly negative. But they kept fighting."
In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves throughout the Union, but the Confederacy did not recognize it. At the end of the war, the Confederate states rejoined the Union and, with the ratification of the 13th amendment in December 1865, all slaves were freed. As part of their new freedom, Black men gained the right to vote.
"There's a moment of turmoil after the Civil War," Skidmore said. "Again, many of the women had been fighting to end slavery as well. During Reconstruction, as our nation was trying to figure out how to move on and how new rights were going to be distributed, there was a huge debate about the right to vote.
"There was a split within the movement, and some of the founding mothers, if you will, like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were furious that African American men were given the right to vote at the end of the Civil War and not white women. So some of these women said pretty racist things about how they – white, upper-class, educated women – were more qualified to have the right to vote than these newly freed people."
Another branch of the movement, however, believed that any expansion of suffrage was progress and should be encouraged.
"And, of course, there were Black women in the movement, too, who felt profoundly disappointed that many of the white leaders would take this racist stance, arguing against Black men getting the right to vote," Skidmore said.
Some historians argue the splits caused the movement to lose momentum.
"You can look at the timeline," Skidmore reasoned. "The movement begins in 1848, and it's not until 1920 that women are given the right to vote – that's a long time. And part of it is because there's intense desire among male politicians to prevent women from getting the right to vote, but it's also because there were these cracks and fissures within the movement."
A second, simultaneous split within the movement came because of differing strategies. Since each individual state was capable of legalizing women's suffrage, some people argued that progress could come faster working state by state, convincing each in turn to revise its constitution and give women the right to vote. Others believed that would take too long and urged that a constitutional amendment – which would legalize women's suffrage nationwide – was the best option.
Because they couldn't agree, the groups worked separately, but at the same time, toward the same end. And both made progress.
Many Western states – some even before becoming states – were the earliest adopters of women's suffrage. Wyoming allowed women to vote beginning in 1869, and Utah followed in 1870.
On the national front, California Sen. Aaron A. Sargent introduced a federal amendment for women's suffrage in 1878. Many women, Stanton among them, testified in its favor, and then it went into a committee for consideration. Nearly a decade later, it was finally considered by the full Senate in 1887 and rejected.
By the second decade of the 20th century, however, change was coming more quickly, thanks primarily to a new generation of activists.
"These women were willing to be more aggressive than the previous generation," Skidmore said. "Suddenly, women are doing things like standing outside the White House with big signs with slogans like, 'Mr. President How Long Must Women Wait for Liberty?' This really called attention to the cause; women were literally taking soapboxes and standing on the corner to argue the cause for women's suffrage. Again, it's a very different brand of activism than in the 1840s, so it became a much more in-your-face movement in the 1910s.
"That was very deliberate, because these activists were realizing that the only way people were going to begin to support suffrage is if it was constantly part of the daily conversation."
Sargent's amendment was again considered by the Senate in 1914, and again rejected.
But also pivotal during that decade was World War I. When it began in 1914, eight states had given women the right to vote, but support for a federal amendment was still lacking. As women joined the labor force to replace men serving in the military, taking visible positions as nurses, relief workers and ambulance drivers to support the war effort, the suffrage movement's leaders argued that women's sacrifices earned them the right to vote. They also highlighted the contradiction of fighting for democracy abroad and restricting it at home.
By 1918, 15 states had extended voting to women and the Sargent amendment was put forth for consideration yet again. It passed the U.S. House of Representatives by one vote but, even with the full, vocal support of President Woodrow Wilson, who made an unprecedented appeal on the Senate floor, the proposal fell two votes short.
From January 1918 to June 1919, the House and Senate voted on the federal amendment five times, with Southern politicians repeatedly opposing the measure. Wilson called a special session of Congress in May 1919. The amendment again passed the House and went to the Senate. On June 4, 1919, its Senate opponents abandoned a filibuster and the measure finally passed.
It then needed to be ratified by 36 states in order to become a constitutional amendment. By the end of 1919, 22 states had ratified it. After intense lobbying, the amendment had been ratified by 35 states in June 1920.
The battle for ratification came to Tennessee. On Aug. 13, 1920, its state senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of ratifying the amendment and passed the measure to the state House of Representatives. There, the House Speaker twice attempted, and twice failed, to table the resolution, and each time, 24-year-old Rep. Harry Burn, voted in the speaker's favor. Just before the vote was held a third time, Burn received a note from his mother, urging him to vote for ratification. Saying he believed his constituents opposed women's suffrage, but he considered it a "moral right," Burn changed his vote.
On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee approved the 19th Amendment by a vote of 50-49.
"Becoming a constitutional amendment meant that every state had to change their laws to allow women the right to vote," Skidmore said.
But more challenges laid ahead.