In this year of far-reaching social change, August marks the hundredth anniversary of an often-overlooked chapter in American history yet an essential part of our quest to form what the Constitution calls “a more perfect union.”
On August 18, 1920, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote in all elections. Eight days later, the US secretary of state officially pronounced the amendment the law of the land.
The story of the struggle for the vote features themes of politics, protest, race, and religion that still resonate today. In fact, historians credit the Second Great Awakening, a revival in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, with inspiring social reform in areas such as women’s rights, abolition, and temperance.
Women’s suffrage was a “too radical” resolution
Women’s legal rights had been “pretty much nonexistent,” said Dr. Beverly Zink-Sawyer, author of From Preachers to Suffragists: Woman’s Rights and Religious Conviction in the Lives of Three Nineteenth-Century American Clergywomen.
“Single women could inherit property, but once a woman married, all that she ‘owned’ (including her children) became the property of her husband. In divorce, she could be left penniless and have her children taken away from her. There were some exceptions to this in native communities—and, of course, the situation was even worse for enslaved women.”
The suffrage movement formally began on July 19, 1848, with the Seneca Falls Convention in central New York. Some three hundred people attended, including Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Many of the early crusaders for women’s rights were also abolitionists, including convention organizers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, one of many Quakers involved in the cause.
Stanton, who lived in Seneca Falls, was the principal author of the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions that summarized the convention. Patterned after the Declaration of Independence, one paragraph began, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.”
Of the twelve resolutions adopted, only one was not unanimous: the one on suffrage. Mott advised against including it, telling Stanton, “Why Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous.” Stanton’s husband, abolitionist Henry Stanton, refused to attend the convention because he considered the resolution too radical. But at the end of the two days, sixty-eight women and thirty-two men signed the declaration.
Yet the general public seems unaware of such historical details.
The confluence of abolitionists and suffragists
“I looked at a few survey history books,” said Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. “It usually is one line. In 1848 women gathered for a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls and then in the 1920s they were granted the vote. And there’s not much in between.”
It’s a fascinating story, with race playing a major role. When Congress would not consider giving women the vote after the Civil War, a split opened up between abolitionists and suffragists that gave Weiss the title of her book.
“The women suffragists . . . [such as Stanton and Susan B. Anthony] are told that in fact Congress is not going to consider giving women the vote,” Weiss told the American Bar Association. “The nation cannot handle two great reforms at once. And William Lloyd Garrison, the abolitionist leader, and Frederick Douglass try to explain this to the women who are very, very angry. And say, ‘The woman’s hour has not come. This is the Negro’s Hour.’”
Douglass explained, “When women, because they are women . . . are dragged from their houses and hanged from lamp-posts . . . then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.”
The Fifteenth Amendment giving Black men the vote proved to be a hollow victory because of racist practices in the South such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Stanton and Anthony eventually reconciled with Douglass, but historians have documented a racist strain in the movement, prioritizing the rights of white women while courting the support of white supremacists.
“Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton believed that white women ought to be given the vote before black men,” Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, told Religion News Service. “It came down to this matter of race, of white women feeling that they had a prerogative and privilege over black people.”
White women often forced Black women to march separately in suffrage parades, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) wouldn’t let Blacks attend its conventions.
Frances Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), bluntly told a London newspaper, “It is not fair that a plantation Negro who can neither read or write should be entrusted with the ballot.”
However, the union broadened its mission under Willard’s leadership to advocate for other social causes, including suffrage.
The Christians who led the way in women’s suffrage
Willard was one of several Methodists, including Black evangelist Sojourner Truth and NAWSA President Anna Howard Shaw, also a minister, who played key roles in the movement. For such women, the fight for the vote was a religious crusade.
“In Him there is neither male nor female, but all are alike one,” Shaw said.
Other Christians, men and women, used the biblical story of Adam and Eve to make the case that women should be subservient to men and not be able to vote.
Stanton wrote in a letter to Anthony, “The Church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns woman.” Anthony worked alongside Christians in the movement but seemed to place the most faith in what she called an “old revolutionary maxim. ‘Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.’”
Anthony was arrested after illegally voting in the presidential election of 1872—for a straight Republican ticket headed by Ulysses S. Grant. When her case went to trial, the judge directed the jury to find her guilty and fined her $100, plus court costs. She refused to pay, and the judge decided not to jail her, fearing an appeal that could go all the way to the US Supreme Court.
An amendment giving women the right to vote, written by Stanton and Anthony, was introduced in Congress in 1878. 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.”
It was reintroduced in every Congress afterward—not a word was changed—until it finally passed both houses in 1919.
The president who sided with women’s suffrage
While the amendment stalled in Congress, progress shifted to the states. Wyoming became the first state to permanently give women the vote in 1890. By 1919, women had full voting rights in fifteen mostly Western states. Other states gave women limited voting rights, such as only voting in certain types of elections.
In order to win the vote, women had to persuade men to support their cause. The key man became President Woodrow Wilson, who initially opposed women’s suffrage.
NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt carefully cultivated a relationship with Wilson, writing him letters and meeting with him. Alice Paul, leader of the militant National Woman’s Party, organized pickets outside the White House, an unprecedented practice at the time.
When World War I began, Catt threw her organization’s support behind the war effort. Paul’s National Woman’s Party continued to picket.
“When Black Lives Matter protesters were recently in Lafayette Park, I couldn’t help but think of the suffragists, led by Alice Paul, who burned President Wilson’s own words—from speeches he gave about democracy—in that same location more than a century ago,” author Tina Cassidy told The New York Times. “They were arrested for it.”
The inhumane conditions they faced in jail, combined with many of them going on hunger strikes, garnered national attention.
In January 1918, Wilson announced his support for the amendment. “Whether Wilson was influenced more by Paul’s castigating or Catt’s cajoling remains a matter of debate,” Weiss wrote in The Woman’s Hour.
More than a year later, the Senate finally passed the amendment, sending it to the forty-eight states for ratification. Three-quarters approval was required.
Tennessee seemed the last, best hope. The amendment easily passed the State Senate, but the vote was tied in the House of Representatives.
Then Harry Burn, just twenty-four years old, reversed himself on the final ballot after receiving a letter from his mother encouraging him to “be a good boy,” and the amendment passed.
A few days later, the seventy-two-year fight officially came to a close.
A model for social change—even 100 years later
In retrospect, democracy worked, although progress was slow. The Nineteenth Amendment didn’t end the fight for women’s rights any more than the Fifteenth Amendment ended the fight for civil rights.
But it did provide a model for social change that still seems relevant today. The suffragists, many of them Christians, used a mix of insider politics and nonviolent protest to win the vote.
Anna Howard Shaw, the Methodist minister, believed that reformers received a call from God. The Bible says, “Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute” (Psalm 82:3).
Such an emphasis on social justice would help us form “a more perfect union.”
More importantly, it would honor God’s mandate to serve “the least of these.”