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Dreams of Civil Rights: Why Americans are still fighting the same fights a hundred years later

On August 19, 1920, the Tennessee legislature ratified the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by the narrow vote of 50 to 49.

A mirror of the Fifteenth Amendment protecting the right of Black men to vote, the new amendment 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.”

Like the momentum for the Fifteenth Amendment, the push for rights for women had taken root during the Civil War, as women backed the United States armies with their money, buying bonds and paying taxes; with their loved ones, sending sons and husbands and fathers to the war front; with their labor, working in factories and fields, and taking over from men in the nursing and teaching professions; and even with their lives, spying and fighting for the Union. In the aftermath of the war, as the divided nation was rebuilt, many of them expected they would have a say in how it was reconstructed.

But to their dismay, the Fourteenth Amendment explicitly tied the right to vote to “males,” inserting that word into the Constitution for the first time.

Boston abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, the author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, was outraged. The laws of the age gave control of her property and her children to her abusive husband, and while far from a rabble-rouser, she wanted the right to adjust those laws so they were fair.

In this moment, it seemed the right the Founders had articulated in the Declaration of Independence — the right to consent to the government under which one lived — was to be denied to the very women who had helped preserve the country, while White male Confederates and now Black men both enjoyed that right.

“The Civil War came to an end, leaving the slave not only emancipated, but endowed with the full dignity of citizenship. The women of the North had greatly helped to open the door which admitted him to freedom and its safeguard, the ballot. Was this door to be shut in their face?” Howe wondered.

The next year, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, and six months later, Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe founded the American Woman Suffrage Association.

The National Woman Suffrage Association wanted a larger reworking of gender roles in American society, drawing from the Seneca Falls Convention that Stanton had organized in 1848.

That convention’s Declaration of Sentiments, patterned explicitly on the Declaration of Independence, asserted that “all men and women are created equal” and that “the history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her,” listing the many ways in which men had “fraudulently deprived [women] of their most sacred rights” and insisting that women receive “immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of these United States.”

While the National Woman Suffrage Association excluded men from its membership, the American Woman Suffrage Association made a point of including men equally, as well as Black woman suffragists, to indicate that they were interested in the universal right to vote, and only in that right, believing the rest of the rights their rivals demanded would come through voting.

The women’s suffrage movement had initial success in the western territories, both because lawmakers there were hoping to attract women for their male-heavy communities and because the same lawmakers were furious at the growing noise about Black voting.

Wyoming Territory granted women the vote in 1869, and lawmakers in Utah Territory followed suit in 1870, expecting that women would vote against polygamy there. When women in fact supported polygamy, Utah lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to take their vote away, and the movement for women’s suffrage in the West slowed dramatically.

Suffragists had hopes of being included in the Fifteenth Amendment, but when they were not, they decided to test their right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment in the 1872 election. According to its statement that anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen, they were certainly citizens and thus should be able to vote. In New York state, Susan B. Anthony voted successfully but was later tried and convicted — in an all-male courtroom in which she did not have the right to testify — for the crime of voting.

In Missouri, a voting registrar named Reese Happersett refused to permit suffragist Virginia Minor to register. Minor sued Happersett, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The justices handed down a unanimous decision in 1875, deciding that women were indeed citizens but that citizenship did not necessarily convey the right to vote.

This decision meant the fat was in the fire for Black Americans in the South, as it paved the way for White Supremacists to keep them from the polls in 1876. But it was also a blow to suffragists, who recast their claims to voting by moving away from the idea that they had a human right to consent to their government, and toward the idea that they would be better and more principled voters than the Black men and immigrants who, under the law anyway, had the right to vote.

For the next two decades, the women’s suffrage movement drew its power from the many women’s organizations put together across the country by women of all races and backgrounds who came together to stop excessive drinking, clean up the sewage in city streets, protect children, stop lynching, and promote civil rights.

Black women like educator Mary Church Terrell and journalist Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, publisher of the Woman’s Era, brought a broad lens to the movement from their work for civil rights, but they could not miss that Black women stood in between the movements for Black rights and women’s rights, a position scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw would identify In the twentieth century as “intersectionality.”

In 1890 the two major suffrage associations merged into the National American Woman Suffrage Association and worked to change voting laws at the state level. Gradually, western states and territories permitted women to vote in certain elections, until by 1920, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Washington, California, Oregon, Arizona, Kansas, Alaska Territory, Montana, and Nevada, recognized women’s right to vote in at least some elections.

Suffragists recognized that action at the federal level would be more effective than a state-by-state strategy. The day before Democratic president Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated in 1913, they organized a suffrage parade in Washington DC, that grabbed media attention. They continued civil disobedience to pressure Wilson into supporting their movement.

Still, it took another war effort, that of World War I, which the U.S. entered in 1917, to light a fire under the lawmakers whose votes would be necessary to get a suffrage amendment through Congress and send it off to the states for ratification. Wilson, finally on board as he faced a difficult midterm election in 1918, backed a constitutional amendment, asking congressmen: “Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”

Congress passed the measure in a special session on June 4, 1919, and Tennessee’s ratification on this day in 1920 made it the law of the land. Twenty-six million American women had the right to vote in the 1920 presidential election.

Crucially, as the Black suffragists had known all too well when they found themselves caught between the drives for Black male voting and women’s suffrage, Jim Crow and Juan Crow laws meant that most Black women and women of color would remain unable to vote for another 45 years.

On August 18 the Department of Justice filed a friend of the court brief in the case of League of Women Voters v. Secretary of State of Florida alleging that “in the face of surging turnout in the 2020 election, the Florida Legislature responded by enacting provisions that impose disparate burdens on Black voters” when it imposed new voting restrictions.

A hundred years later, we are still fighting the same fights.

Еvеrеtt Collеction

Letters from an Аmerican is a daily email newsletter written by Heather Cox Richardson, about the history behind today’s politics

About The Author

Heather Cox Richardson

Dr. Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. Her new book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, is thought-provoking study of the centuries-spanning battle between oligarchy and equality in America.