The Thorny Road to the 19th Amendment

Historian Ellen Carol DuBois chronicles the twists and turns of the 75-year-path to securing the vote for women in her new book

The program for the National American Woman Suffrage Association procession in the capital city. This march occurred before the rift between the more moderate NAWSA and the less conciliatory National Woman's Party. (VCG Wilson / Corbis via Getty Images)
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When the 19th Amendment became law in August 1920, it constituted the largest simultaneous enfranchisement in American history—women nationwide had finally obtained, at least on paper, the right to vote. But it’s the struggle for suffrage, which stretched more than 75 years prior, and not just the movement’s eventual victory that UCLA historian Ellen Carol DuBois recounts in her new book, aptly titled Suffrage: Women’s Long Battle for the Vote.

Suffrage history is thistly and complicated. The movement got its start in abolitionist circles during the mid-19th century when most married women lacked basic property rights. Even among the progressive-minded women and men gathered at Seneca Falls in 1848, the notion that “it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise” proved radical. “One of my intentions,” DuBois told Smithsonian, “is to integrate the history of the women’s suffrage movement into American history…At every stage, the larger political atmosphere, the reform energies of the 1840s and ’50s, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the period of Jim Crow, the Progressive Era and then World War I, each of those periods creates the environment in which suffragists have to work.” To that end, DuBois traces the ways in which Reconstruction fueled calls for “universal suffrage” as well as a racial schism among suffragists. We learn how the women’s rights advocates became (sometimes uneasy) allies with different political parties, Temperance advocates and the labor movement and how outside political turmoil, like World War I, complicated their quest for the vote. Centuries before social media and the internet, reformers turned to newspapers, speaking tours, and eventually advocacy that ranged from signature-gathering to hunger strikes to convince voters and legislators alike how imperative it was that women gain the franchise.

DuBois’ richly detailed account also doesn’t shy from examining the bitter divides that fissured the suffrage movement over methods, race and class as it struggled to piece together a coalition that would vote to let women vote too. In the 1870s, after a schism between prominent suffrage leaders over supporting the 15th Amendment, the movement split into several camps, one with more moderate tactics and Republican Party allegiance than the other; in the 1910s, a similar split emerged between the more militant NWP and conciliatory NAWSA. And despite the contributions of women of color like Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell to their cause, NAWSA adopted an “explicitly racist policy” to appeal to Southern states around the turn of the 20th century, DuBois writes.

Intermixed in all this political history are the miniature profiles of the remarkable, determined women (and choice male allies) who propelled the suffragist movement. Susan B. Anthony ranks among the best known, but DuBois also adds the lesser-known facets like that Anthony was formally tried and found guilty of casting a ballot “without having the lawful right” to do so in New York? DuBois also highlights the stories of suffragists with less name recognition, like the firebrand and Equal Rights party presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union leader Frances Willard and millionaire benefactress Alva Belmont. DuBois spoke by phone with Smithsonian about her book:

This book covers a long history, and I'm curious about the evolution of the movement. What are some of the twists and turns the fight for suffrage took that were not part of the original vision?

First, what really makes the suffrage movement the foremost demand of the women's rights movement are the consequences of the Civil War. The U.S. Constitution has almost nothing to say about who votes until the 15th Amendment, [which enfranchised African American men]. In the early postwar years, the assumption was that, like economic rights, voting rights would have to be won state by state.

Then with the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, which virtually rewrite the U.S. Constitution [to abolish slavery and give formerly enslaved people legal and civil rights], the suffrage movement focuses on getting the right for women to vote acknowledged in the Constitution. When efforts to get women included in the 15th Amendment failed, suffragists actually returned to the state level for the next many decades.

The suffragists go back to the states, almost all of them west of the Mississippi, and convince male voters to amend their state constitution to either remove the word “male” or put the right of women to vote in those constitutions. Here is the crucial thing to acknowledge: When that happened, first in Colorado, then in California and ultimately crossing the Mississippi to New York in 1917, those women who were enfranchised by actions of the state constitution had comprehensive voting rights, including for president. So for instance, the women of Colorado gained the right to vote in 1893; they voted for president five times before the 19th Amendment is passed. By the time that the suffrage movement moves into high gear, in the midst of the first World War and then immediately afterwards, four million American women have the right to vote for president.

The way that the right to vote moves back and forth from the state to the federal level is something that could not have been anticipated. Especially since those first suffragists really thought that in the sort of revolutionary change of emancipation and black male enfranchisement, surely women would also be included. The failure of the 15th Amendment to extend the franchise to women so enraged a wing of the women's suffrage movement that it broke open the alliance between black rights and women's rights groups with serious and negative consequences for the next half century.

The second thing I'd say is that when women's suffrage started, the political parties were quite infant. Indeed, the women's suffrage movement begins before the Republican Party comes into being. I don't think that suffragist reformers really anticipated how powerful the major political parties would be over American politics. One of the things I discovered in my work was how determined the controlling forces in the major parties, first the Republican and then the Democratic Party, were to keep women from gaining the right to vote.

Why was that?

When the Republican Party enfranchised African-American, formerly enslaved men, almost all of whom lived in the South, they anticipated correctly that those men would vote for their party. The enfranchisement of women was so much greater in magnitude, so there was no way to predict how women would vote. Really up almost till the end of the suffrage movement, American women had a reputation, gained or not, for being above partisan concerns and sort of concerned with the character of the candidate or the nature of the policies, which meant that they could not be corralled into supporting a partisan force. So the only parties that really ever supported women's suffrage were these sort of insurgent third parties who had nothing to lose and everything to gain by attaching themselves to a new electorate. The most important of these was what was called the People's, or Populist, Party of the 1890s. Those first victories in the West can be credited to the dramatic rise of the People's Party.

Women wearing costumes reading California, Wyoming, and Montana walk down a NYC street in a suffrage parade
Suffragists wearing the names of some of the Western states that had already granted women the right to vote process down Fifth Avenue during a 1915 march. (Bettmann via Getty Images)

How did the women's suffrage movement move from being very closely tied to abolitionism to largely excluding women of color?

So there were a couple things. First, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the dominating figures in the first half century of the movement, when she’s really enraged not just that women are excluded from the right to vote but women like herself are excluded from the right to vote, she expresses herself in ways that are...she's charged with being racist. I think it's more accurate to say she's an elitist, because she's as dismissive of European immigrants as she is of the formerly enslaved.

Stanton made really, really terrible comments about people a generation removed from slavery—she called them the sons and daughters of “bootblacks” or sometimes she called them “Sambo.” Sometimes that charge of racism flows over to her partner Susan B. Anthony. That's not really fair. Anthony's abolitionism was much deeper and more consistent. When you follow her career, until the day she died, she was always, wherever she went, she would make sure that she went to black churches, black universities, black societies.

Second, by the turn of century we're moving into a whole different generation of leaders, none of whom have any roots in the abolition movement, who come of age during the period in which Reconstruction is portrayed as a terrible disaster for the nation and who are part and parcel of the white supremacist atmosphere of the early 20th century.

In those final eight years, 1912 to 1920, when the suffrage movement breaks through for a variety of reasons, to a real chance to win a constitutional amendment, the U.S. government is controlled by the Democratic Party. The president is a Southern Democrat. Washington, D.C., the home of the federal government, is a southern city. So the political atmosphere is radically hostile, at the national level, to anything that will help to return the African American vote.


In all the research you did for this book, was there anything that surprised you?

I was incredibly impressed by the congressional lobbying. I don't think I appreciated, until I wrote this book, the quiet importance of Frances Willard and the WCTU, which doesn't really fit into our normal story of suffrage radicalism. This sort of conventional women's organization was important in bringing mainstream women, and not just the kind of radicals who had fought for the abolition of slavery, to recognize the importance of votes for women to achieve their goals, not just because these were high principles of equal rights, but because they couldn't get what they wanted done. Whether it was the prohibition on alcohol or the end of child labor, they couldn't do those things without the vote.

One of the lessons of the book is that the notion that women's suffrage was a single-issue movement is just wrong. All of them had other goals. Carrie Chapman Catt was interested in world peace. Alice Paul was interested in equal rights for women beyond the right to vote. Anthony was interested in women's right to earn a living. Stanton was interested in what we would call reproductive rights for women. Each of them had a larger vision of social change in which women's suffrage was fundamental as a tool.

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