The Women's Suffrage Movement

Getting the right to vote didn't come easy for women. Here's how they got it done.

The mist starts to fade as President Grover Cleveland takes the stage on Liberty Island, New York. It’s October 28, 1886, and he’s dedicating the Statue of Liberty, a gift from France representing freedom and democracy. But suddenly, women’s rights leader Lillie Devereux Blake and 200 other women sail by on a boat. They're holding a sign that reads, “American women have no liberty.”

At that time, women in the United States didn’t have many rights, and it had been that way ever since the first settlers arrived. Women weren’t encouraged to go to college (few colleges for women existed anyway) and instead were expected to marry and care for their children, husbands, and households. Once they did marry, they were entirely dependent on their husbands. Women couldn’t own property, and they had to give any money they made over to their husbands. They also weren’t allowed to vote.

By the mid-1800s, women started to fight back, demanding suffrage, or the right to vote. These women were called suffragists.

The movement begins

In 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organized the first convention regarding women’s rights in the United States. Called the Seneca Falls Convention, the event in Seneca Falls, New York, drew over 300 people, mostly women. They wanted to be treated as individuals, not dependents of men. They wanted more employment and education opportunities. They wanted the option to run for office, speak in front of Congress, and vote.

On the second day, the attendees signed the Declaration of Sentiments and Grievances. Stanton modeled the document after the Declaration of Independence, which mentions only men. She wrote that men and women should be created equal and have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A hundred people signed the declaration, which included 12 resolutions that supported women’s rights. These resolutions, including the right to vote, would be the guiding principles for the women’s suffrage movement.

The Seneca Falls Convention was attended mostly by white women, even though northern states like New York had outlawed enslavement. But in 1851, Black women, such as Sojourner Truth, a former enslaved person who became a women’s and civil rights advocate, attended the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.

When white men tried to take over the meeting, Truth got angry. She stood up and made up a speech on the spot. Called “Ain’t I A Woman,” her speech argued that because she did the same things as men when she was enslaved, she should also have the same rights as men. It was one of the first speeches to address both gender and racial discrimination and is remembered as one of the greatest speeches of the women’s rights era.

Small steps

Many suffragists were also abolitionists, people who wanted to end slavery. President Abraham Lincoln freed enslaved people with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862, and in 1869 the 15th Amendment gave Black men the right to vote. Although happy that slavery had been abolished and that African American men could vote, some suffragists were angry that women were not included in the amendment.

In response, Stanton and fellow suffragist Susan B. Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. The next year, the group of about 90 women sent a letter to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives urging that women be included in the amendment and that they be able to speak in front of Congress to argue their points. Congress refused.

Lucy Stone and her husband, Henry Brown Blackwell, had a different idea about how to gain suffrage for women. They founded the American Woman Suffrage Association to support the 15th Amendment for Black men’s vote, figuring that the amendment wouldn’t pass if women were included. Instead of going to the federal government like Anthony and Stanton did, the group traveled the country asking each state government to change its constitution. The hope was that if enough states allowed women to vote in local elections, the federal government would have to make changes as well.

Even though the suffrage movement was starting to gain support all over the country, Black women faced other challenges. Many white people during this time did not believe the two races should be treated equally, and many men did not think women should be treated equally to them. Therefore, Black women were fighting for both racial and gender equality, and often didn’t have a voice.

But that didn’t stop Black suffragists. For instance, Charlotte “Lottie” Rollin, the daughter of mixed-race parents, led the South Carolina chapter of the American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1869, she spoke in front of the South Carolina House of Representatives about voting rights for everyone, and in 1871, she wrote an article for the suffrage group’s newspaper that read:

“We ask suffrage not as a favor, not as a privilege, but as a right based on the grounds that we are human beings and as such entitled to all human rights.”

Stronger together

In 1890 the two suffrage groups merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. They would work together to win over the states. 

But Black women weren’t always included. The national organization didn’t exclude them, but local groups could choose to segregate, or separate by race, their groups. Often, Black women were left out of conventions and had to march separately in parades.

So they started their own groups. In 1892, Helen Appo Cook founded the National League of Colored Women. In 1893, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin established the Women’s Era Club to address issues affecting the Black community; in 1895, she and her daughter, Florida Ridley, organized the first National Conference of Colored Women. At that gathering, leaders established the National Federation of Afro-American Women.

In 1896, all three organizations for Black women merged into the National Association for Colored Women with the motto “Lifting As We Climb.” Under the leadership of Mary Church Terrell, the group had similar goals as the mostly white suffrage organization. But they also supported voting rights for Black men, who, despite the 15th Amendment, still faced challenges.

Not-so-peaceful protests

The movement for women’s suffrage wasn’t always peaceful. In the early 1900s, women started using methods that they thought would bring more attention to the cause, and they were often punished for expressing their opinions.

For instance, throughout 1917, 218 women from 26 different states were arrested for picketing outside the White House in Washington, D.C. One of them was suffragist Alice Paul, who led a thousand women in the silent protest starting in January that year. She and her fellow protesters were yelled at and struck by people who were against suffrage. Police arrested Paul and others for “obstructing traffic on the sidewalks.” In jail, they were served worm-infested food and slept on dirty beds, and Paul even went on a hunger strike until doctors forced her to eat.

Many other women were treated the same way for fighting for equal rights. But it was worth it to them to keep the movement on people’s minds.

Votes for women

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. Many men went to Europe to fight, and many women volunteered there as nurses. Women also filled jobs in the states that had been held by the men now overseas. Realizing how important women were, President Woodrow Wilson changed his mind about the suffrage movement and started supporting women’s right to vote.

The president proposed the 19th Amendment to Congress in 1918; it would require three-quarters of the states to ratify the amendment. (At the time, the United States had 48 states.) Thanks to years of work by the National American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Association for Colored Women, many states—such as New York, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan—had already adopted women’s suffrage and were early to ratify the amendment. In 1920, Tennessee became the 36th and final state to support the cause. The 19th Amendment was officially ratified, and women in the United States finally had the right to vote.

The movement continues

The work of suffragists in the 1800s and 1900s lives on.

In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of former enslaved people, founded the National Council of Negro Women to advocate for more equal opportunities for Black women in housing, education, employment, and healthcare. The organization still exists today.

In 1972, thanks to the ongoing strong voices from women, Congress passed Title IX, a law that makes it illegal for schools to discriminate based on gender. In 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice; in 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the House. Today, women around the world continue to be inspired by role models of the past as they push for equal pay and equal political representation.