A short history of women's suffrage in the United States

Women have their own unique struggle for liberty and freedom in the United States. The right to vote is indispensable to participate in a democracy and that right was legalized for women permanently when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified Aug. 18, 1920. That was less than a hundred years ago, but women’s fight for the right to vote began decades earlier. 

In 1776, before the United States gained independence from Great Britain, Abigail Adams, the independent-minded wife of John Adams, wrote to him in a letter, “I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion.” 

In the mid-1800s, as industrialization and immigration led to cities filled with poverty, disease and other social ills, women took the lead in improving their society. According to Michelle Navarro, Ph.D. candidate and history professor at Richland, “That came out of the temperance movement. We, as women, started fighting to stop alcoholism in this country; it was so rampant.” 

The women’s suffrage movement was officially born at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. in 1848.  Reformers, teachers and activists came together to organize a national, grassroots party determined to lobby for legislation that would franchise American women. Leaders of the movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were bright, educated and dignified women who felt that their country’s problems would not be solved until everyone, including women, had a voice on how to solve the issues of the day, according to the National Women’s History Museum website. During the Progressive Era, thousands of women campaigned across the country protesting, giving speeches and educating the public about the necessity of women’s suffrage. The book “The Woman’s Bible” by Stanton went so far as to challenge religion if it supported patriarchy. 

After decades of lobbying, including a period during the WWI where women supported the war effort in their roles as nurses and munition factory workers, the 19th Amendment was ratified state-by-state marking a new chapter in American society. Women now had a better opportunity to pursue their own careers in the fields of science, education, and government in years to come. 

Prominent women like first lady Eleanor Roosevelt would redefine women’s roles by being outspoken on gender issues when their husband’s political influence was limited. Frances Perkins would be the first woman in a presidential cabinet in 1933. As Labor Secretary, she helped pass major legislation benefitting working people, including Social Security, minimum wage and overtime laws. Since then, women have become an integral part of the nation’s workforce and education system, despite facing lower wages in many of the same professions as men.  

Compared to women in developing countries, American women have come a long away in gaining equal treatment since obtaining the right vote. “There are women in other countries who are not allowed to drive a car, they’re not allowed to leave the house, they’re not allowed to work, not allowed to divorce, don’t have the rights to take their children if they separate,” Navarro said. “I like to think of American women as setting the tone and setting the standard for other countries to look at. They did it so we can do it.”

– Aly Rodrigues contributed to this story