Abigail Adams, an early advocate for women’s rights, advised her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” in a March 1776 letter. At that time, John Adams was in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress, and Abigail expected the congress to prepare a code of laws to accompany a declaration of independence. Abigail warned that the ladies are determined to foment a rebellion and “will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.” John Adams scoffed at her suggestion and advised, “Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our Masculine systems.” Although nothing in the constitution prohibited women from voting, just 15 of the 48 states allowed women to vote as of 1920 and only two were east of the Mississippi. Single women in New Jersey with sufficient property had been allowed to vote since 1776 but lost the right in 1807, when laws were passed explicitly limiting the right to vote to men.
Women’s suffrage was finally achieved in August 1920, 144 years after Abigail Adams’s letter. Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment, which provides that “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.” The amendment was adopted on August 26, 1920, which is now nationally recognized as Women’s Equality Day.
Leaders in the fight for women’s suffrage included Susan B. Anthony, who was arrested for casting her vote in 1872. Women often found their political voice in joining forces with abolitionists during this era. Elizabeth Wilson M’Clintock, a native Philadelphian, invited Frederick Douglass, whom she met through the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, to attend the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. Douglass accepted and strongly urged the attendees to support Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s resolution for the women’s right to vote, an issue that some attendees believed should give way to the immediate issues of women’s education and employment rights. The resolution calling for women’s voting rights was one of 12 resolutions passed at the convention.
Progress on women’s voting rights proceeded slowly from there. In 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns decided to turn up the pressure and organized a suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration as president. Some 100 women were hospitalized with injuries after being attacked by spectators. When World War I started in 1914, women in eight states had won the right to vote, but these victories were overshadowed by the overall lack of support for a federal amendment.
The National Woman’s Party decided to increase pressure on President Wilson to back a federal amendment giving women the right to vote. Women began picketing in front of the White House six days a week in all types of weather. Known as the “Silent Sentinels,” the women increasingly faced arrest and prison sentences as the months passed. With the Washington, D.C. prison overcrowded, some of the suffragettes were sent to Occoquan Workhouse, known for its atrocious living conditions and worm-infested food. Alice Paul, who began a hunger strike, was force fed by the guards. On November 14, 2017, the warden instructed the guards to beat the women. When news leaked out about the beatings and horrible conditions in which the women were being kept, public sentiment in their favor began to grow.
World War I also played a role in bolstering women’s rights as many women filled jobs vacated by men who were fighting in the war. Many new jobs created as a part of the war effort were also filled by women. Women showed that they were more than capable of working and fighting alongside men, and the irony of not being able to vote seemed to strengthen the suffrage movement. Finally, in January 1918, President Wilson announced his support for a federal amendment assuring women the right to vote.
Ratification of the 19th Amendment did not prevent states from imposing barriers to voting that were not based on gender. In Georgia, women were unable to vote in the 1920 elections because not enough time had passed since ratification of the 19th Amendment to meet the state’s requirement that voters register six months in advance. Throughout the South, Black women met the same impediments to voting as Black men due to intimidation and requirements such as poll taxes, literacy, and lengthy residency requirements.
On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to address the racial discrimination in voting caused by state or political subdivision requirements that a voter pass a literacy test, establish that he or she had “good moral character,” or have another registered voter vouch for his or her qualifications. The Voting Rights Act supported the 15th and 19th Amendments as certain localities were found to have continued to disenfranchise Black women and men.
In 2013, the Supreme Court held that critical aspects of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states to obtain advance federal approval of changes in their election laws were unconstitutional because the underlying data had become outdated. Congress is currently considering legislation to update and renew the Voting Rights Act.
Throughout American history, women have been dedicated political actors both on the forefront and on the sidelines. The ratification of the 19th amendment marks a celebrated milestone. It not only reminds us of the many successes of the past, but it should also inspire us to keep moving forward.
Authors Carol Ann Slocum and Sally Veghte are members of the bankruptcy and restructuring department at Klehr Harrison. Additional research and editing contributors include Paige Willan (litigation partner) and Monica Clarke Platt (litigation associate).