Justice  /  Comment

Women's Suffrage @100

We date the expansion of voting rights to women in 1920, but the real story is a lot more complex.
Library of Congress

The woman suffrage amendment passed in 1920, the culmination of what Juliet Mitchell called “the longest revolution, ” because it took 80 years of activism for American women to win the right to vote. What could better illustrate the depth of resistance to sex equality? But for two reasons, 1920 was not the decisive year. First, the 19th amendment empowered only white women, because the vast majority of African Americans—and a major proportion of Mexican Americans—of both sexes remained disenfranchised. Second, several states already allowed women to vote in state and local elections. New York did so a century ago, in 1917, and not with ease. So we have to understand the struggle for women’s rights through a longer, more varied feminist history.

The road to the vote was complex. First, despite references to the women’s-rights movement as a suffrage campaign, in fact the movement’s early demands did not include the vote. Until the 1880s or 1890s, most feminists—and there is controversy about whether they could be called feminists—thought that asking for suffrage was too radical, too provocative. Woman suffrage would mean invading male control of public space and public policy, and most 19th-century women’s-rights advocates were not challenging the gender system that assigned separate spheres to men and women. Instead they were asking for rights within the conventional women’s sphere: the right to education, because educated mothers would produce better male citizens; the right to retain her own property after marriage (to help women protect themselves from abusive and gold-digging husbands; and the right to child custody, easily the reform most valuable to women, few of whom were willing to leave an abusive man if it meant losing one’s children. Only in 1878 was the first bill calling for a woman suffrage amendment introduced.

Second, the 19th constitutional amendment, ratified in 1920, did not enfranchise women for the first time. Feminists had won limited voting rights in numerous states and localities for several decades, by using arguments that avoided a direct challenge to male political power. Women sometimes gained the right to vote for county and state school boards, judges, clerks of the courts, for example. Male voters could be more generous when women’s votes could help particular causes, as when Utah granted full suffrage to women in 1869 in an attempt to increase the Mormon vote.