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Past and Present

Past and Present: Enacting Women's Suffrage

national museum of american history / Flickr

On August 18, 1920, Tennessee approved the 19th Amendment, providing the final ratification necessary to enact women’s suffrage.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton had introduced the original language to Congress in 1878: “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.”

After losing a divisive battle to incorporate women into the 15th Amendment, which barred racially based voting discrimination, Anthony and Stanton believed it was women’s turn to vote.

Credit Robin Henry / KMUW
The Sewall-Belmont House & Museum in Washington, D.C., was the headquarters of the National Women's Party when the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920.

By 1912, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association’s state-by-state campaign had seen suffrage extended to women in the newer states out west, but had won only a handful of victories in the East and Midwest. And when Alice Paul and Lucy Burns took over the Association’s Congressional Committee to argue for a federal amendment, they did so with little support from the organization’s leaders.

The generational and ideological tension soon broke the group apart, with Paul and Burns founding the National Women’s Party in 1913 to advocate solely for a federal amendment.

From the beginning, the National Women’s Party operated differently. It did not endorse political candidates. Instead, it held all politicians, including the sitting Democratic president Woodrow Wilson, accountable for their records on women’s suffrage.

It also staged events, such as holding a suffrage parade the day before Wilson’s inauguration, and picketing the White House to draw public awareness. However, when the NWP continued to picket the White House during World War I, Wilson had the women arrested for obstructing traffic.

While jailed, Paul and the other women waged hunger strikes, were isolated and were sent to a workhouse. The scandal created by jailing lawful protestors as the United States fought a war to preserve democracy eventually forced President Wilson to put forward the amendment for ratification.

Standing on a foundation of early work, struggles, failures and successes, the National Women’s Party provided the final push toward the recognition of women’s right to vote in 1920.