18 August 1920 marks the day American women were granted the right to vote under the constitution, with the addition of the Nineteenth Amendment. This signified a judicial end to the contradiction and hypocrisy which had tainted the lives of women for so long.
Men had enjoyed universal suffrage for almost a century already when the amendment ultimately decided that women also had a valid opinion on the issues concerning their country. The battle for women’s suffrage and, essentially, equality under the constitution is a long and convoluted one, which arguably remains unresolved today. However, this event in 1920 certainly marks the climax of the women’s suffrage movement hitherto, and has paved the way to modern societal and political equality.
Although female suffrage has been a longstanding battle throughout the whole of history in America, with the passing of local laws in the 18th century determining women unable to own property or vote, the reactionary backlash only truly evolved in the middle of the 19th century. The movement for women’s rights was launched on a national level through a convention located at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. Here, the Declaration of Sentiments was signed by 300 women and men, a document demanding an end to discrimination against women. This organised convention of dissent was the catalyst for other meetings and with the areas of Rochester and Worcester following shortly after it soon became an annual occurrence. As a result, the event has often been described by historians as “the single most important factor” in the origins of the suffragette movement. Despite this monumental event, the following years saw major setbacks, and increased restrictions on women’s social and political mobility. The Fourteenth Amendment in 1864, in stark contrast to the later Nineteenth Amendment, stated that voters and citizens of the US were only recognised as male under law. This fact highlights the sheer power of the women’s rights movement as it functioned outside of the political establishment.
However, around the same time as the Fourteenth Amendment, progress for women was still being made with females entering the “professional” world of work. In 1869, Arabella Mansfield was the first female to be granted the right to study law, and, in 1872, Victoria Claflin Whitehall was the first female presidential candidate. In this same year, the American Woman Suffrage Association decided to focus exclusively on gaining voting rights for women as a constitutional agreement. In 1890, the merging of the National Women Suffrage and the American Woman Suffrage Association to create the National American Women Suffrage Association gave the campaign for suffrage unity and thus the force necessary to wage state-by-state campaigns for votes.
It can be argued that the dominant narrative of the entire women’s rights movement begins and ends in Britain and the United States. In England, organised dissent on women’s right to vote happened later than the US, in around 1866 with the creation of a petition, which was eventually admitted to parliament with around 1,500 signatures. Unlike the United States, the suffragette movement in Britain was characterised by oscillating waves of extreme change, as opposed to a slow consistent progression. The period between 1870 and 1905 is often referred to as “the doldrums” in Britain, due to the lack of mobilisation and enthusiasm of suffragists throughout the period. However, 1905 marks an explosion of civil disobedience and mass militancy within the female population of Britain. The campaigns involved heckling politicians, chaining themselves to Parliament, hunger strikes and the bombing of buildings. The British campaign culminated in limited women’s suffrage in 1918 and universal suffrage in 1928. This degree of militancy was not mirrored in the United States. Though the American movement did incorporate acts of militant violence, hunger strikes and being chained to buildings at certain stages of the campaign, progress in the US was generally of a peaceful nature.
It seems that the battle for equal rights for women has always been a story of instability and turbulence. This story is ongoing, with the glass ceiling still firmly in place as issues such as the pay gap remain systemic within society. That said, the progress made within the last century is monumental in terms of the judicial treatment and recognition of women, especially in America. The catalytic decision by the American government to add the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution was critical to the dramatic change in the status of women during the 20th and 21st centuries.
US Suffrage Steamroller Cartoon, Wikimedia Commons