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Celebrating Women's Right to Vote

by Lea Bishop, Women's Professional Network

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. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

These are the words of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which granted American women the right to vote, a right known as women’s suffrage, and was ratified on August 18, 1920, ending almost a century of protest.

During America’s early history, women were denied some of the basic rights enjoyed by male citizens. For example, married women couldn’t own property and had no legal claim to any money they might earn, and no female had the right to vote. In the early 19th century women began to challenge societal views of women solely as wives and mothers. This new way of thinking was further supported when women entered the workforce at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

In 1848, the movement for women’s rights launched on a national level with the Seneca Falls Convention, organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. They wrote a Declaration of Sentiments which stated that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal."

Years of activism by suffragette advocates followed with parades, rallies, and pickets. By 1878, the suffrage movement had gathered enough influence to lobby the U.S. Congress for a constitutional amendment, but the proposal was defeated in the Senate in 1886.

During the early years of the 20th century several states approved the right of women to vote. In fact, as early as 1869 Wyoming was the first state to grant women suffrage as well as the rights to hold public office, own and inherit property, and the guardianship of minor children.

When Woodrow Wilson became president in 1913, the suffrage movement focused on his resistance to the right of women to vote. Much publicity was generated when a huge parade in support of suffrage resulted in many injuries and arrests. Wilson eventually changed his position, but despite his newfound support, the amendment proposal failed in the Senate by two votes in 1918.

When the proposal was introduced again in 1919, it was approved by both the House and Senate and was sent to the states for ratification. Three-fourths of the 48 states were needed for ratification. By March of 1920, 35 had approved the amendment. For the 19th Amendment to become law, the ratification of only 1 more state was needed. All the Southern States strongly opposed it.

When it came time for Tennessee to vote on the amendment, the Senate approved it, but the state House did not…. twice. A 24 year old state Senator, Harry Burn joined his colleagues both times in voting down the amendment. When a third vote was about to be taken, Harry received a letter from his mother telling him to vote in favor of suffrage. He followed his mother’s advice, and in August 1920 Tennessee ratified the amendment and became the 36th state required for it to become law.

On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was certified by U.S. Secretary of State, and women finally achieved the long-sought right to vote throughout the United States. On November 2 of that same year, more than 8 million women across the U.S. voted in elections for the first time. It took over 60 years for the remaining 12 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. Mississippi was the last to do so, on March 22, 1984.

To read more about the suffrage movement, please go to these reference articles:

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