suffrage is the right of women to vote. Today, women in nearly all countries have the same
voting rights as men. But they did not begin to gain such rights until the early 1900's,
and they had to overcome strong opposition to get them. The men and women who supported
the drive for woman suffrage were called suffragists.
In the United States
During colonial times, the right to vote was limited to adult males who owned property.
Many people thought property owners had the strongest interest in good government and so
were best qualified to make decisions. Most women could not vote, though some colonies
gave the vote to widows who owned property.
By the mid-1700's, many colonial leaders were beginning to think that all citizens should
have a voice in government. They expressed this belief in such slogans as "No
Taxation Without Representation" and "Government by the Consent of the
After the United States became an independent nation, the Constitution gave the states the
right to decide who could vote. One by one, the states abolished property requirements
and, by 1830, all white male adults could vote. Only New Jersey gave women the vote, but
in 1807, that state also limited voting rights to men.
Beginnings of the movement. Changing social conditions for women during the early 1800's,
combined with the idea of equality, led to the birth of the woman suffrage movement. For
example, women started to receive more education and to take part in reform movements,
which involved them in politics. As a result, women started to ask why they were not also
allowed to vote.
One of the first public appeals for woman suffrage came in 1848. Two reformers, Lucretia
Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, called a women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.,
where Stanton lived. The men and women at the convention adopted a Declaration of
Sentiments that called for women to have equal rights in education, property, voting, and
other matters. The declaration, which used the Declaration of Independence as a model,
said, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created
Suffrage quickly became the chief goal of the women's rights movement. Leaders of the
movement believed that if women had the vote, they could use it to gain other rights. But
the suffragists faced strong opposition.
Most people who opposed woman suffrage believed that women were less intelligent and less
able to make political decisions than men. Opponents argued that men could represent their
wives better than the wives could represent themselves. Some people feared that women's
participation in politics would lead to the end of family life.
Growth of the movement. The drive for woman suffrage gained strength after the passage of
the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave the vote to black men but not to any
women. In 1869, suffragists formed two national organizations to work for the right to
vote. One was the National Woman Suffrage Association, and the other was the American
Woman Suffrage Association.
The National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Stanton and another suffragist named Susan
B. Anthony, was the more radical of the two organizations. Its chief goal was an amendment
to the Constitution giving women the vote. In 1872, Anthony and a group of women voted in
the presidential election in Rochester, N.Y. She was arrested and fined for voting
illegally. At her trial, which attracted nationwide attention, she made a stirring speech
that ended with the slogan "Resistance to Tyranny Is Obedience to God."
The American Woman Suffrage Association, led by the suffragist Lucy Stone and her husband,
Henry Blackwell, was more conservative. Its main goal was to induce individual states to
give the vote to women. The two organizations united in 1890 to form the National American
Woman Suffrage Association. The Woman's Christian Temperance Union and other organizations
also made woman suffrage a goal.
During the early 1900's, a new generation of leaders brought a fresh spirit to the woman
suffrage movement. Some of them, including Carrie Chapman Catt and Maud Wood Park, were
skilled organizers who received much of their support from middle-class women. These
leaders stressed organizing in every congressional district and lobbying in the nation's
capital. Other leaders, including Lucy Burns, Alice Paul, and Stanton's daughter Harriot
E. Blatch, appealed to young people, radicals, and working-class women. This group of
leaders devoted most of their efforts to marches, picketing, and other active forms of
protest. Paul and her followers even chained themselves to the White House fence. The
suffragists were often arrested and sent to jail, where many of them went on hunger
Action by individual states. In 1869, the Territory of Wyoming gave women the right to
vote. The Utah Territory did so a year later. Wyoming entered the Union in 1890 and became
the first state with woman suffrage. Colorado adopted woman suffrage in 1893, and Idaho in
1896. By 1920, 15 states--most of them in the West--had granted full voting privileges to
women. Twelve other states allowed women to vote in presidential elections, and two states
let them vote in primary elections.
The 19th Amendment. A woman suffrage amendment was first introduced in Congress in 1878.
It failed to pass but was reintroduced in every session of Congress for the next 40 years.
During World War I (1914-1918), the contributions of women to the war effort increased
support for a suffrage amendment. In 1918, the House of Representatives held another vote
on the issue. Spectators packed the galleries, and several congressmen came to vote
despite illness. One congressman was brought in on a stretcher. Representative Frederick
C. Hicks of New York left his wife's deathbed--at her request--to vote for the amendment.
The House approved the amendment, but the Senate defeated it. In 1919, the Senate finally
passed the amendment and sent it to the states for approval.
By late August 1920, the required number of states had ratified what became the 19th
Amendment. The amendment says, "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
In other countries
In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation to grant women full voting rights. In 1902,
Australia gave women the right to vote in national elections. Other countries that enacted
woman suffrage during the early 1900's included Britain, Canada, Finland, Germany, and
Sweden. During the mid-1900's, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, and other nations gave
women the right to vote. By 1990, women had the right to vote in almost every country
where men had the right. Some countries still did not allow many or all of the people to
vote. Only Kuwait extended the vote to men but not to women.
Contributor: Anne Firor Scott, Ph.D., W. K. Boyd Prof. of History Emerita, Duke
Univ.; author, Making the Invisible Woman Visible.
Ford, Linda G. Iron-Jawed Angels. Univ. Pr. of Am., 1991. A study of the National
Frost, Elizabeth, and Cullen-DuPont, Kathryn. Women's Suffrage in America. Facts on File,
Rakow, Lana F., and Kramarae, Cheris, eds. The Revolution in Words: Righting Women,
1868-1871. Routledge, 1990.
Smith, Betsy C. Women Win the Vote. Silver Burdett, 1989.