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Celebrating passage of the 19th Amendment in August 1920

CREDIT: BETTMANN / CORBIS

From the Vote . . . to the White House?

Next year, Americans could put a woman in the Oval Office—a sign of how far women have come since they gained the right to vote 95 years ago with the 19th Amendment

The first time Matilda Young went to jail, she was 19 years old. Her crime? She was among a group of women picketing outside the White House in 1917, demanding that women be granted the right to vote. Unlike today, protesters at the president’s house were unusual back then, and police charged them with blocking the sidewalk.

Quieter tactics had gotten nowhere. So there the women stood, outside President Woodrow Wilson’s home with signs that read: “How long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?”

Young, who was from Washington, D.C., is believed to be the youngest protester arrested in a series of suffrage demonstrations in 1917. She went on to serve additional jail time over the next few years and was accused of taking part in protests where women set fire to copies of President Wilson’s speeches to draw attention to their cause.

“The women of the country will keep the flame of liberty ablaze until complete victory is assured,” Young said.

Young’s efforts, and those of earlier generations of women who had marched and lobbied and gone to jail for the right to vote, culminated with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920. It was a massive victory, yet in many ways it was also just a first step in a larger quest for women’s equality that’s still going on.

“Before the amendment, women were secondary,” says Ruth B. Mandel, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

“If they worked—mainly in urban areas and among immigrant communities— it was in menial jobs or, say, as governesses. But passage of the suffrage amendment—that began to change everything.”

Seneca Falls Convention

The national effort for women’s right to vote really began in 1848, during a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York (see Timeline, below). Women’s roles in the U.S. had long been debated, mostly in private: In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband and future president, John, at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, urging him to “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.”

The convention in Seneca Falls, however, forced the issue out into the open. A “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions”—which borrowed language from the Declaration of Independence—laid out grievances about the treatment of women in education, work, property ownership, churches, and the vote. Leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began emerging. In 1872, Anthony even managed to cast a ballot in the presidential election, which got her arrested in Rochester, New York.

Broad acceptance of women’s suffrage came slowly. Some people feared that giving women the vote would change the country in untold ways. One antisuffrage group issued a pamphlet outlining reasons not to let women vote, including that it would lead to “petticoat rule”—or a government run by women. (A petticoat was a skirt, usually puffy and ruffled, that women wore under their dresses.)

After the turn of the century, the national push took on new momentum. Key groups took up the cause, including women in an expanding workforce, wealthy women, black women, and college women. Before 1900, most women didn’t go to college—there was a widespread belief that education could harm their health—and most of the women who did go trained to be teachers and nurses, according to Catherine Hill, vice president for research at the American Association of University Women.

But World War I, which the U.S. entered in 1917, changed that. Women took over jobs on railroads and in factories that men had to leave behind. Colleges began allowing more women into classes in male-dominated fields, like math. By 1918, President Wilson, who’d taken note of women’s war contributions, came around to the women’s suffrage cause. In a speech before the U.S. Senate, he said he viewed “the extension of suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged.”

The following year, Congress took up the issue of a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. The House of Representatives approved it 304 to 89, and the Senate 56 to 25. The 19th 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 sex.” But ratification by three-fourths of state legislatures was still needed, and that turned out to be the harder battle.

States in the Midwest and the East soon ratified the amendment. And plenty of states in the West that had already given women the vote—including Wyoming, Utah, and California—also signed on. But some Southern states were opposed. By 1920, as the vote approached in Tennessee, 35 states had ratified the measure—one fewer than the 36 required at the time, when there were 48 states.

Tennessee lawmakers were thought to be deadlocked, and many supporters of the amendment deemed the state a lost cause. But then, state representative Harry Burn, a Republican in his 20s who wore a red rose (a sign that he opposed the amendment), got a letter from his mother. “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage!” she wrote, urging her son to “be a good boy.” And like any good son, he listened to his mother.

With Tennessee on board, women sealed a constitutional right to vote on Aug. 18, 1920. That November, millions of women cast their ballots, reaching the goal they’d set more than a half-century earlier.

2016: Clinton & Fiorina

In the decades that followed, women saw their roles expand in all sorts of ways. Female college enrollment grew dramatically, and since 1982, women have made up more than half of undergraduates. Today women account for about half of the U.S. workforce, increasingly taking on high-power jobs in business, law, and medicine. But there’s still a pay gap, with women, on average, earning less than men (though debate remains over the reasons).  

Women have long fought in America’s wars, either openly or in secret. But in 2013, the Pentagon announced that it was lifting its ban on women in combat units, with full integration by 2016. Women have also chipped away at gender barriers in sports: In April, the NFL—an almost exclusively male club—hired Sarah Thomas as its first full-time female referee.

An increasing number of women are elected or appointed to public office, though men still dominate those positions: Of the nation’s 100 U.S. senators, only 20 are women, and of the 435 voting members in the House of Representatives, only 84 are female. On the Supreme Court, three of the nine Justices are women.

Still, early suffrage supporters like Matilda Young might be surprised to know how far their relentless protests, lobbying, and demands have taken women when it comes to voting itself. Since 1980, the proportion of eligible women voting in presidential elections has exceeded that of men. Some 71 million women reported casting votes in 2012, compared with 62 million men.

For advocates of women’s rights, another goal looms now: election of the first female president of the U.S. Among Republicans vying for the nomination in 2016 is Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. And the presumed frontrunner for the Democrats is Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York and former Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. (She lost the Democratic nomination to Obama in 2008.)

At a Women in the World Summit in New York City in April, Clinton talked about the pay gap, difficulties women have in paying for child care, and the lack of paid leave for new mothers. But she also spoke of the significant strides in women’s equality and urged the crowd to work toward even greater progress.

“Let’s learn from the wisdom of every mother and father all over the world who teaches their daughters that there is no limit on how big she can dream and how much she can achieve,” she said. “This truly is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” 

Monica Davey is the Chicago Bureau Chief for The New York Times

Timeline: Women's Rights in the U.S.

    • 1776: Early Voters

      Women are allowed to vote in New Jersey because the state’s constitution uses the term “inhabitants” and doesn’t mention sex. In 1807, that right is rescinded by the legislature.

    • 1848: Seneca Falls

      Elizabeth Cady Stanton is among the organizers of the first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York. It calls for women’s suffrage.

    • 1916: U.S. Congress

      Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman elected to the House. In 1932, Hattie Caraway of Arkansas is the first woman elected to the Senate.

    • 1920: Women Get the Vote

    • 1941-45: ‘Rosie the Riveter’

      Eight million women take jobs vacated by men fighting in World War II— the first time women enter the workforce on such a large scale. Many lose their jobs after the war ends.

    • 1972: E.R.A.

      Congress passes the Equal Rights Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment for women under the law. It expires in 1982 after it fails to win ratification by the necessary 38 states within 10 years.

    • 1981: Supreme Court

      Sandra Day O’Connor of Arizona becomes the first woman on the Supreme Court after her appointment by President Ronald Reagan. Today, three women sit on the High Court.

    • 2007: First Speaker

      Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California is the first woman to serve as Speaker of the House (2007-11). There are currently 104 women in Congress: 84 in the House and 20 in the Senate.

    • 2016: A Female President?

      Carly Fiorina is vying for the Republican presidential nomination, and Hillary Clinton is the presumed front-runner among the Democrats. Will the nation see its first woman president in 2016?

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