The history of women’s political rights have been the topic of numerous books, but in most schools, Americans are taught that women didn’t have the right to vote until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. Often we are taught that it took decades for women to get the right to vote. The truth depends on when you consider the suffrage struggle to have begun.
Today, January 10, 1878, the US Senate proposed female suffrage for the first time. If we begin at that date, then it took 42 years for the political processes to work out. Some historians go back to 1848 and the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, calculating then that the struggle lasted 72 years. Whether it’s 42 or 72 years, both seem like a terribly long time for half a population to fight for their rights.
The actual struggle for women’s right to vote lasted much longer than 72 years if we look to the colonial and early national periods. In some colonies women had the right to vote, but those colonies quickly took that right away soon after the Declaration of Independence, so by that measure the struggle for the vote took nearly a century and a half. The struggle was not smooth. Some states denied, granted, denied, and again granted women the right to vote over the course of 143 years. While women weren’t alone in these struggles, biology and sex were often ignored in favor of advancing universal suffrage for men.
Not all men could vote when America became a nation either – not even all white men. In fact, in the first Presidential election, held on January 7, 1789, only white landowning men were allowed to vote. Most of the colonies had restricted the vote to those who could legally own land. In 1856, North Carolina became the last state to remove property restrictions on “white male” suffrage.
Women could and did own land during the colonial period and even after the formation of the United States. And women did indeed vote, as evidenced by the fact that the states of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire took away these former voters’ rights from 1777 to 1884. After the U.S. Constitution’s adoption in 1787, voting decisions were relegated to the state legislatures, which passed laws using the words “man” or “male” to strip those women of their rights. By 1807, all of the states had revoked previously existing rights or simply banned women from voting.
The 14th and 15th Amendments made inroads into the voting rights of other male citizens, but even these were manipulated with literacy tests, poll taxes, misinformation, threats, and physical assault. These tactics to block former slaves and freeborn Blacks from voting had previously been used to block Catholics, Irish, and other men from voting since 1855 in Connecticut and then in Massachusetts in 1857. The Supreme Court outlawed literacy tests in 1915, but the other tactics were (and are) still used to decrease voter turnout among some demographic groups. In fact, poll taxes were not outlawed until the 24th Amendment in 1964, and then only for federal elections. The following year’s Voting Rights Act has never become part of the Constitution and thus shows up in court battles year after year as states continue to try to limit who can vote.
States were not the only government entities to blame. The 1780 Naturalization Law defined citizens as “white,” barring all other immigrants from naturalizing and thereby gaining the right to vote. True, on the surface it seems like the 15th Amendment should have expanded citizenship and voting, but states and the federal government turned to more targeted attacks. In 1876, just six years after the 15th Amendment, indigenous peoples were denied the right to vote in a Supreme Court decision that also denied them citizen status on the federal level. Fear of immigrants drove the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented anyone of Chinese ancestry from naturalizing.
Where was women’s right to vote in all of this? Obviously women who were members of any of the targeted groups were doubly barred from voting. While still a territory, Wyoming gave women the right to vote for the legislature in 1869. When the state joined the U.S., it included that right in its constitution as well. Why Wyoming? Different historians have speculated that the reasons ranged from racial fears of immigrants from Asian countries, the desire to attract more women to the state and thus increase the population, or even a joke that went too far. This started the legal ball rolling slowly throughout the rest of the nation.
With the 19th Amendment in 1920, you may think that all women were given the Constitutional right to vote throughout the U.S. But once more, state and federal laws targeted them with discrimination through the same tactics they had been using throughout the nation’s history. In 1922 and 1923, people of Japanese and Indian descent were denied the right to vote and become citizens. While the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 finally recognized indigenous peoples as citizens, even in the 2018 elections North Dakota’s ID law attempted to suppress voter turnout, and there are ongoing campaigns of misinformation and threats throughout many states against Native Americans. Granting citizenship and thus voting rights in exchange for military service has been a common benefit for non-citizens in various nations for thousands of years. However, when who can serve in the military is restricted by sex or gender, it limits opportunities for immigrant women.
While you may believe that the 2020 elections are the ones you need to be focused on, note that here in Monroe County in the state of Indiana, several local offices will be up for election in 2019. Bloomington offices on the ballot are Mayor, City Clerk, City Council Seats 1-6 and three At-Large seats. Ellettsville will have Clerk/Treasurer, and Wards 1-3 up for election. Stinesville missed a primary deadline, but if they have a town convention, they could still have a general election in 2019.
This year and every year, make those who fought for your right to vote proud and VOTE!