Rightfully Hers: Woman Suffrage Before the 19th Amendment

Today’s post comes from Vincent Bartholomew in the National Archives History Office.

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the National Archives exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote highlights activists’ relentless struggle to secure voting rights for all American women. While most Americans consider voting fundamental to the enjoyment of full citizenship, the majority of women did not secure that right until the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

However, certain states, such as Wyoming, New Jersey, and Utah, granted women the right to vote decades before the 19th Amendment was ratified. In some instances, women were allowed to vote in certain elections; for example, in 1838 widows in Kentucky who owned property could vote for school trustees. In other cases, women enjoyed full voting rights before the 19th Amendment. These cases pioneered the woman suffrage movement and were a necessary precedent for the passage of the 19th Amendment.

During the 1840s–1850s, Americans came in droves to western territories, specifically Wyoming, in search of gold. As the gold rush in Wyoming slowed down, settlers stopped coming, and the territory needed a new way to attract more.

Telegram from Wyoming Governor F. E. Warren to Mary E. Holmes, President of the Illinois Equal Suffrage Association, 11/8/1889. (National Archives Identifier 119652193)

At this time, men outnumbered women in the Wyoming Territory six to one. Lawmakers sought to address the uneven population of men and women through woman suffrage. Their hope was that having the right to vote would bring women to Wyoming, and they would stay and vote for the party that gave them that right: the Democrats.

The Wyoming legislature passed a bill granting women the right to vote, and on December 10, 1869, Governor John Campbell signed the bill into law. When the Wyoming Territory became a state on July 10, 1890, Wyoming became the only U.S. state that allowed women to vote. In fact, Wyoming insisted it would not accept statehood without keeping woman suffrage.

Tabular Statement of Limited Suffrage for women, 1897. This table records instances where women were allowed to participate in elections or voting. It lists the date that voting was enabled, the state, method of obtaining the vote, which women were allowed to vote, the qualifications necessary to vote, and the extent of privilege. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives Identifier 119222084)

Although the Wyoming was a pioneer in woman suffrage, other states, such as New Jersey, previously allowed women to vote. After the Revolutionary War, the New Jersey Constitution read: “All inhabitants of this Colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds proclamation money, clear estate in the same, and have resided within the county in which they claim a vote for twelve months immediately preceding the election, shall be entitled to vote for Representatives in Council and Assembly; and also for all other public officers, that shall be elected by the people of the county at large.”

Memorial of Utah women against legislation that would disenfranchise them, 3/4/1878. (National Archives Identifier 119222079)

Even though the New Jersey Constitution granted both men and women the right to vote married women could not vote or own property due to coverture. Coverture was a legal fiction that subsumed a woman’s legal rights and obligations under her husband.

In 1797, the election laws of New Jersey referred to voters as “he or she” throughout the whole state. Many unmarried women voted in New Jersey from 1776 to the early 1800s.

However, the clause “he or she” was rescinded in 1807 and changed to “free, white, male citizens.” The change in the language of  voting laws restricted women from voting as well as African Americans and noncitizens.

New Jersey was not alone in allowing women the right to vote only to later revoke it. While western territories allowed women to vote to gain population, the Utah Territory, which was controlled by the Church of Latter Day Saints, allowed woman suffrage because they also wanted to retain their right of polygamy.

Polygamy is the practice of having more than one wife at the same time, which was endorsed by the Church of Latter Day Saints before 1890. In an effort to retain this practice, the legislature of the Utah territory passed a bill enfranchising women, which was signed into law on February 12, 1870.

However, in 1887, the U.S. Congress—which controlled territories—disenfranchised women in Utah with the Edmunds-Tucker Act. This was seen as a way to weaken the Church of Latter Day Saints and the practice of polygamy. In 1890 the Church of Latter Day Saints ended its endorsement of polygamy and in 1895 adopted a Constitution with woman suffrage. The next year, Utah was admitted into the Union allowing woman suffrage.

While Wyoming, New Jersey, and Utah all allowed women the right to vote at some point in time—albeit with varying levels of restrictions—the greatest victory for the woman suffrage movement was the 19th Amendment. This triumph was achieved on August 18, 1920, when Tennessee ratified the 19th Amendment as the 36th and final state necessary for the amendment to pass.

Want to learn more about woman suffrage? Visit the National Archives, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment with the exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote. The exhibit runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, through January 3, 2021.

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