19th Amendment at 100: The 19th Amendment

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, but this landmark event was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for women and their struggle for the right to vote. Join us as we commemorate the centennial year of 2020 with 12 stories from our holdings for you to save, print, or share. August’s featured image is the Joint Resolution Proposing the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

“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.”

Passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment changed the Constitution and the face of the American electorate forever.

Achieving this milestone required a lengthy and difficult struggle; victory took decades of agitation and protest. Beginning in the mid-19th century, several generations of woman suffrage supporters lectured, wrote, marched, lobbied, and practiced civil disobedience to achieve what many Americans considered a radical change of the Constitution. Few early supporters lived to see final victory in 1920.

Between 1878, when the amendment was first introduced in Congress, and August 18, 1920, when it was ratified, champions of voting rights for women worked tirelessly, but strategies for achieving their goal varied. Some pursued a strategy of passing suffrage acts in each state—nine western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912. Others challenged male-only voting laws in the courts. Militant suffragists used tactics such as parades, silent vigils, and hunger strikes. Often supporters met fierce resistance. Opponents heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused them.

By 1916, almost all of the major suffrage organizations were united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.

On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and two weeks later, the Senate followed. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, it passed its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920.

Despite this hard-won success, millions of women remained unable to vote for reasons other than sex. In the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, voting rights were expanded to millions more women. Puerto Rican women, excluded from the 19th Amendment, gained the vote in 1935. Lack of U.S. citizenship limited voting rights for many others—Native Americans did not officially become U.S. citizens until 1924, and Asian immigrants were barred from becoming citizens until 1952. African American voters, especially in the South, faced discriminatory measures meant to keep them from the polls until most of those practices were outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many Latin American and other immigrant or indigenous citizens faced language barriers to voting that would not be addressed until the Voting Rights Act of 1975.

When our Constitution was written, it was silent on women. Excluded from most of the rights and privileges of citizenship, women operated in limited and rigid roles while enslaved women were excluded from all. Yet women have actively participated as citizens—organizing, marching, petitioning—since the founding of our country. Sometimes quietly, and sometimes with a roar, women’s roles and the opening words of the Constitution “We, the People” have been redefined.

This blog post was adapted from exhibit text written by curator Corinne Porter for “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote”, and curator Jennifer Johnson for the National Archives traveling exhibit, “One Half of the People: Advancing Equality for Women” and from OurDocuments.gov, a national cooperative initiative on American history, civics, and service.

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