In A Nutshell
We’ve all heard about the women’s suffrage movement and how women were finally given the right to vote with the approval of the 19th amendment. But in truth, many states had already granted women the right to vote—just not all states. Women in Wyoming had been voting since 1890, with Colorado following close behind in 1893. The 19th amendment, approved in 1919, forced all states to follow what many were already doing.
The Whole Bushel
Passing the 19th Amendment was a long and tedious journey. The process started in 1878 with the introduction of the amendment to Congress, but it wasn’t until May 21, 1919 that it was finally passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Tennessee ratified the amendment on August 18, 1920, and that’s when it became official.
Most of our history lessons leave it at that: With the 19th Amendment, all women were given the right to vote.
While that’s true, that also gives the impression that no women in the United States were allowed voting privileges before that—and that’s very, very far from the truth.
Fifteen states had already granted women the right to vote, starting with Wyoming in 1890 and Colorado in 1893. South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Michigan also extended them voting rights a year before Congress voted in favor of it.
Some areas of the countries gave women the right to vote before they had even become states. The territories of Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Montana, and Alaska weren’t states yet when they opened up their voting polls to women.
And some states didn’t give women full voting privileges, but did allow them to vote in presidential elections. Illinois was letting women vote for the president in 1913, and was closely followed by Nebraska, Ohio, and Indiana.
In fact, only 21 states were still keeping women completely from the polls by the time the 19th Amendment was passed, and many of these were the original 13 colonies.
There was actually nothing in the Constitution or federal law that specified voting privileges could be denied to anyone on the basis of their gender. It also didn’t specify that voting rights were equal, though, and that’s the issue addressed by the 19th Amendment.
Not surprisingly, the western states tended to be much more progressive when it came to women’s rights. By the time the 19th Amendment forced many southern and eastern states to allow women the right to vote, Montana had already elected a woman to one of their seats in the House of Representatives.
Interestingly, in most states, women were far from voiceless when it came to passing legislation and organizing social reforms. The Progressive Movement was a period in American history during which many political leaders looked toward their female counterparts for guidance in the country’s social reforms. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most ardent supporters of the movement, but it was also pre-19th-Amendment that Jane Addams changed the face of social work forever, that journalist Ida B. Wells exposed the real statistics behind widespread lynchings in the south, and journalist Ida Tarbell was fundamental in exposing corruption in big business and starting the movement toward anti-monopoly legislation.
Being a woman was a double-edged sword. Those in favor of women having a vote and a voice deemed them the holders of the highest morals, and the best for steering the country in a direction that would benefit all. On the other side of the coin were those that disagreed with movements whose supporters were mostly women—namely, the temperance movement—and attempted to paint a picture of irresponsible women whose voice was best heard in the home.
The result was battles fought on the state level alongside those fought on a national level, and varying degrees of success across the country.
Show Me The Proof
National Archives & Records Administration: The 19th Amendment
National Constitution Center: A Constitutional Timeline
US Senate: Women’s Voting Rights
Life Before Women’s Suffrage
Regents Prep US History: Progressive Era Reform