On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified, prohibiting U.S. citizens from being denied the right to vote based on sex, and thereby guaranteeing women’s suffrage in the country. It was authored by leading suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and first introduced in Congress in 1878 by California Senator Aaron A. Sargent.
Although the American women’s rights movement began with the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention in New York, it truly began to take off after the U.S. Civil War, when activists advocated for universal suffrage to be included in the Reconstruction amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments).As part of this “New Departure” strategy, groups like the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), led by Stanton and Anthony, pursued legal cases arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment (which granted universal citizenship) and Fifteenth Amendment (which granted the vote irrespective of race) together served to guarantee voting rights to women.
But following three Supreme Court decisions from 1873 to 1875 that rejected this argument, women suffragettes shifted to advocating for a new constitutional amendment altogether. This is partly why the Nineteenth Amendment is identical to the Fifteenth Amendment.
During the three decades between the amendment’s introduction and its ratification, women suffragettes pushed hard to get Congress to recognize it, while at the same time trying to score victories at the state level. Known as “The Doldrums”, this period was marked by repeated rejections of the proposal and few victories .But after a flurry of successes in western states (beginning with California and Washington between 1910 and 1911), the movement came to a head culminating in the amendment’s passage.
It should be noted that the U.S. Constitution did not define the boundaries of suffrage. As the time, the only political body that was directly elected by the people was the House of Representatives, for which voter qualifications were explicitly left to individual states. At that time, all states denied voting rights to women, with the brief exception of New Jersey, which initially had women’s suffrage but revoked it in 1807.