Explanation of the 19th Amendment
In the early days of the US, states typically limited the right to vote to “freeholders”—defined as persons who owned land worth a certain amount of money. It was thought that property-less individuals had no stake in the community or might be inclined to vote for excessive spending, since they didn’t have to pay property taxes. Still, land was cheap, and the qualification level was usually set low, so a large majority of free, adult males could vote.
It is easy to slip into believing that if white men’s voting rights were limited, voting rights for women and racial minorities must have been utterly unthinkable. But the truth is more complex. Most blacks were slaves, owned by their white masters, and could not vote. Several states, however, allowed otherwise-qualified, free blacks to vote. Most women couldn’t vote. But in a significant number of locations, otherwise-qualified women voted in local elections and town meetings. The 1776 New Jersey constitution provided that “all inhabitants” of legal age who met the property and residency requirements were entitled to vote. It is unclear whether this was originally intended to include women. But a 1790 state election law used the phrase “he or she,” thus clarifying the law. But New Jersey’s early experiment with women’s suffrage didn’t last.
Over the course of the next few decades, property qualifications for men were gradually eliminated, with the notable exception of Rhode Island, which did not eliminate property qualifications for foreign-born citizens until 1888. The country as a whole was on the path toward universal manhood suffrage. In contrast, women’s suffrage was rarely taken seriously. An exception was Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, at the historic Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, sought to propose a resolution stating, “Resolved, that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” Lucretia Mott counseled against it, telling her, “Why Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous.”
That does not mean that women’s issues were wholly neglected in the first half of the nineteenth century. Instead, reformers focused on securing for married women the right to own and control property independently of their husbands, to enter into contracts and to sue and be sued—precious rights single women already had. Prior to Seneca Falls, the movement had achieved success in Mississippi, Maryland, Michigan, and Arkansas. The celebrated New York Married Women’s Property Act had passed a few months before the convention.
Despite Mott’s misgivings, Stanton introduced her resolution at Seneca Falls, and it passed (albeit by only a small majority). As Stanton put it, “I persisted, for I saw clearly that the power to make laws was the right through which all other rights could be secured.”
Not much progress was made during the years immediately before and after the Civil War. The country was occupied with other things— including the passage and ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments, which attempted to secure the rights of the recently-freed slaves. But the election of 1872—the first Presidential election since the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment—was a call to action for some. Susan B. Anthony among others argued that the recently-ratified Fourteenth Amendment’s Privileges or Immunities Clause gave all women the right to vote. Women had always been citizens; when the Fourteenth Amendment made it clear that no citizen should be denied the privileges and immunities of citizenship, that conferred on women the right to vote, she argued.
When Anthony tried to vote, to her surprise, she was permitted to do so. Her victory was, however, short-lived. Two weeks after the election she was arrested for illegal voting. Despite her argument about the significance of the Fourteenth Amendment, she was convicted. Meanwhile, in Missouri, Virginia Minor had also attempted to register to vote, but had been refused. She launched her own lawsuit also citing the Fourteenth Amendment. In Minor v. Happersett, 88 U.S. 162 (1875), the Supreme Court rejected the argument, holding that while women were citizens within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, citizenship alone did not confer the right to vote.
At that point, the women’s suffrage movement changed its strategy and began to advocate a constitutional amendment specifically focused on a woman’s right to vote.
Out on the western frontier, however, the movement was succeeding at the territorial level. The Wyoming Territory’s constitution was the first to guarantee women the right to vote.
When Wyoming applied for statehood, Congress initially balked. But the Wyoming legislature stood its ground and cabled back to Congressional leaders, “We will remain out of the Union one hundred years rather than come in without the women.” Congress eventually relented, and before the turn of the century, there were four women’s suffrage states—Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho.
Members of Congress who worried Wyoming’s example would be difficult for other states to resist were right. After a number of false starts, the Nineteenth Amendment, with language modeled after the Fifteenth Amendment, passed the U.S. House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, and the Senate two weeks later. By then, fifteen states provided full voting rights to women, including New York and Michigan. Another group gave them partial voting rights (such as the right to vote in municipal elections or primaries). Only seven states barred women from voting entirely.
Ratification was nevertheless hard fought. Tennessee was the state that put the Amendment over the top in a 49-47 nail-biter vote in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The decisive vote was cast by 24-year old Harry Burn, who had intended to vote against, until he received his mother’s letter urging him to “be a good boy” and vote for ratification.