In 1890, when the NWSA and the AWSA were reunited as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, slow, progress continued to be made in securing the vote for women. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Republican Party became the first national political party to adopt a woman suffrage plank. By, 1913, only nine states — all in the West — provided women the right to vote. In 1916, Jeannette Rankin of Montana became the first woman elected to represent her state in the U.S. House of Representatives.
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, the amendment 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, changing the face of the American electorate forever.
The 19th amendment guaranteed all American women the right to vote. 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.
Its victory accomplished, the NAWSA ceased to exist, at which time the organization became the nucleus of the League of Women Voters. This group directed its focus toward many of the same social and political issues that occupied other women’s groups. Its emphasis was on educating voters, particularly newly enfranchised women, about candidates and campaign issues, especially relating to child labor and welfare, citizen participation, civil rights, consumer affairs, environmental concerns, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, immigration, labor, national security, and women’s legal status and rights.
In addition to promoting its own programs, the league was also a prime mover behind the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee, an umbrella organization of various women’s and social reform groups that was formed in 1920 to serve as an information clearinghouse and lobbying force for pending federal legislation. Among the charter members were the League of Women Voters, National Consumers’ League, National Women’s Trade Union League of America, National Council of Jewish Women, and six other groups. More organizations joined a few years later to promote legislation against lynching and for maternity and infant health protection, independent citizenship for married women, funding for the federal women’s and children’s bureaus, and creation of a Department of Education.
One group that did not join the Women’s Joint Congressional Committee was the National Woman’s Party, the leading proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, which National Woman’s Party chair, Alice Paul, drafted in 1923. The amendment proposed to eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender.
The Women’s Joint Congressional Committee resisted the Equal Rights Amendment as a threat to the sex-based protective labor legislation that its members had fought for years to secure. Several decades passed before the influential League of Women Voters and other former Women’s Joint Congressional Committee members supported the Equal Rights Amendment, which Congress did not pass until 1972.
The long and difficult struggle for women’s suffrage is one of the best-documented, most widely researched, and most seriously debated topics in American women’s history. That historians know as much as they do about the suffrage campaign is in large part because of its participants’ conscious efforts to record their movement’s history. In the late 1870s, in the very midst of their campaign, leading suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage began chronicling the movement in The History of Woman Suffrage, published in three monumental volumes between 1881 and 1886. The early leaders supplemented this history by publishing various autobiographies and memoirs and by assiduously collecting clippings, books, and pamphlets about their efforts. Many of these original documents are held today at the Library of Congress in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
“I always feel… the movement is a sort of mosaic. Each of us puts in one little stone, and then you get a great mosaic at the end.”
— Alice Stokes Paul, suffragist and author of the Equal Rights Amendment