Article

Beyond 1920: The Legacies of Woman Suffrage

Cunningham. Courtesy Austin History Center, Austin (TX) Public Library
Figure 1. Suffragist Minnie Fisher Cunningham, pictured, ran for the US Senate in Texas in 1927. She lost, but later went to work for President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Photo AR.E.004 (028), Austin History Center, Austin (TX) Public Library. Published with permission.
By Liette Gidlow

On a sweltering August afternoon in 1920, the struggle of generations to enfranchise women on the same terms as men seemed to come to a triumphant end. Seventy-two years earlier, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and their intrepid peers had shocked polite society by demanding the right to vote and a raft of other rights for women; now, every signer of their bold "Declaration of Sentiments," save one, was dead. Woman suffragists had persisted through countless trials and humiliations to get to this moment; not only had they spoken out, organized, petitioned, traveled, marched, and raised funds; some also had endured assault, jail, and starvation to advance the cause. When the Tennessee legislature voted to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment, that right was finally won.

The Nineteenth Amendment officially eliminated sex as a barrier to voting throughout the United States. It expanded voting rights to more people than any other single measure in American history. And yet, the legacy of the Nineteenth Amendment, in the short term and over the next century, turned out to be complicated. It advanced equality between the sexes but left intersecting inequalities of class, race, and ethnicity intact. It stimulated important policy changes but left many reform goals unachieved. It helped women, above all white women, find new footings in government agencies, political parties, and elected offices—and, in time, even run for president—and yet left most outside the halls of power. Hardly the end of the struggle for diverse women's equality, the Nineteenth Amendment became a crucial step, but only a step, in the continuing quest for more representative democracy.

* * *

Once ratification had been achieved, neither the general public nor professional politicians knew quite what to expect when election season arrived in fall 1920. Both suffragists and "Antis" had promised big changes if the Nineteenth Amendment became law. Any prediction was bound to be exaggerated, if only because women in fifteen states already enjoyed full suffrage by state action before the federal amendment had passed.[1] Suffragists had promised that women voters would clean up politics and enact a sweeping agenda of Progressive reforms; Antis worried that the dirty business of politics would compromise women's moral standing, or that women who took part in public affairs might abandon their traditional responsibilities at home.[2] And how would polling places handle the influx of new voters? Election officials in Jersey City, New Jersey, took no chances; they ordered containers "the size of flour barrels" to hold all the votes.[3] Nor was it clear how new women voters would change the balance of political power. Republicans prognosticated that new women voters would choose the party of Lincoln to express their "gratitude for passage of [the] suffrage amendment."[4] Democrats countered that new women voters would choose them instead, and perhaps even "rescue the League of Nations" from political death.[5] Perhaps women would reject both major parties and organize into a party of their own, maximizing their power by voting as a bloc. New York City’s political bosses at Tammany Hall worried that "wild women" voters might send the "great machine wobbling" if they elected to vote independently rather than toe the party line.[6] Still others predicted that woman suffrage would make no difference at all, believing that women—intimidated by the complexities of voting or uninterested in politics altogether—would simply stay home.

When the election returns were tallied, the impact of new women voters on the results defied simple description. Overall, fewer women voted than men, with female turnout averaging two-thirds the rate of men, and yet the big picture obscured a great deal of variation at the state and local levels. Women's turnout varied from a high of 57 percent in Kentucky to a low of 6 percent in Virginia, and the gap in turnout between the sexes ranged from 28 percent in Missouri and Kentucky to 40 percent in Connecticut. Everywhere the particular political and legal context influenced the turnout rate. For all voters, turnout tended to be higher in states with competitive races or in localities with well-organized parties; in areas with lopsided contests or layers of voting restrictions, turnout generally lagged.[7]

Apart from the election tallies, full suffrage expanded the opportunities for women to seek elected office and shape public policy. Many women had run for political office before the Nineteenth Amendment—3,701 since the Civil War, by some scholars' count, some of them in places in which women could not yet vote—and yet full enfranchisement spurred a number of female firsts. [8] In Yoncalla, Oregon, temperance-minded voters replaced the entire city council with women backed by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (“Sex Uprising in Yoncalla,” blared the New York Times.)[9] At least twenty-two women between 1920 and 1923 were elected mayor in small towns including Langley, Washington; Salina, Utah; Red Cloud, Nebraska; Goodhue, Minnesota; Fairport, Ohio; and Duluth, Georgia. Iowa City, home to more than ten thousand residents, became the biggest city yet to elect a female mayor when it voted in Emma Harvat in 1923.[10] Bertha Landes became the first female big-city mayor when, in 1926, she filled in as acting mayor of Seattle for a stretch. Two years later, Seattleites elected her to her own term.[11]
Voting banner. Collections of the National Museum of American History
Figure 2. Get-Out-the-Vote activists used advertising and education campaigns to boost women’s flagging turnout in the early 1920s. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, local advocates asked women to demonstrate that they had registered to vote by displaying window posters like the one above.

Grand Rapids Americanization Society, c. 1924, from the collections of the National Museum of American History.

Women enjoyed new success in state government elections as well. In 1920 teacher Eva Hamilton became the first woman elected to the Michigan senate.[12] Four years later, Cora Belle Reynolds Anderson won election to the Michigan house, the first Native American woman in the nation to win a state legislative seat.[13] New Mexico elected the first woman to a high-ranking statewide office in 1923 when it elected Soledad Chacon as secretary of state, and at least five other states—South Dakota, Texas, Kentucky, New York, and Delaware—elected women to the same office in the 1920s. Indiana elected the first female state treasurer, Grace B. Urbahns, in 1926.[14]

At the federal level, too, women ran stand-out races; occasionally they even won. Minnie Fisher Cunningham led Texas's successful campaign for woman suffrage in primary elections in 1918; in 1927, the future New Dealer ran for the US Senate. (Figure 1) She lost the primary, but threw her support to another candidate who squeaked out a win against the incumbent Democrat, who was in the pocket of the Ku Klux Klan.[15] And in 1928, in a remarkable development, the daughters of two of the nation's most powerful men of the previous generation—men who worked on opposing sides in the storied presidential race of 1896—both won election to the US House of Representatives. Ruth Hanna McCormick, the daughter of William McKinley’s campaign manager, Marc Hanna, won election from Illinois as a Republican and advocated for Prohibition, farmers’ interests, and isolationism during her single term of service. Ruth Bryan Owen, daughter of "Cross of Gold" orator William Jennings Bryan, won election from Florida as a Democrat and earned praise for her advocacy of child welfare as well as Florida’s agricultural interests. Owen's father, the three-time Democratic nominee (and three-time loser) for the presidency, might have smiled from beyond the grave at his daughter's accomplishment. Owen joked about her win: "There! I am the first Bryan who ran for anything and got it!”[16]

Political parties also found new places for women with interests in politics. Of course, women had participated in political parties well before enfranchisement, but in 1920 both the Republican and Democratic organizations created new positions for women. They showcased women at their national conventions; they placed women on party committees; and they created new Women's Divisions for the purpose of integrating new women voters into the party.[17] A few exceptional women such as Harriet Taylor Upton, Emily Newell Blair, and Eleanor Roosevelt exerted unusual influence in political parties. Political advertising expert Belle Moskowitz became Al Smith's closest political advisor, helping him win the governorship of New York and guiding his 1928 presidential bid.[18]

Empowered by full suffrage, women likewise made greater inroads into the executive branch. In the summer of 1920, President Woodrow Wilson established a new Women's Bureau in the US Department of Labor and appointed union organizer Mary Anderson to lead it. Anderson held that leadership post through Republican and Democratic administrations until 1944, building the agency into a powerful advocate for female workers.[19]

Newly enfranchised women also left their mark on public policy. After ratification, suffrage leaders forged an alliance to bring their collective political muscle to bear on the legislative process. Soon twenty organizations, including the League of Women Voters, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, the National Consumers' League, the National Women's Trade Union League, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, had banded together to form the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC).[20] Claiming to represent a combined membership of twenty million women, the WJCC advanced a legislative agenda that put women and children first.[21] The WJCC's efforts produced real legislative gains. The first of these, in 1921, was the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Act. Sheppard-Towner addressed the shocking rates of infant mortality uncovered in studies by Julia Lathrop and the Children's Bureau and provided about $1 million per year to states to fund maternal and child health clinics.[22] The Children's Bureau administered Sheppard-Towner, adding a new division to do so, thereby expanding women's foothold in the executive branch. Sheppard-Towner created a model for federal/state partnerships that the architects of the New Deal would adopt in the next decade to address the deprivations of the Depression.[23]

Women's lobbyists also succeeded in 1922 in winning congressional passage of the Cable Act. The Cable Act provided a path back to the voting booth for women who had lost their US citizenship by marrying a foreign national after 1907.[24] Women activists enjoyed additional legislative successes at the state and local level. At the federal level, they tried, without success, to win reforms on other important issues, including the international peace movement, child labor, and lynching.

* * *

In these ways the Nineteenth Amendment expanded opportunities for women to participate in governance and changed the trajectory of social welfare policy. And yet, both suffragists and Antis had promised that ratification would do so much more. Where was the Progressive juggernaut that would solve the nation's vast social problems? Where was the chaos caused by voting women abandoning their family responsibilities? Where, in short, was the dramatic change, for good or ill, that both supporters and opponents had promised?

If full suffrage produced less change than suffragists had hoped and Antis had feared perhaps that was partly because women did not vote as a bloc and, indeed, sometimes did not vote at all. Establishment politicians soon learned that, for the most part, they did not need to worry about women voting because there was no such thing as "the women's vote," meaning that ballots cast by women increased the total but rarely changed the outcome. And, local variations aside, the overall turnout numbers for women voters were indisputably lower than men's. This fact appalled former suffragists and seemed to validate the Antis' claims that women never wanted the vote in the first place. (A Minnesota suffragist put it plaintively: "What, oh what, is Suffrage if you women will not vote?"[25]) Determined that woman suffrage would not be proved a flop, in 1924 the League of Women Voters began massive campaigns of advertising and education to "Get Out the Vote" (Figure 2), a program that, by the end of the decade, would evolve into the organization's main mission.[26]
From collections of Virginia State University Special Collections and Archives
Figure 3. African American women in the Jim Crow South were often denied the right to vote, but these nine women, all faculty members at the Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, succeeded in registering in the fall of 1920.

Courtesy of the Virginia State University Special Collections and Archives. Used with permission.

Critics blamed nonvoting women for shirking their civic duty, but one could fairly ask just which women were enfranchised by the Nineteenth Amendment. States retained the ability to set conditions on access to the ballot, and, bowing to party interests or racial or class bias, many states kept other barriers to voting, for men and women alike, intact or raised them higher still. By the end of the 1920s voters in forty-six states had to contend with complicated registration requirements. Residency requirements were likewise common; at the extreme, Rhode Island required citizens to live not just in the state, but in the locality, for two years before they were eligible to vote. Southern states, plus twelve more states outside the South, required literacy or educational tests.[27] These barriers may have proved more difficult for novice women voters to navigate than for men with voting experience.[28] Poll taxes certainly burdened women disproportionately; in many families the male head of household controlled the family finances, and not every husband or father was willing to pay the poll tax on behalf of his wife or daughter.[29]

Women's citizenship status, often complicated by their marital status, confounded access to the ballot further still. Thirty-one states had once permitted immigrants who had started the lengthy naturalization process to vote, but by the early 1920s, every state had abandoned the practice of "alien suffrage."[30] Women from some immigrant communities, especially Italians and Cubans, were far less likely to naturalize than men of the same background, and immigrants from Asia, whether male or female, could not become citizens at all.[31] Remarkably, the ranks of noncitizens included even some US-born women, for American women who had married a foreign national after 1907 lost their American citizenship; unless they naturalized—and many did not pursue that lengthy legal process—they could not vote. Many Native Americans, including women, also lacked US citizenship, at least until Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, but even after that many indigenous people effectively rejected the US citizenship they had never asked for, preferring to be identified with their tribal communities instead.[32] Some states continued to bar Native Americans from the ballot; in 1962, Utah was the last state to extend them the franchise. None of these barriers to voting violated the Nineteenth Amendment, but they all made voting more difficult, and some of them made voting particularly difficult for women.

Perhaps no community was subjected to more extensive disfranchisement efforts than Black women in the Jim Crow South. Interest in voting by southern African Americans surged in the fall of 1920; not only did many Black women seek to use their new right, but many Black men, honorably discharged from service in the Great War or wishing to accompany female family members, seized the moment to try to return to the polls themselves after decades of disfranchisement. In some locations, Black women succeeded in registering and voting (Figure 3), and those successes, even though few in number, inspired fresh efforts to suppress Black voters. Elsewhere, they were blocked by fraud, intimidation, or violence.[33] And when disfranchised black women asked the League of Women Voters and the National Woman's Party (NWP) to help, the main organizations of former suffragists turned them down. NWP head Alice Paul insisted in 1921 that Black women's disfranchisement was a "race issue," not a "woman's issue," and thus no business of the NWP.[34] The failure of white suffragists at that moment to address the disfranchisement of southern Black women reverberated for decades to come and undercut efforts of women of both races to make progress on issues of shared concern.

The impact of women's votes was also limited because the coalition that had supported suffrage splintered under the pressures of the troubled postwar political climate and competing political interests. Amid national tensions fueled by widespread labor unrest, bloody race riots, anti-immigrant animus, and anarchist violence, conservative women organized in the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Women’s Auxiliary of the American Legion and accused many Progressive women of harboring Communist sympathies.[35] Their red-baiting tactics soon brought the Sheppard-Towner Act to an end; opposed from the beginning by organized medicine, the American Medical Association attacked it as an "imported socialistic scheme" and got Congress to defund it by 1929.[36] Progressive suffragists also divided among themselves, above all over the possibility of an equal rights amendment. Alice Paul insisted that a blanket amendment to ensure sex equality in broad areas of life must be the next item on women's agenda, but women who had labored for decades to secure wages and hours protections for working women could not risk the possibility that an equal rights amendment would undo their hard-won gains.[37]

Nor did women find that full suffrage necessarily gave them greater access to the levers of power. The Democratic and Republican Parties had welcomed women with great fanfare in 1920, but the Women's Divisions into which they were shunted lacked real power. The same was frequently true at the state level; a female member of the New Jersey Republican State Committee in 1924 noted ruefully that the state committee on which she sat met rarely and passed "a few resolutions of no importance. . . . Then the men met privately and transacted the real business."[38] In the executive branch in the 1920s women found that they exercised considerable power in select agencies, above all the Children's Bureau and Women's Bureau, but had few opportunities to influence policy outside this narrow "female dominion."[39]

* * *

The Nineteenth Amendment did not fulfill all its supporters' hopes, but it was no failure. It brought the nation closer to universal suffrage and made the injustice of ongoing disfranchisement even less defensible. It expanded opportunities for women to govern and it changed the direction of public policy. It accorded women the status of decision makers in the public sphere and recognized that they had the authority to help make decisions that others—men—would have to abide. If these changes fell short of expectations, perhaps that was because expectations had been so great. Suffragist Maud Wood Park, the first leader of the League of Women Voters, remarked that it was hardly reasonable to expect women voters "over-night to straighten out tangles over which generations of men had worked in vain."[40]

Despite its limitations, the Nineteenth Amendment over the next century helped women assume a role in public affairs that would be hard to imagine without it. Women gradually closed the turnout gap between the sexes, and in every presidential year since 1984, they have exceeded men in voter turnout. In 2016 the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton to run for president, the first major party to nominate a woman as its standard-bearer. In 2019 women occupied 9 governorships, 24 seats in the US Senate, and 102 seats in the US House of Representatives. A century after ratification, it is clear that though the Nineteenth Amendment did not perfect American democracy, it advanced gender equality in important ways.
Liette Gidlow, a specialist in twentieth-century politics and women's and gender history, is the author of The Big Vote: Gender, Consumer Culture, and the Politics of Exclusion, 1890s–1920s (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), and editor of Obama, Clinton, Palin: Making History in Election 2008 (University of Illinois Press, 2012). Her next book is a study of the disfranchisement of American women after the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1920.
Notes:
[1] See map, "Woman Suffrage Before the Nineteenth Amendment, August 1, 1920," in Ellsworth D. Foster, ed., The American Educator, vol. 8 (Chicago: Ralph Durham Company, 1921). Women in fourteen more states enjoyed partial suffrage before the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. For the classic account, see Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States (1959; repr., New York: Atheneum, 1974).
[2] Aileen S. Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890–1920 (1965; repr. New York: Norton, 1981); Susan E. Marshall, Splintered Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Campaign against Woman Suffrage (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).
[3] New York Times, October 24, 1920, 5.
[4] Detroit Free Press, October 24, 1920, C2.
[5] New York Times, October 31, 1920, 6.
[6] New York Times, October 17, 1920, E7.
[7] For new estimates on voter turnout by sex in the 1920s, see J. Kevin Corder and Christina Wolbrecht, Counting Women's Ballots: Female Voters from Suffrage through the New Deal (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 138–144. These authors calculate a range of voter turnout rates for each state; for the numbers above, I have selected the middle of each range and labeled it an "estimate."
[8] See Her Hat Was in the Ring, a data collection amassed by Wendy E. Chmielewski, Jill Norgren, and Kristen Gwinn-Becker and their research team.
[9] New York Times quoted in Kate Torgovnick May, "We Can't Do Much Worse Than the Men," Atlantic, October 9, 2016.
[10] Brianna Nofil, "Women Mayors of the U.S., 1920–1923," Center for American Women in Politics (hereafter CAWP), "Milestones for Women in American Politics."
[11] CAWP, "Milestones."
[12]Eva McCall Hamilton,” Her Hat Was In the Ring.
[13] CAWP, "Milestones."
[14] Susan J. Carroll, for the Council of State Governments, "Women in State Government: Historical Patterns, Recent Trends and Future Prospects," 2013.
[15] Patricia Ellen Cunningham, "Cunningham, Minnie Fisher," Handbook of Texas Online.
[16] US House of Representatives, "McCormick, Ruth Hanna"; "Owen, Ruth Bryan."
[17] Jo Freeman, A Room at a Time: How Women Entered Party Politics (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000), 85; Corder and Wolbrecht, Counting Women's Ballots, 135.
[18] Elisabeth Israels Perry, Belle Moskowitz: Feminine Politics and the Exercise of Power in the Age of Alfred E. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
[19] Freeman, Room at a Time, 137–138.
[20] Freeman, Room at a Time, 134–135.
[21] Jan Doolittle Wilson, The Women's Joint Congressional Committee and the Politics of Maternalism, 1920–30 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007).
[22] J. Stanley Lemons, "The Sheppard-Towner Act: Progressivism in the 1920s," Journal of American History 55, no. 4 (March 1969): 776–786.
[23] Robyn Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform, 1890–1935 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 161.
[24] Candace Bredbenner, A Nationality of Her Own: Women, Marriage, and the Law of Citizenship (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). Congress passed the Expatriation Act in 1907, which stripped women who married foreign nationals of their US citizenship. See Bredbenner, 47.
[25] Woman Voter (Minnesota), September 5, 1924, 3, in Series I, Papers of the League of Women Voters, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
[26] Liette Gidlow, The Big Vote: Gender, Consumer Culture, and the Politics of Exclusion, 1890s–1920s (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), 78–89.
[27] For state-by-state tables of voting requirements, see the appendix in Alexander Keyssar, The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (New York: Basic Books, 2000). For a brief narrative summary, see Gidlow, Big Vote, 25.
[28] Corder and Wolbrecht, Counting Women's Ballots, 138–144.
[29] Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman, "The Second Battle for Woman Suffrage: Alabama White Women, the Poll Tax, and V. O. Key's Master Narrative of Southern Politics," Journal of Southern History 68, no. 2 (May 2002): 333–374.
[30] Keyssar, Right to Vote, appendix tables A.4 and A.12.
[31] Martha Gardner, The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870–1965 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
[32] Kevin Bruyneel, "Challenging American Boundaries: Indigenous People and the 'Gift' of American Citizenship," Studies in American Political Development 18, no. 1 (April 2004): 30–43.
[33] Liette Gidlow, "Resistance after Ratification: The Nineteenth Amendment, African American Women, and the Problem of Female Disfranchisement after 1920,” in Women and Social Movements in the U.S., 1600–2000 (Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street, 2017); Chad L. Williams, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).
[34] Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, "Clubwomen and Electoral Politics in the 1920s," in African American Women and the Vote, 1837–1965, ed. Ann D. Gordon et al. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), 150; Paula Giddings, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Morrow, 1984), 167–169.
[35] J. Stanley Lemons, The Woman Citizen: Social Feminism in the 1920s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973); Kirsten Marie Delegard, Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
[36] Lemons, " Sheppard-Towner Act," 781, 786.
[37] Nancy Cott, The Grounding of Modern Feminism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989); Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
[38] Freeman, Room at a Time, 112, 119.
[39] Muncy, Creating a Female Dominion in American Reform.
[40] League of Women Voters, undated press release (1924), Maud Wood Park Papers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University, quoted in Gidlow, Big Vote, 84.
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Last updated: April 6, 2020