Rhode Island and the 19th Amendment

State of Rhode Island depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating Rhode Island was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. Courtesy Megan Springate.
State of Rhode Island depicted in purple, white, and gold (colors of the National Woman’s Party suffrage flag) – indicating Rhode Island was one of the original 36 states to ratify the 19th Amendment. CC0

Women first organized and collectively fought for suffrage at the national level in July of 1848. Suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott convened a meeting of over 300 people in Seneca Falls, New York. In the following decades, women marched, protested, lobbied, and even went to jail. By the 1870s, women pressured Congress to vote on an amendment that would recognize their suffrage rights. This amendment was sometimes known as the Susan B. Anthony amendment and became the 19th Amendment.

The amendment reads:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Paulina W. Davis, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left.
Paulina Wright Davis (1813-1876)

Manchester Brothers/Library of Congress

As in many states in New England, the women’s rights movement in Rhode Island had its origins in the abolitionist movement. Although they could not serve in leadership positions, women who participated in anti-slavery organizations were able to make their voices heard. In meetings, their votes were recorded along with the men’s.

Paulina Wright Davis of Providence began her career in political activism through her involvement in anti-slavery movement. She also became a lecturer on women’s health issues. Davis was one of the organizers of the first National Woman's Rights Convention in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1850. She started a woman’s rights newspaper called The Una in 1853. After the Civil War, she co-founded the Rhode Island Woman Suffrage Association. Through their activism, women were able to win enough support in the Rhode Island legislature to pass a state constitutional amendment in April 1887. When put to the voters during the election that same month, the amendment was defeated by a wide margin.

Women suffragists in Rhode Island were unsuccessful in winning the vote in their state. However, women began taking advantage of a loophole in the state constitution which did not specifically exclude them from serving on school committees. Women ran for these positions starting in 1873. The next year, three women won elected positions. Women continued to serve on school committees for many decades before they could cast a ballot.
Photograph of women and men on steps leading up to Marble House, Alva Belmont's estate in Newport, RI.
Women and men gathered on the steps of Marble House, Alva Belmont's mansion in Newport, RI

National Woman's Party records, Library of Congress

In the twentieth century, many Rhode Island women turned their efforts towards passing a federal suffrage amendment. Alva Belmont often hosted suffrage gatherings at the Marble House mansion in Newport. She became the primary benefactor of the work of Alice Paul, who organized the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) which later became the National Woman’s Party (NWP). Belmont helped finance the CU/NWP campaigns which focused exclusively on passing the amendment using increasingly confrontational tactics. Mildred Glines became the chairman of the Rhode Island branch of the NWP and was instrumental in lobbying the US Senators from her state to vote for the amendment.

After decades of arguments for and against women's suffrage, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919. After Congress approved the 19th Amendment, at least 36 states needed to vote in favor of the amendment for it to become law. This process is called ratification.

On January 6, 1920, Rhode Island voted to ratify the 19th Amendment. By August of 1920, 36 states (including Rhode Island) ratified the amendment, ensuring that the right to vote could not be denied based on sex.
rhode island state flag
Rhode Island state flag. CC0

Rhode Island Places of Women's Suffrage: Oak Glen

Oak Glen was the home of Julia Ward Howe. While best known for writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Howe also helped found the American Woman Suffrage Association. Her house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a private residence.

Photo of the outside of a white house with stone wall. Photo: by Swampyank, CC BY-SA 3.0

Discover More Places of Ratification

Oak Glen is an important place in the story of ratification. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sources used to make these state pages include: Ida Husted Harper's History of Woman Suffrage: 1900-1920, Volume 6 (1922), the National American Woman Suffrage Association papers (Library of Congress), and National Register nominations from the National Park Service. Sources for this page include Russell DeSimone, "Rhode Island Women Enter 19th Century Politcs" in The Online Review of Rhode Island History, Inez Hayes Gillmore, The Story of the Woman's Party (1921), and "Pauline Kellogg Wright Davis" Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame.

Last updated: September 4, 2019