Women's Suffrage and WWI

Women holding placards for women's suffrage in front of White House
Women picket the White House in 1917, demanding full access to voting rights.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

“Mr. President how long must women wait for Liberty?” Thus exclaimed one of the signs protesters held in front of the White House gates in February 1917. Women’s fight for the right to vote was in its final years, but in the heavy sacrifice and a changing understanding of the meaning of democracy the war brought, the movement had found a renewed energy and enthusiasm during World War I. Female protesters initially faced a cordial but outwardly uninterested reception from President Woodrow WIlson, but they were persistent. The protest lasted until November of that year, resulting in many women arrested and jailed for their efforts. Word of the brutal treatment of protestors in prison, including force feeding, caused widespread outrage and ultimately strengthened public opinion in favor of a Constitutional amendment extending all women the right to vote. These protests and their aftermath are the most recognizable events of the suffrage movement. In lesser known events, state suffrage associations had also been working tirelessly to bring votes to women for several decades. For most of the 19th century, suffrage efforts in the states consisted of meetings of like-minded individuals, and unobtrusive lobbying of state legislators. But just after the turn of the 20th century, suffragists in many states began using bolder tactics such as open air meetings, and eventually the more well-known suffrage parade. The parade, in particular, allowed women to claim their right to space outside as well as inside the home, and make their demands in public for a formal political role. It allowed them to define themselves, for all to see, as men’s equals. By the time World War I started in 1914, women in 8 states, all west of the Mississippi except Illinois, had already won the right to vote.
Yellowing flyer with questions affirming women should be allowed to vote
The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association promotes a 1915 referendum which would have allowed women the right to vote. The referendum did not pass, and women waited another four years before the 19th Amendment guaranteed their right to vote.

Ann Lewis Women's Suffrage Collection

Despite the state victories, general support for a federal amendment was not gaining enough traction. But in the trying circumstances of World War I, proponents found a new rallying cry. American women served as a bulwark for American society during the War, making sacrifices in their personal lives and buttressing the country’s economy suddenly without its male workforce. Their contributions, which enabled the country to pursue the war effort, seemed unfair to many, given their inability to contribute to society as full citizens. To further their cause, American women took lessons from women elsewhere, who argued for universal suffrage as a war measure. American suffragists promoted universal suffrage as the only right path for a civilized nation to take, using as examples other countries involved in the war that had already adopted or were about to adopt universal suffrage, such as Canada, England, Russia, France, Denmark, and Italy. Even before the US entered the war in 1917, American women participated in war-related events such as the International Congress of Women in the Netherlands, in 1915, which argued for an end to the war and peace in Europe. One of the Congress’s “Principles of a Permanent Peace” was the Enfranchisement of Women: “Since the combined influence of the women of all countries is one of the strongest forces for the prevention of war…this International Congress of Women demands their political enfranchisement.”

President Woodrow Wilson, despite his previous position that suffrage should be left to the states, eventually used this very argument to encourage adoption of the federal amendment in his address to the United States Senate on Sept. 30 1918: “I regard the concurrence of the Senate in the constitutional amendment proposing the extension of the suffrage to women as vitally essential to the successful prosecution of the great war of humanity in which we are engaged.” World War I laid bare the unequal nature of American society. In the minds of many, men and women alike, how did it look for the United States to fight for liberty around the world while half its citizenry was denied the right to participate as equals?
Pin with American flag decorations: America the Land we Love: Liberty, Justice, Equality"
This 1915 pin showed support for the movement for a woman's right to vote.

Ann Lewis Women's Suffrage Collection

It was in this gathering storm that Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party sought to harden its approach with tactics such as the so-called “Silent Sentinels” protests outside the White House in 1917. However, while they all shared the same goal of a federal amendment, not all suffrage supporters shared the National Woman’s Party’s confrontational methodology, feeling that it ran counter to established gender roles for women. The New York State Woman Suffrage Party, for example, used the War as a medium through which it could publicly denounce the White House protests, claiming they tend to “harass the Government in this time of great stress.” In the South, the question of universal suffrage was further complicated by racial dynamics, as some feared granting the vote to women would open the door to a flood of African American votes, counteracting the restrictions put in place to limit the ability of African American men to vote, who already had the legal right. The suffrage movement was diverse in its membership, its approach, and its tactics, but its disparate groups shared a common purpose. Galvanized by the spotlight provided by America’s efforts on the world stage of World War I, they ultimately prevailed when the 19th amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920.

Last updated: October 15, 2018