Women's Fight for the Vote: The Nineteenth Amendment
The issues: Should the 14th Amendment be interpreted as guaranteeing to women the right to vote?  How did women finally win the right to vote?
The beginning of the fight for women suffrage is usually traced to the "Declaration of Sentiments" produced at the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, N. Y. in 1848. Four years later, at the Woman's Rights Convention in Syracuse in 1852, Susan B. Anthony joined the fight, arguing that "the right women needed above every other...was the right of suffrage."

During debates on the Reconstruction Amendments which extended the vote to ex-slaves (through the 15th Amendment), suffragists pushed hard for "universal suffrage," but they never had a chance. 

In 1872, a suffragists brought a series of court challenges designed to test whether voting was a "privilege" of "U. S. citizenship" now belonging to women by virtue of the recently adopted 14th Amendment.  One such challenge grew out of a criminal prosecution of Susan B. Anthony for illegally voting in the 1872 election.  The first case to make its way to the Supreme Court, however, was Minor vs Happersett (1875).  In Minor, a unanimous Court rejected the argument that either the privileges and immunities clause or the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment extended the vote to women.  Following Minor, suffragists turned their attention from the courts to the states and to Congress.

In 1878, a constitutional amendment was proposed that provided "The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."  This same amendment would be introduced in every session of Congress for the next 41 years. 

In July 1890, the Territory of Wyoming, which allowed women to vote, was admitted as a state.  Wyoming became the first state with women suffrage.  By 1900, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho joined Wyoming in allowing women to vote.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive (Bull Moose) Party became the first national political party to have a plank supporting women suffrage.  The tide was beginning to turn.

In May, 1919, the necessary two-thirds vote in favor of the women suffrage amendment was finally mustered in Congress, and the proposed amendment was sent to the states for ratification.  By July 1920, with a number of primarily southern states adamantly opposed to the amendment, it all came down to Tennessee.  It appeared that the amendment might fail by one vote in the Tennessee house, but twenty-four-year-old Harry Burns surprised observers by casting the deciding vote for ratification.  At the time of his vote, Burns had in his pocket a letter he had received from his mother urging him, "Don't forget to be a good boy" and "vote for suffrage."  Women had finally won the vote.

Myra Bradwell, would-be lawyer
Because women lacked the vote and therefore political power, they were denied many opportunities open to men.  In 1872, Myra Bradwell challenged Illinois law which restricted membership in the state bar to men.  The Supreme Court upheld the law.  Justice Bradley said in his concurring opinion:
"It is true that many women are unmarried and not affected by any of the duties, complications, and incapacities arising out of the married state, but these are exceptions to the general rule. The paramount destiny 
and mission of woman are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator. And the rules of civil society must  be adapted to the general constitution of things, and cannot be based upon exceptional cases. "


Nineteenth Amendment
     Passed by Congress June 4, 1919. 
Ratified August 18, 1920. 

Section 1: 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. 

Section 2: Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. 

Suffragist parade (1915)


The Ratification Fight: "Women Suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment"

N.Y. Times Articles on Ratification 

Minor vs. Happersett (1875)

Virginia Minor  who, in Minor v Happersett,  unsuccessfully argued
that the 14th Amendment guaranteed women the right to vote.

United States vs. Susan B. Anthony (1873) 

Ratification Map

A map showing the order of ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Image: Tennessee Ratification Document
(Tennessee was the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment,
 making the amendment part of the Constitution.)


 Exploring Constitutional Conflicts Homepage