Women’s Vote: 100 Years of Promise

In 1920, when women won the right to vote (if not necessarily the ability to exercise that right), both the movement’s advocates and its opponents assumed that the resulting gender gap would bring sweeping changes in politics. In reality, change was more gradual. This year, with Donald Trump’s support among women of all races fast eroding, women’s votes could be game changers.

The battle for women’s suffrage was part of a larger fight for women’s rights that encompassed married women’s property rights; temperance; and, for some radicals, what was known as free love (not tied to marriage). The women’s rights movement itself grew out of the movement to abolish slavery. But abolitionists who supported women’s suffrage split over whether or not to support the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to African American men but not to women of any race. Two competing suffrage groups argued over strategy (a focus on a national vs. a state-by-state suffrage campaign, the movement’s relationship to the Republican Party, or the inclusion or not of a broad range of reforms). The two groups merged in 1890, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).

As decades of organizing yielded little, and as Jim Crow assumptions penetrated many reform movements, leaders of the NAWSA became more explicitly racist and nativist. They focused more intensely on suffrage, to the exclusion of other issues. Notably, organizers of the large 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., insisted that African American suffragists march separately at the end, in deference to white Southern suffragists.

Despite a narrowing of focus by NAWSA, many suffragists joined movements for larger reforms. In 1913, a broad coalition in Illinois achieved women’s right to vote in state elections where not expressly forbidden. Anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells formed the Alpha Suffrage Club explicitly to link the suffrage struggle with a broader African American agenda. The large and influential Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, headquartered near Chicago, saw the vote as a way for women to push prohibition. For labor activists such as Agnes Nester, suffrage would enable women workers to achieve safer workplaces. Juvenile justice pioneer Louise deKoven Bowen viewed suffrage as a way to further municipal good government and social reform. Peace activist Jane Addams saw the vote as a way to gain broader social reforms. 

Suffrage supporters in the Socialist Party (SP) “made a decisive contribution to the suffrage campaign, especially in forcing suffragists to seek a full measure of political emancipation” by including immigrants, writes Mari Jo Buhle in Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920. As the suffrage movement gained momentum, the SP struggled to incorporate suffrage (and women’s emancipation in general) within a class-struggle theory of change. In the end, pragmatic respect for local and regional differences, not a grand theoretical breakthrough, guided strategy.

Decades of activism at the grassroots and state level, together with the militant tactics introduced by Alice Paul, such as picketing the White House and conducting hunger strikes in prison, brought success. By August 26, 1920, the requisite 36 states had ratified the 19th Amendment. The sky did not fall in for its opponents nor did new vistas open for its proponents. Divided by class, ethnicity/race, party, and region, women did not vote as a bloc, if they even voted. Jim Crow, citizenship, and immigration laws prevented many women of color from exercising their right. Many women turned their organizing and lobbying skills to new or ongoing causes. NAWSA became the League of Women Voters. Alice Paul’s National Women’s Party introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, triggering another century of struggle for an amendment that is not yet part of the Constitution.

In Suffrage, Ellen DuBois quotes socialist feminist Crystal Eastman’s statement that ratification “is a day to begin with, not a day to end with.” These are prescient words for our current period of voter suppression and right-wing anti-feminism. Although women’s votes helped bring about the New Deal, it was not until 1980 that women began to vote more consistently Democratic than men. In 2016, many hoped that women’s votes would put a woman in the White House. According to exit polls, the gender gap helped Hillary Clinton win the popular vote, but the role of men voting for Donald Trump in key states assured him the Electoral College win. And, Trump carried the white female vote. As of late July 2020, polls showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump among women voters by 14%, with even stronger support for Biden among women of color. The dreams of our foremothers for a powerful female voting bloc may yet be realized.