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Judith Dale: Celebrating 100 years of a woman's right to vote
Literary Corner

Judith Dale: Celebrating 100 years of a woman's right to vote

From the What you need to know: A look back at this week's top headlines series
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With the election just a couple of weeks away, and this election being the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, I thought I would interrupt my series on wildfires in Santa Barbara County and provide a brief history of voting rights in the U.S.

In my research, I found even some white men did not have the right to vote.

Initially, the U.S. Constitution gave each state the power to set voting requirements. And early on, some states ruled that only white men who owned property or paid taxes could vote — only about 6% of the population.

By 1828 this had changed, and all white men who were citizens could vote.

081320 Judith Dale Suffrage3

Nurses marched about midway through the procession at the Women's Suffrage March, March 3, 1913. They are seen here where the march veered off Pennsylvania Avenue at 15th Street in Washington, D.C. The Hotel Regent on the southeast corner of 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue appears in the background.

In the 1840 election, 80% of white males voted as attitudes had shifted in favor of universal white male suffrage. Of course, minority men (Black, Asian, Native American, etc.) and all women were still denied the right to vote.

The Women’s Campaign Begins

The campaign for women’s suffrage began decades before the Civil War. During the 1820s and '30s, most states had given all white men the right to vote, regardless of how much money or property they had. At this same time, many reform groups were organized by women across the United States — temperance leagues (no alcoholic drink), religious movements, moral reform societies and anti-slavery organizations.

Many American women were beginning to rail against the “Cult of True Womanhood”, that is, the idea that the only “true” woman was a pious, submissive wife and mother concerned exclusively with home and family. Put together, all these movements introduced a new way of thinking about what it meant to be a woman and a citizen of the United States.

Seneca Falls Convention

In 1848, a group of abolitionist activists — mostly women, but some men — gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss the problem of women's rights. Reformers Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott were the main organizers of the convention.

Most of the delegates to the Seneca Falls Convention agreed that American women deserved their own political identities: “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” proclaimed the Declaration of Sentiments that the delegates produced, and, “that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What this meant, among other things, was that they believed women should have the right to vote.

Civil War and Civil Rights

During the 1850s, the women's rights movement gathered steam but lost momentum when the Civil War began. Almost immediately after the war ended, the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution raised familiar questions of suffrage and citizenship.

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, extends the Constitution's protection to all citizens — and defines "citizens" as "male." The 15th Amendment, approved in 1870, guarantees Black men the right to vote. White women were enraged that Black men got the right to vote, but not women.

Some women took advantage of this and allied with racist Southerners who argued that women's votes could neutralize the male African American voice. (Note: I am not sure what they thought about Black women’s vote.)

In 1869, a new group called the National Woman Suffrage Association was founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They began to fight for a universal-suffrage amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Other women’s suffrage groups argued that it was unfair to endanger Black men’s right to vote by tying it to the less popular campaign for women’s suffrage.

This pro-15th-Amendment faction formed a group called the American Woman Suffrage Association and fought for the franchise on a state-by-state basis. Many states allowed women to vote as encouragement to move West.

The United Campaign for Suffrage

The racial division between the two groups eventually faded, and in 1890 they merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the organization’s first president. This new organization argued that women deserved the vote not only because they were equal to men but also because they could make the country a purer, more moral and kinder commonwealth.

This argument served many political agendas: Religious and temperance (no alcoholic drink) groups wanted women to have the vote because they thought it would mobilize an enormous voting bloc on behalf of their causes. Also, many middle class white people were swayed once again by the view that the inclusion of white women would "ensure immediate and durable white supremacy, honestly attained."

At Last A National Law

Even though many Western states gave women the right to vote, Southern and Eastern states did not.

In 1916, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt unveiled what she called a "Winning Plan" to get the vote at last: a blitz campaign that mobilized state and local suffrage organizations all over the country, with particular focus on those states still resisting.

Alice Paul then founded the National Women’s Party and advocated for more radical, militant tactics such as hunger strikes and White House pickets.

World War I slowed the suffragists' campaign but helped their argument nonetheless: Women's work on behalf of the war effort proved that they were just as patriotic and deserving of citizenship as men.

Finally, on Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified.

On Nov. 2 of that year, more than 8 million additional women across the United States were able to vote for the first time. (Note: The wording of the 1920 amendment was precisely the same as the wording for the 1878 Women's Suffrage Amendment, which was proposed in the U.S. Congress 42 years earlier.)

Still, Work to Be Done

Even with the passage of the 19th Amendment, not all people had the right to vote. It was not until 1924 that all Native Americans were granted citizenship and, therefore, the right to vote. Chinese immigrants did not get the right to citizenship and voting until 1943. And it took the Voting Right Act of 1965 to help people of color to gain equal voting rights, and still today, that is not always the case in many states.

Democracy demands the involvement of its citizens. Get informed on the candidates and propositions in this upcoming election. Your right to vote has been hard-earned. Let your voice be heard.

Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at


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