The Path to Women’s Suffrage

By Derrick Dyess, President/CEO, Promote the Vote

When most think about women’s suffrage, they think about women gaining the right to vote on August 18, 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and granted the right to vote to women. The argument for such a change was the simple idea that women deserve the same rights and responsibilities as citizens that men possess. Even though this date and time is decisive when thinking of women’s suffrage, there is much more to the story. Women sought the vote at first by rejecting the Cult of True Womanhood, but finally won it by embracing the difference between the sexes.

The movement for women to gain the right to vote began nearly a century before 1920. During the early 19th century, most states began to grant voting rights to all white men, regardless of whether they owned property or not. During this time, women’s groups took on social issues like Abolition and temperance leagues, but they could not settle on a way to unite to fight collectively for suffrage. However, many American women were beginning to tire of their social status under what historians call the “Cult of True Womanhood.”  This idea taught the true woman was a pious, submissive wife and mother concerned only with matters of the home and their family.

In 1848, a group of Abolitionists, made up primarily of women, met in Seneca Falls, New York to discuss issues related to the abolition of slavery, but they also discussed problems with women’s rights. This meeting is known as the Seneca Falls Convention. Participants at this meeting agreed that women deserved to have their own say in politics. One of the leaders at Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, declared “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men and women are created equal.” Following this convention, it became clear that these women believed that they should have the right to vote. However, it would take longer than seven decades to come to fruition.

Long before women were granted suffrage, another group of people received it. It was likely unpredictable in 1848 that the country would be deep in the throes of the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. Thankfully the Union prevailed.  In 1868, the 14th Amendment extended the Constitution’s protections to all citizens and defined “citizens” as “male.” Then, in 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified, giving Black men the right to vote.

Although women still did not have the right to vote, the political atmosphere was changing. Victoria Woodhull of Homer, Ohio became the first woman to be nominated as a candidate for the United States presidency in 1872. There is not any indication anyone took her candidacy seriously.  She was too young to be elected because the Constitution requires the candidate to be at least 35 years old, and she was 7 months shy of that age requirement. For the next half century, women’s rights activists, Suffragists, temperance leagues, etc. struggled to come together and build broad support for a collective political campaigns. The problem was the desire of these groups to push for many political issues rather than focusing on a core issue, such as suffrage. However, these divisions between groups faded and a new unity prevailed with the creation in 1890 of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

After decades of protests, lobbying, and arguing that women are equal to men and thus deserve the same rights as men, Suffragists changed their approach. Instead of claiming equality to men, they argued that they deserved the right to vote because men and women are different and hence needed their own say.  Specifically, they argued that, because of their domestic role, they should be granted the right to vote as they would provide a more moral “maternal commonwealth.”  This new strategy gradually picked up support, and over the next few decades, support grew from state to state. Then, finally, on August 18th 1920 President Woodrow Wilson signed the 19th Amendment into law and women were able to vote for the first time on November 2, 1920.  

Derrick Dyess is from Bassfield, MS and currently resides in Diamondhead, MS. Derrick served in the United States Coast Guard until a service connected disability forced him into permanent retirement as a decorated Veteran of the US Armed Forces. Since his service, he earned his Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Political Science. During his academic career he received numbers accolades for academic excellence. He earned the Trent Lott Scholarship Award, Political Science Outstanding Student of the Year for 2017-2018, Golden PRIDE Award, induction into the Gama Beta Phi Honors Society. In 2018, he was awarded the Judge R. J. Bishop Award in recognition of overcoming economic hardships in the pursuit of education. He has since worked conducting political research, analysis and provided recommendations of strategy for political campaigns.

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