Votes for Women! The Long Battle
By Lynn Lorenson
On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. As we celebrate this 100 year anniversary, it is tempting to look at a single date, but doing so would fail to recognize and celebrate the long struggle and persistence of Suffragettes to achieve their goal.
The amendment was simple and succinct: “The rights 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.”
Most historians look to the 1848 convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, as the launch of the nationwide women’s rights movement. Seneca Falls spurred the creation of national and state suffrage associations that worked for more than 70 years to obtain equal suffrage.
To achieve their goal, women needed to convince men to share the privilege and power of voting. The opposition was stiff and sometimes demeaning, coming from newspaper columns, pamphlets, pulpits, and political cartoons. The path to their goal was neither simple nor direct.
The Wisconsin Constitution was adopted in April 1848, only a few months prior to the Seneca Falls convention. While discussion had included property rights and votes for women, both were omitted in the final document. Women’s movements nationally became intertwined with temperance and the anti-slavery movements diluting the focus on women’s rights alone. The Civil War temporarily diverted women’s’ suffrage efforts as women focused on assisting the war effort.
Post-Civil War years saw a division within suffrage organizations. While suffragettes had been aligned with abolition and supported the 13th and 14th amendments abolishing slavery and granting equal protection under the law regardless of race. Passage of the 15th amendment, which gave the right to vote to all male citizens regardless of race or previous slavery, posed a unique problem. Many thought that the 15th amendment represented an opportunity for universal suffrage at the national level, but some suffrage groups opposed it because it did not require universal suffrage. Instead, women’s suffrage was left to individual states to determine.
In Wisconsin, women’s rights advanced by small steps in the legislature and courts. An 1869 law allowed women to run for school boards and other local offices, although they were not permitted to vote. In 1884-85, the legislature considered full suffrage for women and ultimately granted women the limited right to vote in elections pertaining to school matters. Predictably, this proved a problem in the spring 1887 elections when school board candidates appeared
on the general ballot with other offices. In Racine, Olympia Brown was denied the right to vote and began a challenge that brought the issue to the Wisconsin Supreme Court who determined that the 1885 law had not granted the right to vote in all local elections. Since there was no method in place to assure they were not voting for other offices also on the ballot, women were again denied the right to vote. It took the legislature until 1901 to correct the situation by requiring separate ballots and boxes at every election for women desiring to vote on school matters.
Legislative efforts followed but most never came to a full vote. Wisconsin joined other states proposing referendums, but in 1912 Wisconsin men voted down women’s suffrage by a margin of two to one. But the success of suffrage movements in other states and countries, women’s more prominent role in the workplace, and political pressure as World War I, were powerful forces. Together, they focused attention on equality and women’s roles.
On June 4, 1919, Congress sent the issue of women’s suffrage to the states for ratification of a change to the United States Constitution. Wisconsin quickly took up the vote and ratified the amendment. It would take a little more than a year for Tennessee to push the amendment over the ¾ threshold required to amend the Constitution. On August 26, 1920, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification, officially notifying Congress that women’s long campaign for equal votes was over. The face of politics had forever changed.