For American women, the battle for the right to vote was long and hard-fought, pitting three generations of suffragists against the nation’s political and economic establishment. When the vote was finally won, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920, many women looked forward to profound social change. The activist Maud Younger thought she was about to witness “the dawn of women’s political power in America.” Others had more modest expectations. “I did not expect any revolution when women got the ballot,” recalled labor leader Rose Schneiderman, who rose to fame with her speech memorializing the victims of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in Manhattan. “But women needed the vote because they needed protection through the laws. Not having the vote, the lawmakers could ignore us.” Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the Black journalist and activist, wished that her friends Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony “could have been here to see the day when a woman’s ballot will count equally with a man’s.”
As we mark the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, it’s natural to ask if those expectations have been met. What impact did the official entry of women into American political life end up having on the country and on women themselves? What new dimensions of the movement for women’s equality opened up once the franchise had been secured?
In 1848, when the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, N.Y., American women were deprived of legal rights in virtually all dimensions of their lives. They were excluded from higher education and most professions. The British common law principle of coverture, carried over to the U.S., declared that in marriage, “husband and wife are one and that one is the husband.” When a woman married she lost all control over her finances. Any wages she earned went directly to her husband, and she couldn’t own property under her own name. If her marriage dissolved, custody of the children automatically went to her husband. Charlotte Woodward Pierce, 18 years old when she attended the Seneca Falls Convention, was the only woman there who lived to see the ratification of the 19th Amendment. She recalled that she didn’t think there was “any community anywhere in which the souls of some women were not beating their wings in rebellion.”
Meanwhile, one-tenth of the female population of the U.S. was brutally enslaved, suffering endemic rape by their masters and powerless to stop their children from being sold away. Two years after Seneca Falls, the first nationwide women’s rights convention issued a call to “remember the two millions of slave women at the South, the most grossly wronged and foully outraged of all women.”
Over the next three-quarters of a century, women made enormous gains in public life. By 1920, one-fifth of American women were working outside the home, approximately half of them in the industrial sector, especially textile and garment production. The great majority of Black women worked as domestic servants, but they were beginning to break into factory work. Women had achieved significant standing in medicine, making up about 10% of practicing physicians in major cities. Women had also become major figures in American artistic and intellectual life. In 1921, Zona Gale was the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and two years later the Pulitzer Prize for poetry went to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Both were advocates of suffrage.