The 19th Amendment

To fail to ask for the suffrage amendment at this time would be treason to the fundamental cause for which we, as a nation, have entered the war. President Wilson has declared that “we are at war because of that which is dearest to our hearts—democracy; that those who submit to authority shall have a voice in the government.” If this is the basic reason for entering the war, then those of us who have striven for this amendment and for our freedom and for democracy to yield it today, to withdraw from the battle, would be to desert the men in the trenches and leave them to fight alone across the sea not only for democracy for the world but also for our own country. 

– Anna Howard Shaw, Hearing before the House Committee on Woman Suffrage, 1918


By 1915, the women’s suffrage movement stood at a crucial juncture. The movement was larger than ever. It had achieved notable success in many parts of the country, and women were fully enfranchised in several states, partially so in several more. But nation-wide suffrage for women was still far off; more states had voted against women’s suffrage than had voted for it, and the opposition was both entrenched and well organized. 

The old debate about which strategy—state-by-state or a national strategy—would be most effective resurfaced in 1915. Many in the NAWSA wanted to continue focusing on states. After all, that strategy had yielded victories. It could gain more traction in the South, they argued, but cause it did not activate fears of federal incursions into state authority, and they pointed out that Congress had voted against a federal amendment in early 1915. 

But state campaigns required massive financial investments and the mobilization of women across the country. Contests in the South and the Midwest seemed almost unwinnable, and amending many state constitutions required elaborate, multi-layered voting by successive sessions of the state legislature or popular referenda.  

Passage of a federal amendment was comparatively simple. It required only a two-thirds vote of each house of Congress, followed by the ratification of three quarters of the state legislatures. A federal amendment was also supported by those who felt the only acceptable outcome was for all women, everywhere, to have the right to vote. Accordingly, two leaders in the NAWSA, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, created the Congressional Union in 1913, which would focus its attention on securing a federal amendment. By 1915, the NAWSA had also shifted towards pursing a federal amendment more aggressively. 

The text of the proposed 19th Amendment, still modeled on the 15th, was simple and straightforward: 

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex. 

Section 2. Congress shall have power, by appropriate legislation, to enforce the provisions of this article.

Carrie Chapman Catt, who had been reelected president of NAWSA in 1915, started to refocus the local apparatuses that her organization had built to support reform at a state level, leveraging them to build support for ratification in the 36 states most likely to ratify an amendment. She also helped to grow the organization’s membership significantly, taking it from 100,000 to 2 million by 1917. 

Working Hand-in-Hand

The Congressional Union, working alongside the NAWSA, complemented its efforts. The Congressional Union was a smaller and more focused organization, and was quite a bit more militant in its tactics than the NAWSA. The two approaches complemented each other, and kept the pressure on both political parties. Together, they kept the public spotlight trained on the issue of women’s suffrage. Significantly, the presence of a more radical organization had the serendipitous effect of making the NAWSA’s more subdued lobbying techniques more palatable and even mainstream to many politicians. 

By 1916, the two organizations had succeeded in bring the issue of women’s suffrage to the national stage. Many reform-minded Republicans supported the issue, while southern Democrats vehemently opposed it. Broad scale organizing and lobbying forced politicians to confront the issue on a national level as well as to their constituents at home, and the momentum generated brought forth another set of victories for the movement.

In 1916 and 1917, six Midwestern and Northeastern states adopted the kind of partial suffrage that Illinois has adopted in 1913: Michigan, Ohio, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Nebraska, and Indiana. 

An even more significant victory was won in November, 1917—New York amended its constitution to enfranchise women in all elections. The stunning victory in New York reversed the outcome of a referendum held just two years earlier. A remarkable shift in the working class and immigrant neighborhoods of New York City made the outcome possible, evidence that the movement had taken hold in the working class population.