Milestone Moments in Suffrage History
How women fought for the 19th Amendment and the right to vote
by Sarah Elizabeth Adler, AARP, August 14, 2020
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1792: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is published
More than 50 years before the first National Women's Rights Convention is held in the United States, the English writer and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which argues in favor of women's education and participation in civic life.
Wollstonecraft inspires early American suffragists like Susan B. Anthony, who keeps a portrait of Wollstonecraft in her home and later republishes A Vindication in her feminist newspaper, The Revolution.
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1848: The suffrage movement is born at the Seneca Falls Convention
Organized by women's rights activists and abolitionists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the Seneca Falls Convention brings together approximately 300 participants in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss “the social, civil, and religious conditions and rights of Women.”
The group votes on 11 resolutions, including one that calls for women's right to vote. Initially rejected by attendees, the eventual approval of the controversial suffrage resolution marks the beginning of the organized suffrage movement in the United States.
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1851: Sojourner Truth gives her “Ain't I a Woman?” speech
Sojourner Truth, who escaped from slavery in 1826, delivers her historic “Ain't I a Woman?” speech at the 1851 Women's Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio. Like Truth, many early suffrage supporters were also prominent abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and continued to advocate for women's rights until his death.
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1866: The American Equal Rights Association is formed
Following the Civil War, the National Women's Rights Convention and the American Anti-Slavery Society merge to form the American Equal Rights Association with a mission to “secure Equal Rights to all American citizens, especially the Right of Suffrage, irrespective of race, color or sex.” Prominent members include Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
In 1869, the organization splinters over disagreements about how to prioritize race and gender in the fight for voting rights. Two separate groups — the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) — are formed as a result.
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1872: Susan B. Anthony stands trial for voting
Susan B. Anthony is arrested and faces trial after leading a group of women to vote for Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election (she is eventually fined). Anthony, who died in 1906, was among the generation of early suffragists who did not live to see the 19th Amendment become law.
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1890: The National American Woman Suffrage Association is formed
The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) merge to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
NAWSA becomes the movement's main organization and focuses on securing voting rights for women on a state-by-state basis. Wyoming becomes the first state to do so, in 1890. By 1912, women will have the right to vote in nine other states.
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1896: Black activists found the National Association of Colored Women
Prominent Black suffragists and activists including Harriet Tubman, Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, and Frances E.W. Harper found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which unites Black women's groups from across the country with the motto “Lifting as We Climb.”
Often sidelined from the mainstream suffrage movement by white activists, NACW members work to support the suffrage effort and address issues like lynching and segregation. Now known as the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, the organization remains active to this day.
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1913: The Woman's Suffrage Procession comes to Washington, D.C.
Thousands of demonstrators arrive in Washington, D.C., to take part in the Woman's Suffrage Procession the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration. Organized by the outspoken National Woman's Party founder Alice Paul and NAWSA, the procession is led by lawyer Inez Milhollan on horseback. Many women are injured after attacks by an angry opposition crowd, but no arrests are made.
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1917: The Silent Sentinels take a stand
The National Woman's Party becomes the first group to picket the White House when it stations “Silent Sentinels” — women bearing pro-suffrage signs — on Pennsylvania Avenue beginning in January 1917. Hundreds of Sentinels are ultimately arrested, and 168 serve jail time, including Paul, who initiates a hunger strike while imprisoned and is force-fed and threatened with confinement in an insane asylum.
Newspaper coverage of Paul's treatment helps bolster public support for suffrage, and political support soon follows: President Woodrow Wilson announces his support for suffrage in 1918.
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1920: Tennessee ratifies the 19th amendment
Following decades of activism and its passage in Congress in 1919, the 19th Amendment becomes law on August 18, 1920, when it is ratified in Tennessee. The amendment is certified and signed by the secretary of state on August 26, 1920.
Unchanged since it was first introduced in Congress in 1878, the amendment reads: “The right 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.”