The Ugly, Unfinished Fight for Suffrage

August 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which recognized women’s right to vote. The milestone conjures up sepia images of White women in white dresses carrying picket signs. Victory seems inevitable. After all, the arc of history bends towards justice, right? As the grandmother of the movement, Susan B. Anthony, said in her last major speech, “Failure is impossible.”

But a closer look at the fight for the vote reminds us: The arc of history bends only when it is forced to. And always, the work is contentious, progress is uncertain, and victory is incomplete.

Women today have the vote not because a bunch of Gibson girls politely asked for it. We have it because generations of women engaged in bitter and divisive trench warfare — sometimes with their opponents, and sometimes with one another — and because eventually they changed the minds of enough powerful men.

Anthony is often the only suffragist people have heard of, and even then they don’t know much about her. But she was a giant in her day. When, in old age, she collapsed while giving a speech, the Associated Press wired their reporter: “Send us 5,000 words if she is alive. Unlimited if she is dead.”

Even so, the work of suffrage wasn’t the work of one woman. It was the work of decades, and thousands of activists who didn’t always agree with one another’s principles, tactics or priorities.


The suffrage movement grew out of the anti-slavery movement, at a time when female voting was seen as even more radical than abolition. Activists who privately wished women could vote worried that a public campaign for suffrage would make their other progressive causes seem ridiculous by association. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Thomas Jefferson of the suffrage movement, introduced 11 resolutions at the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848, and 10 were approved without argument — only suffrage was debated. It passed after Frederick Douglass voiced his support.

Reconstruction tore the suffrage movement in two. Before the Civil War, abolitionists had campaigned for universal suffrage. But when Congress introduced the 15th amendment, granting voting rights to Black men but not to women, the movement split. (The politicians in power calculated that freed slaves would vote loyally for whoever enfranchised them. But women, who knew what they’d do?)

Some progressives argued that this incremental victory was better than nothing; others wanted to hold out for the original goal of universal suffrage. Old allies became bitter enemies, and each side felt betrayed. What followed was 20 years of wandering in the wilderness for female voting rights, and the rise of Jim Crow laws disenfranchising Black men in the South.

Arguments over race and gender equality are always intertwined, and Jim Crow laws in part stemmed from a failed attempt to win women’s suffrage through the courts. In the 1874 decision Minor v. Happersett, the Supreme Court ruled that states could restrict the franchise, denying it to women if they wanted to. Southern states took this as an invitation to introduce new rules that stole the vote from generations of Black men.

With the old alliance between abolition and suffrage shattered, the suffrage movement began to attract outright racists. Some Southern suffragists began to argue that only by enfranchising White women could the South hope to have the votes needed to maintain White supremacy. Some Northern White suffragists privately agreed with them — but were happy to let the Southern women be the ones making the ugly argument. Even some former abolitionists, who had fought for years to end slavery, were enraged at being told they were “less than” the men they’d helped to enfranchise — not to mention the new immigrants coming into the country.

Activists who didn’t share these sentiments swallowed their disgust for the sake of forging a coalition broad enough to win the vote. Anthony, who fired her secretary on the spot for refusing to work with Black activist Ida B. Wells, would make common cause with almost anyone who supported women’s right to vote. This included polygamous Mormon women from Utah (to the horror of her East Coast allies). It included the highly controversial temperance movement. And it included White supremacist women who explicitly offered their vote as a way to negate Black ballots.

The result was a movement that often courted Black women, who were well-organized and fully committed to the cause, but then turned around and asked them to march at the back of the parade.

The women fighting for suffrage argued bitterly over these alliances, and over the best strategy for securing victory.

Mainstream suffragists distanced themselves from the tactics of radicals like Alice Paul, who was the first to organize protests in front of the White House (in, yes, Lafayette Square). Once President Wilson started having these women imprisoned for crimes such as “obstructing the sidewalk,” Paul and her picketers committed to hunger strikes.

Some suffragists wanted to focus only on winning the vote; others wanted a broader platform of reform. Stanton, for example, became more radical with age and published an egalitarian Bible. Younger activists were embarrassed, and in 1895, the organization Stanton had once presided over formally repudiated her. (Don’t let anyone tell you Twitter invented cancel culture.)

Some wanted a constitutional amendment; others preferred state-by-state laws. A federal amendment would settle the issue once and for all, but if it failed it would be a massive setback; the state strategy seemed to assure at least a partial victory. Again, race was a dividing line: A state-level strategy would leave out Southern Black women, which was precisely why some White suffragists preferred it. On the other hand, a federal amendment that enfranchised all women (at least in principle) would need to be ratified by some Southern states — which would give activists from the Jim Crow South a significant say in the movement.

As flawed and fractious as it was, the movement succeeded. The Anthony Amendment was ratified on Aug. 18, 1920 — squeaking through by a single vote in Tennessee — and became law on Aug. 26.


Anthony herself didn’t live to see it.

Most popular histories say it took 72 years for women to win the right to vote, dating the start of the movement to 1848, but in truth it took longer — the idea that women were full U.S. citizens who deserved the vote wasn’t born in Seneca Falls.

Eleanor Flexner’s seminal history of the suffrage movement is called “Century of Struggle.” From that perspective, women have now been voting as long as it took them to win the right to do so.

And that’s only White women. Black and Native Americans would not be able to exercise their right to vote, regardless of sex, until the Voting Rights Act passed 45 years later.

Nor is this long fight finished. Today, millions of people in the U.S. remain disenfranchised: 6 million who’ve been convicted of felonies, who are disproportionately Black; 4 million living in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico and Guam; 74 million citizens under the age of 18; and 13 million taxpaying permanent legal residents. We might also count the 700,000 residents of Washington D.C., whose congressional representatives lack voting power.

As a practical matter, the disenfranchised also include anyone who can’t get time off from work to vote, anyone who is improperly turned away at the polls, anyone whose polling place is too crowded to let them vote in a reasonable amount of time, and anyone intentionally discouraged from voting by strict voter ID laws: More than 21 million Americans don’t have a photo ID, and most of them are Black. In this year’s election, the right to vote may be heavily determined by who can get a mail-in ballot.

If Anthony and her allies were alive today, they would surely celebrate a century of suffrage. But then they’d get back to work.

Several sources were helpful to me in researching this column. Here are a handful: “When and Where I Enter” by Paula Giddings and “African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote” by Rosalyn Terborg-Penn are required reading for understanding the racial politics of the movement. Susan Ware’s “Why They Marched” is thoroughly researched and highly entertaining (I read it on the beach). The podcast “She Votes!” by Ellen Goodman and Lynn Sherr is a delight. And the documentary “Not for Ourselves Alone” by Ken Burns is easy to find on streaming platforms and shockingly short (for Burns) at three hours.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron’s, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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