19th Amendment

The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is perhaps most memorable for being directly tied to the women’s suffrage movement that took place in the U.S. at both the state and federal levels. For example, the 19th Amendment prohibited state and federal governments from denying citizens the right to vote because of their sex. This was necessary because, until as recently as the 1910s, most states in the U.S. did not allow women the right to vote. To explore this concept, consider the following 19th Amendment definition.

Definition of 19th Amendment

Noun

  1. The constitutional amendment that prohibits state and federal governments from denying anyone the right to vote based on his or her sex.

Origin

August 18, 1920           Ratification of constitutional amendment

What is the 19th Amendment

The 19th Amendment prevents state and federal governments from denying people the right to vote based on their sex. For example, the 19th Amendment ensures that women are given the right to vote – something that was not the standard until the earlier part of the 1900s. The 19th Amendment was first introduced to Congress in 1878, yet it was not approved by Congress until 1919 – 41 years later. Tennessee rounded out the final vote necessary to ratify the amendment the following year, on August 18, 1920.

The amendment was a direct result of the women’s suffrage movement that had taken place in the U.S. around that time. The suffrage movement started out fairly small, and eventually received national recognition in 1920. The purpose of the movement was for women to fight for their right to vote.

History of the 19th Amendment

When the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1789, the issue of suffrage was left vague. This is because at that time, the issue of women voting was not an issue at all. The House of Representatives was the only legislature that could be directly elected at the time, and it was common knowledge among the people in all of the states that women were simply not allowed to vote.

Movements had been organized in the past, and organizations were set up to fight for women’s rights. However, the Seneca Falls Convention, which took place in New York in 1848, is held as the true beginning of the women’s rights movement. Ironically, despite the convention’s focus on women’s achieving equality on several social, civil, and moral rights, the convention did not focus much on the issue of suffrage in particular. Suffrage bills were indeed introduced into most state legislatures during that time, but they were typically ignored, and few ever came to a vote.

Woman’s Suffrage Moves Forward

The suffrage movement really started to gain momentum in the period immediately following the Civil War. Activists first prevailed in the freshly formed Wyoming, Utah, and Washington territories. It was at this point that existing state governments began to take suffrage bills more seriously. Some even allowed such bills to be voted on, however none of these votes were successful. Still, activists persisted at the national level, petitioning and lobbying for the cause.

One movement in particular that was related to the cause was the push to amend the Fourteenth Amendment, which openly discriminated against women. In particular, the amendment penalized states that denied adult men the vote, but did not penalize states that did the same to adult women. Several attempts were made in the history of the 19th Amendment to amend the 14th Amendment to grant women the right to vote. At one point, an amendment that was suggested in the House of Representatives called for suffrage to be limited to only those women who were single, widowed, and owned property.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the history of the 19th Amendment grew from the persistence of a male senator, California’s Aaron A. Sargent. Sargent had befriended advocate Susan B. Anthony on a train ride in 1872, and from that point forward, he attempted on several occasions to slip provisions related to women’s suffrage into bills that had nothing to do with the issue – a noble and surprisingly progressive move for a male representative during that time. Sargent formally introduced the constitutional amendment in January of 1878.

Similarity to the 15th Amendment

Interestingly, the 19th Amendment is nearly the same as the 15th Amendment, save for the fact that the 19th Amendment differs on the denial of suffrage to women. In the 19th Amendment’s case, the denial is prohibited based on sex, whereas the 15th Amendment bans the denial of suffrage based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Stanton, along with several women, testified before the Senate in support of the amendment, which was ultimately rejected by the Senate in 1887.

Following this setback was the period referred to as “the doldrums,” which was a 30-year slump during which the amendment was not being considered by Congress, and the women’s suffrage movement saw little being accomplished. Still, the suffragists pressed on – fighting for the right to vote at the state level, while keeping their goal of the federal government’s permission in their sights. The movement picked up again in 1910 and 1911, with successes in California and Washington, and over the next few years, most of the states in the west passed laws permitting full or partial suffrage for women.

President Woodrow Wilson’s Plea for Women’s Suffrage

In keeping with the history of the 19th Amendment being a rollercoaster of emotions, the Senate re-considered the amendment again in 1914, only to once again reject it. Another proposal of the amendment was brought before the House of Representatives on January 10, 1918.

President Woodrow Wilson issued a strong plea the night before to the House asking them to please pass the amendment. The House did just that, however the Senate refused to pass it, despite Wilson making another plea for its passage. The amendment was voted on yet again on February 10, 1919, only to fail by just one vote.

Both Democratic and Republican politicians were in favor of the proposal being made a part of the Constitution before the general elections that were set to take place in 1920. The President heard their cries, and so he called a special session of Congress so the proposal would be brought before the House once again.

On May 21, 1919, the House passed it again, and on June 4, 1919, the Senate finally passed it, too. Most of the opposition to the amendment came from southern Democrats, however with Tennessee entering the final “yes” necessary to ratify the amendment, the 19th Amendment was finally – after years of fighting and turmoil – added to the Constitution.

Effects of the 19th Amendment

On a rather disheartening note, the effects of the 19th Amendment were such that, despite being granted the power to get out and vote, few women did. For instance, only 36 percent of eligible women voters turned out for the vote in 1920, compared to 68 percent of eligible male voters. This was partially due to the fact that other barriers stood in their way, rather than disinterest. Literacy tests, residency requirements, and poll taxes were all impediments that disenfranchised potential women voters, skewing the effects of the 19th Amendment.

Similarly, many women were inexperienced at voting, and either did not want to learn how, or were afraid to. Many women still also held the belief that voting was not meant for women, and that it would be inappropriate for them to even try. Women would not begin to experience the positivity of the effects of the 19th Amendment until years later.

19th Amendment Example Affecting Voters in Baltimore, Maryland

An example of the 19th Amendment being disputed in a court of law occurred two months after the amendment was passed. Here, Oscar Leser filed a lawsuit to stop Cecilia Streett Waters and Mary D. Randolph, two Maryland citizens, from registering to vote in Baltimore. His reasoning was that it was his belief that the state of Maryland limited its suffrage to men, and that the Maryland legislature had refused to vote on the ratification of the 19th Amendment. The trial court dismissed his case, so he appealed to the Supreme Court and was granted a writ of certiorari.

One of Leser’s arguments was that the amendment “destroyed State autonomy” because it increased the number of people who could vote in the state of Maryland without getting Maryland’s consent first. The Supreme Court countered with the fact that the 19th Amendment was written like the 15th Amendment, which had expanded the electorates of states for over 50 years by that point, despite six states voicing their objections.

Another of Leser’s arguments was that the 19th Amendment was not properly adopted because Tennessee and West Virginia had both violated their own rules in ratifying the amendment. The Court ruled that this point was moot because there existed a significant number of ratifications, even without the ratifications of these states.

Further, the Court held that Tennessee and West Virginia’s certifications of their ratifications were binding, and had been properly authenticated by the Secretaries of the State. The result of the case was that the Court unanimously ruled against Leser, and the women were permitted to register to vote in the city of Baltimore.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Lobby – To attempt to influence a politician or public official on a particular issue.
  • Ratify – To give something formal consent and thereby make it valid.
  • Suffrage – The right to vote in a political election.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.

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