By Megan E. Springate
At the end of 2018, Preservation Leadership Forum published an issue of the Forum Journal called "'Every Story Told:' Centering Women's History." Forum members can find this and other recent issues in the Forum Library. Not a member? A women's history blog series and webinar recording are available for free—or join today!
August 26, 2020, will mark the 100-year anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The text of the amendment is very straightforward:
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.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The events leading to its passage, however, are complicated—as is its legacy.
A Complex History
Many organizations fought for women’s right to vote. Some, like the National American Woman Suffrage Association—associated with Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, among others—focused on a state-by-state strategy. Others, like the National Woman’s Party—associated with Alice Paul, Ava Belmont, Lucy Burns, and Helen Keller—prioritized a federal constitutional amendment.
In the 1800s, those fighting for women’s suffrage and African American suffrage often found common ground. Frederick Douglass, for example, signed in support of the Declaration of Sentiments at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. But in the lead-up to the passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted African American men the right to vote, this relationship became strained and even vicious, as people on both sides felt betrayed.
The 19th Amendment did not make it out of either chamber in 1878, 1914, 1918, and February 1919, before finally being passed by the House of Representatives on May 21, 1919, and then by the Senate on June 4, 1919. Three-quarters of states must ratify constitutional amendments; in 1920, before either Hawai’i or Alaska were states, this meant 36 states. Wisconsin and Michigan were the first to ratify it, both on June 10, 1919, and Tennessee became the 36th state to do so on August 18, 1920. On August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment became law.
We often describe the 19th Amendment as having given women the right to vote. In reality, this watershed moment guaranteed access to the ballot box for only some women in the United States. Excluded by law or by practice were Chinese women; Native American women; and African American women, to name a few. Thus, many women who actively fought for the 19th Amendment did not win access to the vote in 1920, including Chinese immigrant and activist Dr. Mabel Ping-Hua Lee, Chippewa/Metis activist Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, and African American activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
Conversely, some women had been able to vote long before the passage of the 19th Amendment. Black and white women in New Jersey, for example, were able to vote in the late 1700s before being blocked from the ballot by 1807. And women in western states could vote in state elections well before women in the east.
And so the battle for suffrage continued even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Through the 1900s, men and women continued to fight for access to the ballot. Suffragists from that era included:
- Septima Poinsette Clark, who founded citizenship schools where African Americans could learn to read as well as learn about their voting rights;
- Dolores Huerta, cofounder of the Agricultural Workers Association, which held voter registration drives as part of its mission;
- Amelia Boynton Robinson, a leader of the Civil Rights movement in Selma, Alabama, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to plan demonstrations for voting rights; and
- Zitkála-Šá, a Dakota woman who worked with her husband to lobby for Native suffrage rights.
In 1943 Congress repealed the 1882 Exclusion Act, granting Chinese immigrants the right to American citizenship—and therefore the vote. In 1924 Congress granted Native Americans full U.S. citizenship, though many states continued to disenfranchise them—New Mexico, the last state to allow Native Americans to vote, held out until 1962. But Native Americans continued to face the same kinds of exclusion from the ballot as African Americans: legal mechanisms like poll taxes and literacy tests as well as intimidation and violence. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed many of these issues for both groups.
The story of the passage of the 19th Amendment—its challenges, limitations, and successes—remains relevant to our democratic society.
The National Park Service Centennial Commemoration
The National Park Service (NPS) is preparing to commemorate the 19th Amendment, beginning with the start of the ratification process in June 1919, and concluding with the centennial of the amendment becoming law on August 26, 1920. Since January 2017, a working group from across the NPS has been collaborating on the centennial commemoration. The commemoration will focus on places across the United States that are associated with stories of the 19th Amendment, civics, and women’s history.
Two of the NPS units most closely associated with this history are the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848, and the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. But many other parks also have suffrage stories to tell, like the story of Virginia Minor, who founded the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri—the nation’s earliest explicitly suffrage organization—in 1867. After trying and failing to vote in 1872, her case was heard in St. Louis’ Old Courthouse, now part of Gateway Arch National Park. Suffragist Abby Crawford Milton was active in the founding of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee; Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who advocated for suffrage to the Florida legislature, was instrumental in establishing Everglades National Park in Homestead, Florida; Dolores Huerta worked with César Chávez at what is today the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, California; and suffragists Ruth Logan Roberts and Amelia Boynton Robinson attended the Tuskegee Institute, now the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site in Alabama.
In addition to parks, NPS programs like the National Register of Historic Places, National Historic Landmarks (NHLs), and the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) also include numerous places associated with women’s suffrage. For example, Helen Keller’s childhood home, Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama, was listed on the National Register in 1970 and designated an NHL in 1992. Keller, who was a member of the National Woman’s Party, wrote many pro-suffrage articles and marched in many suffrage parades. Jeannette Rankin, who in 1916 was the first woman elected to Congress, found refuge at her ranch in Broadwater County, Montana, which was designated an NHL in 1976. Susan B. Anthony’s home in Rochester, New York, listed on the National Register in 1966 and designated an NHL in 1965—when those programs, respectively, began—has also been documented by the HABS program.
The NPS has already made several resources public in preparation for the centennial commemoration:
Behind the scenes, information and resources are being made available to parks and programs across the service. The NPS is also working closely with current and potential partners to help bring the 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration to the broadest possible audience. Use #FindYourPark and #NPS19th to keep up with the centennial across social media.
Megan E. Springate is the National Park Service national coordinator for the 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration.