One hundred years ago this week, 5,000 women marched for women’s suffrage in Washington, D.C. The goal was to “give expression to the nation-wide demand for an amendment to the Constitution enfranchising women.”
A few years after the parade, the 19th Amendment was ratified, which guaranteed that the right to vote would not be abridged on account of sex. It’s often thought that the amendment was necessary because the Constitution prohibited women from voting. But this is not the case. American women have a history of voting, stretching back to the early republic.
Under the Constitution, voting was handled by states. Article I, Section 2, clause 1 of the Constitution says that “the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.” State qualifications varied. Some allowed white men to vote, some had property requirements, several states allowed free blacks to vote, and one state (New Jersey) made history by recognizing the right of women to vote—a first in recorded human history.
It’s no accident that women voted in America before anywhere else. The country was founded on the self-evident, gender-neutral truth of human equality and the consent of the governed. New Jersey was just the first state to apply the principle to its state constitution and laws.
The 1776 New Jersey constitution stated that “all inhabitants” of the state could vote. But the status of women voters had been unclear for decades. To remedy this, a voting law in 1790, which applied only to seven counties, clarified the state constitution by using the phrase “he or she” in referring to voters. On February 22, 1797, the New Jersey Assembly passed “An Act to regulate the Election of Members of the Legislative-Council and the General Assembly, Sheriffs and Coroners, in this State,” specifically recognizing the right of women to vote across the state.
In 1807, though, rampant voter fraud ended women’s suffrage in the state. (Some women voted as many as six times in a single election.) New Jersey limited the vote to white, property-owning males, which, some scholars noted, violated the state’s constitution. The change in law, though, did not diminish the premise that women and men alike could be self-governing citizens.
In 1848, the first convention of women’s rights met in Seneca Falls, New York, to discuss the artificial impediments to women’s self-government. The centerpiece of the convention was the Declaration of Sentiments, which was modeled on Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
With human equality as the premise, women in the late 1800s pursued three separate strategies for securing women’s suffrage:
1) A broader interpretation of the 14th Amendment,
2) Changing individual state laws, and
3) A constitutional amendment to override all state laws.
The state-by-state approach succeeded. In 1869, Wyoming became the first territorial government to grant women the vote. Five other territories secured the right to vote for women. In 1890, new state Wyoming became the first since New Jersey to allow women to vote in federal elections.
By the time women took to the streets in 1913, women were voting in nine states. When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, 30 states and one territory permitted women to vote in at least some aspect of national elections. One state, Montana, had elected Jeannette Rankin as the first woman in Congress.
Women’s suffrage in America has a long history—a history inextricably linked to our first principles. Ultimately, the seeds of women’s suffrage were sown in the Declaration of Independence’s dedication to equality. America was founded on the revolutionary premise that women and men were equally human and shared the same natural rights. So, as we observe this anniversary, let’s celebrate the principles that made it possible.