Women’s Suffrage

On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granting American women the legal right to vote. But it wasn’t a quick or a simple quest. While our young nation prided itself on a government based on liberty, justice and representation for all, voting and governance were the domains of white land-owning men for generations.

It was not until 1848 that a movement began to gel that would lead to national suffrage for American women. That year, the Women’s Rights Convention – held in Seneca Falls, NY and organized by activist Elizabeth Cady Staunton – addressed social, civil and religious conditions as well as the rights of women. Shortly after the convention, Susan B. Anthony joined the cause, and she and Staunton led the movement for the next four decades. Both died in the early 20th century as a new generation took charge.

Changes in transportation and communications allowed women to be more mobile and visible in their efforts. Newspapers reported on Suffrage parades in Washington and New York City; the arrests and harsh treatment of Alice Paul and other suffragists; rallies at the Newport, RI home of social leader Alva Vanderbilt; and the eventual support given to the cause by President Woodrow Wilson.

Richmond women were quite active in the movement, organizing the Equal Suffrage League in 1909 with novelist Ellen Glasgow, educational reformer Lila Meade Valentine, and James Dooley’s niece Nora Houston among its founding members. On the other side, the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage was organized by women for women and counted Sallie Dooley among its membership. Maymont’s dueling associations on the issue may have created a few unharmonious moments at family gatherings.

The arguments against women voting were particularly frustrating to the capable and educated women who demanded a voice in the making of laws they were expected to obey. The Anti’s – men and women – feared a change to the status quo and exposure of ladies to the dirty world of politics and disputed that men’s minds were better suited to business and affairs of state.

To the credit of the men in power at the time, the tide turned at last, and they recognized the contributions women made to society and could make to the nation’s government. Congress officially passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919, and the necessary 36 states ratified it in August 1920. For the first time it was legal for women to vote in that year’s Presidential election.