Votes for Women, 1916 to 2016

Whether you’re celebrating or mourning the results of the Presidential Election, let’s be glad that all US citizens had an equal opportunity to vote this week. It hasn’t always been that way. The national election of 1916, just 100 years ago, would prove to be the last time the right to vote for a president was denied to half our American citizens – merely because they were women. The 2016 Presidential election was a doubly historic moment. It was the first time a woman led a U.S. presidential ticket for a major political party, and this was accomplished less than 100 years after it became legal for women to vote.

With the passage of the 19th Constitutional Amendment in 1920, women’s voices were finally heard at the polls. However, 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 Maymont’s 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, exposure of ladies to the dirty world of politics, or even the feeble dispute 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 all women to vote in that year’s Presidential election.

It is with admiration and appreciation that we think of the generations of reformers and suffragists who stood by their principles, who encouraged each other and who paved the way for future generations to enjoy the basic right to choose our leaders – male or female.

-Nancy Lowden, Manager of Historical Programs