One hundred years ago, in 1916, Montana elected the first woman to serve in Congress: Jeannette Rankin. On Tuesday 8 November, the US did not elect its first woman president. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, Donald Trump won the Electoral College.
The expectation of a Clinton victory led many to reflect on the long history of the women’s quest for the right to vote. In Rochester, New York, visitors to Susan B. Anthony’s grave covered her modest headstone with “I Voted” stickers. Media commentators ticked off the ninety-six years that had elapsed between the 19th Amendment’s ratification and the arrival of a woman at the head of a major party ticket. And three researchers put together a widely circulated web site “I Waited 96 Years!” with stories and photographs of women “born before the 19th Amendment,” who planned to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Embedded in these developments are three narratives. One, the story of the long struggle to secure voting rights, underscores Anthony’s heroism in going to the polls in 1872 and being arrested for illegal voting. Another, the story of a singular, hard-won achievement, misleadingly insists that “American women lacked the right to vote until” 1920. A third, the story of eventual triumph, writes a neat concluding paragraph to the effort.
As with so many popular historical tales, the three narratives leave out a lot. When Susan B. Anthony voted in 1872, several other women joined her, all of whom hoped to prove that voting was a right of citizenship under the 14th Amendment. In scattered locations, hundreds of other women—both African American and white—did the same. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a newspaper editor, teacher, and graduate of Howard University Law School, who argued that the 14th and 15th Amendments had conferred voting rights on African American women as well as men, led a group of more than sixty who attempted to vote in Washington, D.C. They were unsuccessful, but received affidavits certifying that they had made the effort. And it was not Anthony but Missouri’s Virginia Minor whose name eventually appeared on the 1875 Supreme Court decision on the legality of women’s voting, Minor v. Happersett. In case you’re wondering, she lost. Women were clearly citizens, the Court held unanimously, but it was up to the states to decide which citizens could vote.
States and territories had already begun making those decisions. In 1869, Wyoming Territory granted women full voting rights. When Wyoming entered the union in 1890, women kept those rights. Women in Montana gained full suffrage in 1914, the year of Montana statehood. By 1916, when Jeannette Rankin won her seat in Congress, women had full voting rights in 12 states and territories; by 1918, the number was 16. By the summer of 1920, as suffragists were making the final push to get states to ratify the 19th Amendment, women had won the right to vote in presidential elections in more than half of the 48 states.
These victories are not simply historical footnotes. Both full and partial woman suffrage became key elements in the suffragists’ strategy to secure a national amendment. If today’s voters are familiar with any part of the suffrage crusade, it’s likely to be the “Iron-Jawed Angels” of the National Woman’s Party. Founded in 1916, the group became famous for its militant tactics, including picketing the White House while burning Woodrow Wilson’s words about democracy. Those tactics, part of a strategy of “holding the party in power responsible” for women’s lack of voting rights, depended upon mobilizing women who had suffrage to work to extend that right to the rest. It also depended on the questionable assumption that all women shared common political interests.
With the 19th Amendment’s ratification, a chapter in a long struggle ended. But new chapters remained to be written. In principle, all women now had the right to vote. But some women, particularly African Americans in the states of the former Confederacy, as well as Asian-born and Native American women, remained disfranchised by laws that disfranchised men of their racial category or prevented them from becoming citizens. Still in 1920, in several former Confederate states, African American suffragists challenged voting registrars and successfully registered and voted—for a time. Their counterparts in the North, long active in the suffrage movement, found new political clout. In Illinois, for instance, led by the great anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, African American women voters mobilized to help elect Oscar De Priest to Chicago’s city council and later to the US House of Representatives.
After 1920, different women had different access to what was now considered a fundamental right of adult citizenship: voting. In other words, women’s suffrage suffered the same fate of differential entreé as did other women’s rights, such as the right to reproductive autonomy. Nor did all women agree on the value of voting. As 1920 ended, women antisuffragists were still challenging the 19th Amendment’s validity and vowing to defend “The Family and the State” against “Suffragism, Feminism, and Socialism.” By 1927, the group had accepted suffrage. There were women voters but clearly there was no united “women’s vote.”
There still isn’t. On 8 November, women as a group supported Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, but 53% of white women voted for Trump. It was African American women, 94% of whom championed Clinton, and Latinas, 68% of whom voted for her, who most fervently wanted to see this particular woman in the White House. Some day, another woman will seek the presidency on a major party ticket. When she does, she shouldn’t expect a “women’s vote” to carry her to victory, any more than a “men’s vote” made Donald Trump into the president-elect.