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The 19th Amendment Turns 100: Historian Explains How Law Didn't Exactly 'Give Women The Vote'

(CBS Philadelphia) -- The 19th Amendment is commonly viewed as giving women the right to vote. That isn't entirely accurate. When it was certified into law 100 years ago on August 26, millions of women could already vote for president and other elected offices.

Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Utah all allowed women to vote before the turn of the 20th Century. Washington, California and Oregon were among the seven additional western states to enfranchise women early in the decade leading up to the ratification of the 19th Amendment. New York, Ohio, Michigan and other states followed later in the decade. The votes of women were even used as leverage in the push for federal voting rights.

What The 19th Amendment Actually Says

The 19th Amendment actually "prohibited states from using sex (and they used the word 'sex' then, not 'gender') as a means of limiting the vote to men only," according to Louise Stevenson, professor of History and American Studies at Franklin & Marshall College.

"According to the original Constitution, and still to today, states may say who qualifies to vote," says Stevenson. "States have changed those qualifications over time. The first qualification to go was the property qualification. That happened in the age of Jackson. The second voting qualification to go was states were prohibited from using race or previous condition of servitude. That was the 15th Amendment. Then you had the 19th amendment..."

Early Days Of Women's Suffrage Movement

The Women's Suffrage Movement dates back decades before the Civil War. But it wasn't until 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention, that it began to coalesce on the national level. At that event, convened to address women's rights, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, an early leader of the women's suffrage movement, led delegates in writing the Declaration of Sentiments.

The declaration draws from the Declaration of Independence composed 70-plus years prior, borrowing language and stating grievances: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted (among men), deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

It goes on to list some of the "repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman..." They include never permitting her to "exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise" and compelling her to "submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice."

Suffrage Movement Grows And Splinters

Over the years, women's suffrage grew beyond a cause of the well-heeled into a grass-roots movement. Disagreement over whether to attack the issue at the federal or state level and how to go about it spawned different organizations along the way, even as the end goal remained the same.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) formed in 1890, with the merger of the National Woman Suffrage Association and the American Woman Suffrage Association. NAWSA pushed at the state level, first under leaders from the merged groups like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and later under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt. Alice Paul broke away from NAWSA in 1913 to form the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage and then the National Woman's Party, with a Constitutional Amendment as their goal.

Racism was also prevalent within the suffrage movement, as it was throughout the country at the time. Leading up to the 15th Amendment in 1870, which said the vote could not be denied "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," notable white suffragists like Stanton and Anthony argued against letting Black men vote before white women. NAWSA excluded Black women at state and local levels. Notable Black suffragists, like author Ida B. Wells, were sidelined by national suffrage groups, leading them to create their own organizations, like National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC).

Confrontation As A Means To An End

Confrontation, be it ideological or political, played a major role in securing the right to vote for all women. "Women said they needed to vote because they were citizens and for reform causes -- antislavery, temperance in the pre-Civil War period and prohibition and urban and labor reform decades [later] from 1900 to 1920," as Stevenson frames it. "They took those arguments into every state... They also started parading. And for women to parade was a big deal then, because it violated traditional gender conventions for women to parade as themselves."

Alice Paul and the Women's Party picketed the White House. They used president Woodrow Wilson's own justification of leading the country into World War I -- "make the world safe for democracy" -- to taunt him. They claimed the United States is not a democracy if women can't vote. When attacked and arrested, they held fast to their beliefs. When jailed, they refused to eat and were force-fed.

The confrontation also extended to the ballot box. "The Women's Party sent campaigners to every state where women had the vote and they argued [for them to] use your ballot, vote against the party in power," Stevenson says. "And that would've been the Democrats, who were stopping women's suffrage in the Senate, because of the solid South. Also, many of the northeastern states line up at this point against suffrage. And that begins to change in the northeast in 1917, when New York approves a state referendum. And that's when Wilson begins to see, because of this political confrontation, that he has to change or his party is not going to do very well in the 1918 elections and the 1920 presidential elections."

The Last Mile

Weeks after Paul and other jailed suffragists were released, president Wilson came out in support of the 19th amendment. It's not clear his views on women voting had changed, so much as the political landscape had. There was growing public support, pushed by both the mainstream and more confrontational parts of the movement. Wilson was hoping to keep his party in power in the midterm election. Though he did also acknowledge the role of women in the war effort as a key reason to extend the vote to them as citizens.

The amendment barely passed the House in January of 1918 with the necessary two-thirds majority. It failed to pass the Senate in 1918, but succeeded in 1919. State ratification was the next step, and that process continued through August of 1920.

With 35 states already voting to ratify, one short of the required 36, Tennessee took up the amendment. It passed the state's Senate but remained deadlocked in its House. As the story goes, 24-year-old representative Harry T. Burn had originally voted to table it until the next legislative session. But he had recently received a letter from his mom, telling him to "be a good boy" and vote in support. He did.

A legal challenge to Tennessee's ratification lingered on. But on August 26th, 1920, when Tennessee's ratification certificate arrived in the nation's capital and the Secretary of State certified that all conditions had been met, the amendment officially became law. After a decades-long struggle, women had won the right to vote.

The Reality Of The 19th Amendment

Of course, the reality of being allowed to vote was far more complicated in those days. "Just because women had the vote -- that states could not prohibit it -- doesn't mean that they did or could vote," says Stevenson.

"Registration to vote used to be a lot more complicated than it is now," says Stevenson. In Pennsylvania, for example, "they had to go to the registration office on certain days. They had to pay a tax or be a taxpayer. And they had to turn out to vote on the day. So if you're a factory worker, is your boss going to give you the day off to vote? If you're a mom, can you leave your children at home to go vote? There are many barriers to women voting."

For some women, one of those barriers was skin color. Enforcement of the 15th Amendment had been lacking for 50 years by that point. Literacy tests and poll taxes, written into many state and local laws, were among the obstacles, particularly in the South, where most African Americans lived in 1920. Widespread disenfranchisement, aided by the threat of violence, continued for people of color through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And some would argue that it continues to exist even today.

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