Facts, information and articles about Women’s Suffrage Movement, the struggle for the right of women to vote

Women’s Suffrage summary: The women’s suffrage movement (aka woman suffrage) was the struggle for the right of women to vote and run for office and is part of the overall women’s rights movement. In the mid-19th century, women in several countries—most notably, the U.S. and Britain—formed organizations to fight for suffrage. In 1888, the first international women’s rights organization formed, the International Council of Women (ICW). Because the ICW was reluctant to focus on suffrage, in 1904 the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) was formed by British women’s rights activist Millicent Fawcett, American activist Carrie Chapman Catt, and other leading women’s rights activists.

Women’s Suffrage In Europe

The first country to grant national-level voting rights to women was the self-governing British colony of New Zealand, which passed the Electoral Bill in September 1893. The British colony of South Australia granted full suffrage in 1894, giving women the right to vote and to stand for parliament. Australia federated in 1901 and country-wide women’s suffrage followed quickly in 1902; however, women of Australia’s indigenous people were specifically excluded until 1949, when the right to vote in federal elections was granted to all indigenous people. Remaining restrictions were abolished in 1962.

Other countries followed soon after New Zealand, with limited rights granted to women in Sweden, Britain, Finland, and some U.S. states by the early 20th century. When World War I began in 1914, many suffrage organizations shifted their focus to supporting the war effort, although some activists continued to fight for suffrage. Because of manpower shortages in warring countries, women took on many roles traditionally held by men and changed the dominant idea of what women were capable of doing, giving further momentum to the suffrage movement. Britain’s Parliament passed the Eligibility of Women Act in November 1918, which allowed women to be elected to Parliament. Ten years later, the Representation of the People Act granted women the right to vote. Following a path similar to Britain’s, many countries—Denmark, Iceland, the USSR, the Netherlands, Canada, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Luxembourg, the United States—had granted the vote to women by 1920.

Other European countries did not grant women the right to vote until much later—Spain in 1931, France in 1944, and Belgium, Italy, Romania, and Yugoslavia in 1946. Later still were Switzerland (1971) and Liechtenstein (1984). In Latin America, national suffrage was granted to women between 1929 (Ecuador) and 1946 (Argentina). In Africa, the right to vote was generally conferred on both men and women as colonial rule ended and nations became independent—the same is true for India, which granted universal suffrage with its constitution in 1949. Middle Eastern countries granted women the right to vote after World War II, although some countries, such as Saudi Arabia, do not have suffrage at all or have limited suffrage and exclude women completely (Kuwait).

Women’s Suffrage In the United States

The suffrage movement in the United States gained prominence with the first women’s rights convention in the world: the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. The convention was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, active members of the abolitionist movement who met in England in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention. In 1851, Stanton was introduced by a mutual friend to Susan B. Anthony, who was most active in the temperance movement at the time. The two would form a life-long friendship and collaboration focused on obtaining suffrage. They formed the Woman’s National Loyal League in 1863 to support the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery and to campaign for full citizenship for blacks and women.

The National Woman Suffrage Association

In 1869, with slavery abolished, a rift developed in the suffrage movement over how to gain suffrage. Anthony and Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and campaigned for a constitutional amendment for universal suffrage in America, and for other women’s rights, such as changes in divorce laws and an end to employment and pay discrimination. Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, and Josephine Ruffin formed the less-radical American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) to focus on obtaining suffrage for black men with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and on winning women’s right to vote state-by-state, ignoring the broader rights the NWSA was campaigning for.

By the 1880s, it became clear that the two organizations would be more effective if they merged back into one group, so they formed the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890, with Stanton as president and Anthony as vice president. Stanton’s position was largely honorary—she departed on a 2-year European speaking tour shortly after being elected, leaving Anthony as acting president. NAWSA was a national, parent organization to hundreds of local groups that campaigned solely for women’s right to vote. However, NAWSA alienated the more radical activists like Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Olympia Brown who were campaigning for broader rights along with the right to vote.


In the early 20th century, NAWSA restructured itself and shifted it’s tactics, recruiting celebrities to draw attention to the cause, allying with local women’s clubs and some labor unions, and raising money to train and pay organizers to canvass for votes and enlist new members. NAWSA held many parades and rallies to draw attention to their cause, with its members wearing white uniforms and carrying banners to draw crowds and reporters.

In 1914, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns became dissatisfied with the leadership and direction of the NWSA and formed the Congressional Union. Both women had assisted and learned from the British suffrage movement, which was much more radicalized and militant than the NWSA. England’s more militant suffragists faced violent confrontations with authorities and jail sentences; some went on hunger strikes while imprisoned and were made to endure force-feedings to prevent them from dying behind bars, which might increase public sympathy for their cause.

The Congressional Union initially focused on putting pressure on the Democratic Party, which controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. In 1916, the organization was renamed the National Woman’s Party (NWP) and began a more militant campaign for suffrage, picketing and holding demonstrations in front of the White House.

Carrie Chapman Catt, NAWSA president from 1900 to 1904 and 1915 to 1920, was Anthony’s hand-picked successor as the driving force of the organization. She led the final push toward a constitutional amendment, setting up a publicity bureau in Washington, D.C., in 1916 to exert immediate, face-to-face pressure on Congressmen. At the beginning of World War I, the NWP criticized the government for supporting democracy abroad while denying women the right to vote at home—blatant hypocrisy, in their view. Chapman Catt publicly distanced herself and NAWSA from the NWP, calling their behavior unladylike and disapproving of the bad publicity they generated for the movement. In June 1917, NWP members were arrested on the technical charge of obstructing traffic. Arrests and jail time, hunger strikes and force-feedings would continue for activists until the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified.

Ratification Of The Nineteenth Amendment

Tennessee became the last battleground state for ratification. There, as in other Southern states, the woman’s suffrage movement was inextricably linked in the minds of many with the abolition movement, and old animosities still simmered. In Dixie, even more than in other parts of the country, feminism ran counter to a culture in which conservative religion, tradition, and respect for the law was deeply engrained. Too, powerful lobbying groups including liquor distilleries—the temperance movement and women’s rights movement had long been comrades in arms—textile manufacturers and railroads opposed expanding women’s rights. Additional opposition came from state’s rights advocates, some of whom wanted to see women get the right to vote but felt that should be dealt with at the state level, not the national. On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee legislature narrowly approved the 19th Amendment. On August 31, the Tennessee House of Representatives voted to rescind their previous vote, but the U.S. Secretary of State had already proclaimed the amendment ratified on August 26.

Women’s right to vote was achieved through the national and local efforts of both the NAWSA and the NWP. The labor shortage caused by World War I that allowed women to move into roles traditionally held by men also made it increasingly difficult for opponents to argue that women were unworthy of the vote on the grounds of physical and mental inferiority. With the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in sight, Chapman Catt formed the League of Women Voters during NAWSA’s last meeting on February 14, 1920, to help newly enfranchised women exercise their right to vote.


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National Woman Suffrage Procession

By Marlee Newman

NAWSA printed an elaborate program for the 1913 Washington, D.C., parade. (Library of Congress)

Sixty-five years after Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the landmark women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., the first national demonstration for women’s suffrage took place in Washington, D.C. On March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, 8,000 women gathered to march down Pennsylvania Avenue in support of women’s right to vote. Attorney Inez Milholland Boissevain heralded the grand procession clad in armor astride a white horse, a beautiful and intelligent epitome of the new generation of suffragists. Banners of purple, gold and white fluttered in the breeze on the crisp Washington morning. As the women and several male supporters set forth with 26 floats, a crowd of roughly half a million people watched with mixed emotions.

The murmurs of the crowd grew loud and angry as malicious bystanders crumpled parade programs and flung them at the women. The police that Congress promised would protect the parade stood aside as men poured onto the street, shouting insults and condescending remarks, and began to physically attack the marchers. Police ignored cries for help as the mob ripped banners from the hands of young girls. Many officers joined the fray; one was heard shouting, “If my wife were where you are I’d break her head!” A policeman roughly pulled a woman off her feet and tore her jacket because she slapped a man who spit on her. Reporters from newspapers around the country snapped photographs of men dragging elderly women through the streets. By evening, all that remained of the parade were scattered papers and scraps of purple and gold cloth.

The resulting press coverage and congressional investigation led to the first congressional debate over a federal amendment enfranchising women in 26 years. The parade successfully reintroduced the suffrage movement as a legitimate and formidable political force. Seven years later, the 19th Amendment passed by a margin of one vote.

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