It took the agitation of a nation: the road to women’s suffrage
“We have learned that our work must be upon long lines. We who have toiled up the steps of the Old Capitol only to see our bills defeated upon final vote. We who took our baby boys with us to those early meetings, now find these boys are voters, while their mothers are still asking for freedom. We only hope that the next generation of women may find their work made easier because we have trodden the path before them.”
-Mary Jane Whitely Coggeshall
Like many social movements, the right for women to gain the vote in the U.S. was an arduous and complex struggle that in many ways still continues to this day.
Nationally, the women’s suffrage movement had its birth in the anti-slavery movement. Some of the organizers of and participants in the 1848 Women's Rights Convention in Seneca Fall were abolitionists, and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass attended and addressed that convention. In 1859, the New England Convention of Colored Citizens demanded universal suffrage—that all women, Black and white, and Black men be given the vote.
Following the Civil War, the public debated a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution to address voting rights. Many suffragists wanted to guarantee voting rights for African American men and for all women. The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1870. It states that the right to vote cannot be denied due to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” But the law had at least one major problem – it was interpreted to apply only to men. After African American men won the vote, women (and some men) continued to work for universal suffrage throughout the U.S.
Fighting for Universal Suffrage in Iowa
In Iowa, the first known agitation for women's suffrage occurred in 1854 when Frances Dana Gage of Ohio gave a lecture on temperance and women's rights in Oskaloosa. It continued as a public and private fight (sometimes within households) for nearly 70 years.
In 1857, the newly-ratified Iowa constitution restricted the right to vote and to run for the Iowa General Assembly to white males over the age of 21. Then, in 1868, Iowa voters approved an amendment to the Iowa constitution removing the word "white" from the voting section, granting non-white males the right to vote in Iowa. The amendment also removed "white" from the census, senate apportionment and militia sections.
In March 1870, the Iowa legislature approved a resolution to amend the state constitution to give women the vote. A second approval by the 1872 General Assembly was required before it could be presented to Iowa voters. Unfortunately, the women's suffrage amendment to the Iowa constitution failed its second vote in the legislature.
To the dismay of advocates who spent their lives working toward women’s suffrage, a women's suffrage amendment was considered in almost every subsequent legislature, but did not pass two consecutive sessions until 1916.
That year, with the issue of women’s suffrage going to the voters, Iowa became a national women’s suffrage “campaign” state. The referendum to amend the Iowa constitution to grant women full suffrage was defeated by Iowa voters on June 5, 1916. A women’s organization uncovered fraud in the referendum, but the results were allowed to stand.
At the national level, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on May 21, 1919 and the Senate on June 4. To be added to the Constitution, the amendment would need to be ratified by three-fourths (36 at the time) of states.
On July 2, 1919, in a special session of the state legislature, Iowa became the tenth state to ratify the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, after nearly a century of work by advocates throughout the United States, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920. On August 26, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification, which is why we now recognize August 26 as Women's Equality Day.
Iowa women such as Mary Jane Coggeshall, Amelia Jenks Bloomer, Adeline Morrison Swain, Sue M. Wilson Brown, Arabella Babb Mansfield, Helena (Helen) Downey, Mary Newbury Adams, Gertrude Rush, Anna Bell Lawther, Carrie Lane Chapman Catt and countless others spent much of their lives dedicated to the cause of suffrage and to women’s ability to participate fully in civic life.
We owe them an immense debt of gratitude for the many years they sacrificed so that ballots can be cast by the half of the population that for so long was silenced.
Sue Cloud, Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics
Eric Morse, Community Museum of Central Iowa
Kristen Corey, Iowa Department of Human Rights, Office on the Status of Women
Iowa Equal Suffrage Association documents and reports, 1910s. Retrieved from http://digital.lib.uiowa.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/suffrage/id/3108/rec/13.
Iowa Women's Archives. Iowa's Suffrage Scrapbook, 1854-1920. Retrieved from http://sdrc.lib.uiowa.edu/exhibits/suffrage/1854intro.html
Noun, L. R. (1969). Strong-minded women. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press.