Could Women Vote Before the Nineteenth Amendment? It’s Complicated.
By Jordan Westendorf
The struggle for the Nineteenth Amendment and full voting rights for women in the United States has had a long and complicated history. Even though women’s suffrage is the foundational struggle for women’s rights, much of the rhetoric, political considerations, and, at times, regressive outcomes, mirrors that of the modern fight for equal representation of women in elected office.
States began experimenting with women’s suffrage as early as 1836 when Kentucky granted women the right to vote on school-related issues. Kansas was next in 1838, soon to be followed by another twenty states by 1900. Other “minor” suffrage rights included votes for taxation or bonds, municipal elections, presidential suffrage, and primary election suffrage. By the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment on August 18, 1920, fifteen states had granted full suffrage to women and another fourteen granted women suffrage in presidential elections. Only twelve states, mostly concentrated in the South, refused to ratify the Amendment and ended up having suffrage imposed on them. And yet, women’s suffrage did not mean “equal” suffrage, as non-white women were often not granted the right to vote and property or marriage restrictions also often accompanied these measures.
The reasons for granting women the right to vote were often political and varied. For instance, Wyoming, then a territory, granted women full suffrage in 1869 because state legislators wanted to help rectify the gender imbalance in the state where men outnumbered women 6-to-1. There were also political motivations for increasing the population to aid in Wyoming’s application for eventual statehood, opposing the right of African Americans to vote, and attempting to make a Republican governor look bad if he signed the bill into law. Despite some of these somewhat morally dubious rationales, the state ultimately refused to give up women’s suffrage when it joined the union in 1890, even going so far as to threaten to not join should Congress insist upon male-only suffrage. Thus, Wyoming became the first state in America to grant women full voting rights.
This story serves to highlight the multifaceted considerations that went into the suffrage debates leading up to the Nineteenth Amendment and women’s rights more generally. As we celebrate the Suffrage Centennial this year, these considerations are important to keep in mind as Americans are too prone to consider things like women’s representation in Congress only a “women’s issue” rather than a complicated one with far-reaching implications. For example, recent research has revealed that women are more likely to build consensus and reach across the aisle in making policy than men are in comparable settings. Thus, as part of RepresentWomen’s #SuffrageCentennialCelebration, we will be highlighting the states that gave women the right to vote before the passage of the nineteenth Amendment and how their political calculus played into the suffrage movement.
Our statements will be posted on our social media when the individual state or territory first granted voting rights to women. The first state, North Dakota, celebrated its 102 year anniversary of partial women’s suffrage on January 23. In 1917, North Dakota voted to allow women the right to vote in certain elections, including presidential elections. Full suffrage, however, was denied due to failed efforts in 1875, where a bill failed in the territorial legislature, and 1914, where it failed as a statewide referendum of only male voters. Full suffrage was finally granted with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which North Dakota individually ratified on December 1, 1919, making it the twentieth state to do so. Another 18 states would then ratify the Nineteenth Amendment between December 1, 1919, and August 18, 1920, when the amendment officially became law.
This complicated and nonlinear path to women’s suffrage in just a single state illustrates the difficulties associated with constitutional amendments and the broader struggle for voter equality in the United States that persists today.
Jordan Westendorf is a RepresentWomen Communications Intern and a student at Georgetown University, class of 2022, studying Government and History.