With six women in the race for the White House, it’s hard to believe there was a time when women couldn’t even vote.
But that was true just a few generations ago. Women were not allowed to vote nationwide until Congress ratified the 19th Amendment in August 1920. On the way there, Iowa was the 10th state to ratify the amendment at the state level, on July 2, 1919.
In the United States, the women’s suffrage movement began in earnest during the first women’s rights convention in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York.
Among the participants was Amelia Jenks Bloomer, who moved to Council Bluffs in 1855 and led the charge for equal suffrage as well as temperance — two movements that often marched side by side. Amid all the successes and setbacks, the liquor lobby often feared women would use the ballot box to vote against the sale of alcohol.
“In Iowa, prohibitionists were primarily Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians who supported the suffrage movement because women were more likely to vote in favor of banning alcohol,” State Curator Leo Landis said. “Meanwhile, most Catholics were for local control of alcohol, so they tended to be against giving women the right to vote.”
Iowa women nearly earned the vote in 1870 and 1916, but in each attempt, social issues distracted from the equal suffrage efforts. In 1870, the issue was divorce; in 1916, the regulation of alcohol.
While lawmakers eventually approved Prohibition — and later repealed — the women’s suffrage movement achieved a permanent and lasting victory.
This month, Iowa marks the 100th anniversary of its ratification of the 19th Amendment. Meanwhile, a committee representing numerous statewide and women’s organizations is developing a series of events and activities that will commemorate the centennial of Congress’ ratification of the legislation in August 2020.
“Our theme is ‘Hard Won, Not Done,’” said Doris Kelley, a former state legislator from Waterloo who represents the League of Women Voters of Iowa and chairs the state’s 19th Amendment Centennial Commemoration Committee. “Our goal is to raise $400,000 for the commemoration, and we’ve raised $160,000 so far.”
The committee will use the funding to educate the public and promote the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Kelley said. The committee’s plans include:
- An online curriculum that offers teachers six lesson plans tailored for high school students during the upcoming school year. The State Historical Society of Iowa already offers an array of online resources about the women’s suffrage movement, including a set of primary sources from Iowa and the Library of Congress.
- A monetary award and plaque for selected students at National History Day in Iowa, another program of the State Historical Society of Iowa.
- An Iowa Public Television documentary about Iowa suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, who grew up in Charles City.
- An original production called “The Suffragist: The Musical,” by composer Nancy Hill Cobb and playwright Cavan Hallman, which recently received a $10,000 grant from the Iowa Arts Council.
- A replica of the original 19th Amendment Suffrage Wagon that suffragist Lucy Stone used at rallies from 1913 to 1920. A second wagon is being built this summer and will be available statewide for parades and for displays at museums and libraries. The original wagon is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
Other activities in the works include city and county proclamations, public artworks and a guest lecture in the Joy Cole Corning Lecture Series at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Meanwhile, the suffrage movement will be featured at the 15th Annual Sioux City International Shorts Film Festival, which will celebrate women writers, directors, actors and producers through presentations, workshops and discussions.
While the upcoming events mark the 100-year anniversary of ratification — after a 70-year struggle — some of the first seeds of the suffrage movement were planted during the American Revolution. In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John, at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. She asked him and the other men to “remember the ladies” while they worked on the Declaration of Independence.
Her husband’s reply?
“The Declaration’s wording specifies that ‘all men are created equal,’” he said.
That was 243 years ago. Much has changed.
The 19th Amendment Centennial Celebration Committee includes the League of Women Voters of Iowa and several of its local chapters, 50–50 in 2020, American Association of University Women of Iowa, Business Professional Women of Iowa, Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, Department of Human Rights/Iowa Commission on the Status of Women, Iowa State Education Association, Iowa State University, Iowa Women’s Foundation, Women Lead Change, National Nineteenth Amendment Society, NEXUS Executive Women’s Alliance, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa.
— Jeff Morgan, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs