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State of Oregon Law Library Legal Research Blog

The Long Road to Women's Suffrage

by Amanda Duke on 2020-08-26T16:58:00-07:00 | Comments

Margaret Howe with Oregon shield during woman suffrage march in Washington, D.C., March 1913

Today marks the official centennial anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States (although it was ratified by the last state on August 18th, 1920, it was not signed by the Secretary of State until August 26th, 1920). But this date only marks the suffrage of some women. The path to all women voting has had a long circuitous path in this country, and not all have gotten the right to vote at the same time.

Early limited suffrage

The first known woman to vote in the colonial U.S. was Lydia Chapman Taft in Massachusetts. The vote was on whether the town would support taxation for the French and Indian wars. Taft’s husband, who had been the town mediator, had recently died, as had their oldest son, who would have taken his place. The family had no other male relative that was of age or met the requirements to vote, so the town made the unusual decision to allow Taft to vote in their stead. Her ballot was the deciding factor to support funding the war.[1] It appears that this was a solitary event, and she did not vote on later measures.

Directly after the Revolutionary War in 1776 is when women more universally began to vote. Several states originally included broad voting requirements that would have, intentionally or not, allowed women to vote. However, it seems that once state legislatures realized this or once women exercised that right, they began to limit it to men. New York changed their voting requirements language to men only in 1777, Massachusetts in 1780, and New Hampshire in 1784. The 1787 U.S. Constitutional Convention left the decision of voter requirements in the hands of the state—and every other state but New Jersey voted to exclude women.[2]

The first New Jersey constitution gave voting rights to: “all inhabitants of this colony, of full age, who are worth fifty pounds … and have resided within the county … for twelve months.”[3] (This broad terminology allowing all inhabitants also granted African American voting rights, although they added a requirement in 1797 that it only applied to free citizens.) In 1790, the legislature changed “inhabitants” to say “he and she,” explicitly stating that women had the right to vote.[4] However, due to the requirement of property worth 50 pounds, this excluded all married women, who could not own property in their own names, as well as any poorer women and men. In 1807, the legislature changed the voting requirements yet again by restricting it to free, tax-paying, white male citizens. This change seems to have been the result of political pressure from the national Democrat-Republican party who wanted an advantage in the following year’s election and who didn’t think broader voting rights would get them that, claims of voter fraud, and a growing intolerance toward immigrants and people of color.

After New Jersey ended their women's suffrage, Kentucky was the next state to grant women with school-age children the right to vote in school elections, including on taxation issues, in 1838.[5] This limited so-called “school suffrage” very slowly spread to other states. Inspired by Kentucky and by the abolition movement, the organized movement for suffrage first began in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, which was the first time any convention had ever been held on women's rights. There, the women issued a Declaration of Sentiments, which included suffrage as a core tenet of the fight for equality.

Suffragists began putting pressure on legislatures on women's rights issues and convincing male voters to support their cause. This led to individual states passing some steps towards equality (such as states passing laws allowing married women to own property). However, despite this, the first national women’s voting organizations focusing on suffrage weren't founded until 1869. 

The fight in Oregon

In Oregon, the campaign for the vote began in 1870 with Abigail Scott Duniway’s arrival in the state. She immediately founded a women’s rights newspaper called The New Northwest and invited Susan B. Anthony to tour the Pacific Northwest advocating for women’s rights. In the state’s 1872 election, several women tried to cast their ballots. These women were: Duniway, Maria Hendee, M.A. Lambert, and Mrs. Beatty; however, their votes were ordered to be set aside and weren’t counted. Women’s suffrage was debated in the Oregon state legislature starting in 1872 and bills passed either the House (1880) or the Senate (1882), but each time it died before advancing any further. Without enough support in the legislature, suffragists worked on getting the question on the ballot. The Oregon Equal Suffrage Association got the equal suffrage constitutional amendment on the ballot for the first time in 1884. It failed. They got it on the ballot in 1900. It failed. They got in on the ballot in 1906. It failed. They got it on the ballot in 1908. It failed. They got in on the ballot in 1910. It failed. 1912 was the magic year and it finally passed.[6] Suffrage was on the ballot six times in the state, more than anywhere else.    

Dr. Viola M. Coe, Abigail Scott Duniway, Governor Oswald West at the 1912 Equal Suffrage Proclamation signing.

The slog towards 1920

Although there were efforts to bring a national amendment, the focus was on getting individual states to pass suffrage. However, this strategy advanced things at a glacial pace. By 1900, there were 17 states that had passed limited school suffrage and only 4 states that had passed full suffrage (Wyoming in 1869 was the first granting full voting rights to women).[7]  Moreover, suffrage wasn't always a straight line once it was passed, there were repeated setbacks, as was seen in Washington and Utah. 

Washington was the first territory or state where suffrage was introduced in the legislature in 1854, but it was defeated by a single vote. A Washington judge allowed women to cast ballots in an 1869 election, the state legislature in response passed a law explicitly denying women the right to vote in 1871. Suffrage was passed in 1883, which the Territorial Supreme Court struck down in 1886, and women in the state did not get suffrage passed again until 1910.[8]

Utah territory granted women the right in 1870, however before becoming a state, Congress attempted to pass several bills disenfranchising women, Mormons, polygamists, or all the above; a bill passed in 1887 succeeded of stripping women of the vote in the state. They regained that in 1893.[9]

State measures and ballots were not the only methods suffragists tried. Women also turned towards the courts and civil disobedience by trying to vote and then refusing to pay fines, or by suing their state. In Minor v. Happersett (1875), Virginia Minor was barred from registering to vote.  She sued the registrar on the grounds that the 14th amendment allowed her suffrage as a citizen. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the amendment did not give women the right to vote and that voting was not an inherent right of being a citizen. These slow gains and losses continued until Congress finally passed the 19th amendment in 1919. However, it still needed one more state for the two-thirds majority for ratification. This happened when Tennessee passed the amendment on August 18th, 1920, and it was officially certified August 26th, 2020.

So was that the happy ending and all women had the right to vote? Not so fast.

Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin), Native American Suffragist and Author


Indigenous women’s suffrage

For the first 148 years of this country, Native Americans did not have United States citizenship unless they gave up their tribal affiliation. And still, that may not have granted them full voting rights, as many states had laws denying them suffrage. Oregon did not have explicit laws against them voting, and there is evidence that ballots were cast in at least two elections (1896 and 1906) on reservation or allotment land.[10] It was not until the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act that full citizenship was granted. However, even this did not fix matters, as the Constitution allows states to decide who as the right to vote; and many states had constitutions or laws denying suffrage that they continued to enforce. The last state to finally strike down these anti-suffrage laws was in 1962, however, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and other subsequent federal voting protection laws were still needed to ensure access to the polls.[11]

Asian American women’s suffrage

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 Immigration Act explicitly prohibited either the naturalization or immigration of Asians in the United States. Although the 14th and the 15th amendments granted voting rights to all natural-born men, and the 19th granted it to women; suffrage was often denied to those who would have met these criteria through literacy tests, property restrictions, and other means of voter suppression. It was not until the 1943 Magnuson Act that Chinese immigrants could become naturalized, and the Immigration and Nationality Acts of 1952 and 1965 finally granted full citizenship and suffrage to all Asian Americans living in the U.S.

Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee, the first Chinese American woman to register to vote, 1911


Latina women’s suffrage

Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War, citizenship was granted to Mexicans living in the territories that now belonged to the United States. A 1790 Immigration Law had previously declared that citizenship was only granted to “free whites.” Federally, the treaty meant that Latinx were classified as white and therefore Latino men should have had the right to vote. Unfortunately, that was not often the case. In 1923, Texas declared that election primaries were for white people only; officials often broadly applied this to all Latinx. It was not until Smith v. Allright (1944) that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down white primaries. However, states often enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, or other means of suppressing voters, until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Many places continued to provide election and ballot materials only in English, which served as a de facto literacy test. It required the 1975 expansion of the Voting Rights Act to end this and mandate that election materials be provided in multiple languages. 

Jovita Idar, founder of the League of Mexican Women, a woman's rights organization

African American women’s suffrage

Technically, African American women could vote with the passage of the 19th amendment. However, the widespread use of poll taxes, white-only primaries, and other methods of suppression meant that was rarely the case. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 established a Civil Rights division within the Department of Justice that allowed the U.S. Attorney General to prosecute those who barred citizens from voting. The 24th amendment in 1964 banned poll taxes, and then the 1965 Voting Rights Act allowed more widespread protection.

Harriet "Hattie" Redmond, prominent Oregon Suffragist

Women’s Suffrage in U.S. Territories

Nearly all U.S. territories and commonwealths have the same limited voting rights: they can vote in election primaries but cannot vote in federal general elections. They may send a delegate to Congress, but that delegate cannot vote either.

American Samoa is the exception to that. They became an unincorporated territory in 1900 and are considered “nationals but not U.S. citizens at birth,” so do not have full U.S. citizenship and cannot vote in elections but can send a delegate to Congress. The territory adopted its first constitution in 1967, which gives “every person” the right to vote.

Maria Cadilla, Puerto Rican Suffragist

In Puerto Rico, U.S. citizenship was granted under the Jones Act of 1917. Women in U.S. colonies were not specifically included in the 19th amendment, and when women in Puerto Rico tried to vote, the U.S. consular office decreed that the 19th amendment did not apply. The Puerto Rico legislature passed the right to vote for literate women in 1929, and then removed the literacy requirement in 1935.[12]

The U.S. Virgin Islands also became a territory in 1917 but were not granted citizenship until 1927. The Organic Act of 1936 further prohibited discrimination based on “race, color, sex, or religious belief.” Guam became a U.S. territory in 1950, and the Organic Act granted citizenship. The Northern Mariana Islands became a territory in 1947 and then moved to commonwealth status in 1974, which gave them citizenship. Their constitution, adopted in 1978, grants voting rights to all inhabitants. 


Oregon Woman Suffrage Handbill 1912

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