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It’s Women’s Equality Day. Here’s how woman suffrage activists cleared the hurdles.

Women’s political resources and organizational skills cemented the necessary partnerships

- August 26, 2020

Today we mark Women’s Equality Day and the centennial of certification of the 19th Amendment, eliminating “male” as a legal qualification for voting rights. It’s a fitting time to ask: What politics delivered the amendment?

Most salient political debates today fall along party lines. But party-line fights are unlikely to secure new voting rights, particularly ratification of constitutional amendments, the surest vehicles to secure voting rights expansions. At the state and federal levels, these generally require supermajorities. And a single party — especially one sufficiently electorally vulnerable to desire expanding voting rights to secure new voters — rarely controls the path over these high hurdles.

Woman suffrage activists used alliances with other organized interests to clear the hurdles. Here’s why and how it worked.

Why suffragists needed allied groups

Woman suffrage activists could not credibly offer women’s votes as the payoff for enfranchisement. Testifying to the Senate in 1884, Susan B. Anthony contrasted the push for women’s voting rights to the partisan battle over Black men’s voting rights: “If it was known that we could be driven to the ballot-box like a flock of sheep, and all vote for one party, there would be a bid made for us; but that is not done, because we cannot promise you any such thing…we all have parties… Therefore we cannot promise you that women will vote as a unit when they are enfranchised.”

Because ratification would require bipartisan support across the states, suffrage activists had a strong incentive to make clear that women would not vote as a bloc for either party. As I show in my book, “The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment,” woman suffragists needed instead coalitions with already-enfranchised groups that could leverage sufficient electoral pressure on behalf of the cause.

To make this work, the women who organized through suffrage associations — particularly those who steered the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) — had to learn how to work with farmers’ organizations and labor unions, and with the Populist and Progressive parties. These minor parties provided access to electoral politics in ways the major Democratic and Republican parties did not.

NAWSA’s first victory, Colorado’s ratification of state suffrage in 1893, taught activists basic lessons of coalitional politics. But as my book details, its lessons were difficult to follow. Suffrage organizations sometimes took but failed to reciprocate support and shattered their partnerships. Coalitions with labor unions were especially difficult. Political understandings of largely native-born, White, middle-class suffragists were hard to fit with labor’s course, especially before some of them could draw from cross-class experiences like those gained working in the Settlement House movement and the Women’s Trade Union League.

Lessons from Colorado

Colorado suffragist Ellis Meredith Stanbury rang the alarm in 1893 alerting NAWSA that Colorado was fertile ground for the first state ratification.

Stansbury knew Colorado could add woman suffrage by simple majority votes in the legislature and ratifying public referendum, unlike many states requiring supermajorities. Colorado also offered the opportunity of the Populist party — a new outgrowth of the political upheaval wrought by the 1890s economic crisis. Populists had built their new party organization from labor and farmers’ groups, placing suffragists within their ranks: Women, many of whom supported suffrage, had long populated the state’s farmers’ organizations.

Women in the Populist ranks mattered. Populists seated at least a dozen female delegates at their convention — among them a former president of the Colorado suffrage association — and put woman suffrage among the platform proposals. The state organizations of both the Farmers’ Alliance and the Knights of Labor were pushed to issue endorsements of woman suffrage, too.

These coalitions paid off. Votes on suffrage show Populist lawmakers supported the bill alongside members of the other parties whose districts included large numbers of members of the suffrage coalition. Democratic and Republican lawmakers with greater numbers of farmers or a greater manufacturing sector within their districts, as measured by the U.S. Census, were more likely to vote for the bill.

A public referendum after legislative enactment was always a higher hurdle for suffragists. But in Colorado, for the first time, suffrage activists’ work was joined with an infrastructure built for delivering men’s votes. Populists worked for woman suffrage as a party machine. Their politicians spoke for it. Their newspapers pushed the mandate — “Remember that the [P]opulist party…is pledged to…giving to women the right to suffrage.”

Suffrage won. Using vote shares in 1892 for the Populist candidate for governor to proxy the Populist electoral base, I show that a 10 percentage-point increase in county-level Populist voting increased support for woman suffrage by 7 percentage points. Farming interests also mattered. Where farmers dominated a county, vote shares for woman suffrage were, on average, about 20 percentage points higher than in non-farming counties.

The final lesson came when women first voted in Colorado in 1894. Populist candidates, including the incumbent governor, lost badly. The defeated governor cautioned widely that women as voters wouldn’t vote in gratitude to the new party. Just as Anthony had argued to Congress years earlier, suffragists could not promise women’s votes in exchange for their enfranchisement.

Lessons going forward

The Colorado victory taught that women inside other organizations had to push suffrage as their own group’s cause.

Suffragists drew on that lesson going forward. It enabled them to win later battles with help from another minor party — the Progressive party. In my book, I show that a state’s share of votes given to the Progressive party in the 1912 presidential contest was one of the strongest predictors of senators’ final votes on the 19th Amendment, while senators’ own partisanship and whether their state already had woman suffrage did not help explain senators’ votes.

Women’s organizing is still the heart of the suffrage story, even as success required electoral influence stemming from male voters. It was women’s political resources and organizational skills that cemented the necessary partnerships.

The breadth and diversity of who invested in the woman suffrage cause highlights the enormity of the challenge. America’s unfinished business of democracy will require no less.

Corrine McConnaughy (@cmMcConnaughy) is a research scholar and lecturer in American politics at Princeton University. She is the author of “The Woman Suffrage Movement in America: A Reassessment” (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

Note: Updated Oct. 5, 2023.