Ann D. Gordon

Document Type



When the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution appears in historical memory as the intended objective in the long march of woman suffragists, the complexity of changing voting rights is obscured. This essay looks at a variety of ways that women tried to break through the male monopoly of political power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the earliest days of agitation, women took for granted that qualifications for voting were set solely by the states. Their earliest political pleas were made to state constitutional conventions. The last state victories were won in 1918. After the Civil War, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments opened a new road to votes for women by indicating a federal interest in who voted. Even then, a constitutional amendment was only one way to go. Attempts were made to win suffrage through the federal courts on grounds that citizenship and voting rights were coextensive, a route closed by the Supreme Court’s decision in Minor v. Happersett (1875). Virginia and Francis Minor, plaintiff and attorney in that case, were barely slowed by the adverse opinion. With their guidance, campaigns for federal suffrage got underway in 1891. Maybe a federal amendment was not required, maybe Congress could under Article I require by legislation that women must be considered eligible voters in any federal election. It was predicted that no state would retain its male-only restrictions if it meant running separate elections for state and federal offices. Among suffragists in the Jim Crow South, federal suffrage appealed because it limited the extent of federal interference in the disfranchisement of African Americans.