The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
Those 39 words make up the 19th Amendment in the United States Constitution, which guaranteed women’s suffrage. 144 years after the United States gained independence, women could finally, legally, vote in every election.
From Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Alice Paul, women from all walks of life managed to fight for the vote. Utah’s women pushed for suffrage as a means to protect themselves from polygamy being banned. Former slave Sojourner Truth not only fought against racism, but against sexism too. Though it was by no means the end to women being banned from voting – ethnic minorities still suffered due to their race – it was a monumental step in the struggle. The right of women to vote was enshrined in US law.
It would be quite easy to go through all the Presidents from Washington to Wilson to discuss their values. It would also be pointless – I doubt that Washington, Jefferson and Monroe believed that their wives were even capable of political thought. Even John Adams, a man swayed by his feminist wife Abigail, laughed at even her basic requests for equality. Therefore, I will start with Ulysses S. Grant and end with Woodrow Wilson, as this was when the suffragette movement was at the forefront.
Ulysses S. Grant, Republican (1869-77)
President Ulysses S. Grant is most known by historians for his fierce support of civil rights. He implemented voting for African-Americans and crushed the first incarnation of the Klu Klux Klan. What he is not really known for, however, is his view on suffrage for the fairer sex.
Susan B. Anthony, the famous suffragette, was among about a dozen women arrested for illegally voting in the 1872. She had cast her vote for Grant against his opponent, Horace Greeley (who would die before the Electoral College met). Though some pro-women legislation was introduced, such as protecting married women’s assets, Grant never brought up the subject. In order to placate the women, the Republican Party asked that their requests would be “treated with respect.” Of course, this did not include the right to vote.
Rutherford B. Hayes, Republican (1877-81)
The election of President Rutherford B. Hayes is probably the most controversial, which is saying something. In order to calm the Democrats, who insisted the election had been stolen, Hayes had to agree to a long list of compromises. This included ending Reconstruction, which led to the rise of Jim Crow.
Hayes did not mention female suffrage publically, as one would expect in the late 19th century. On the other hand, his wife Lucy was famously pro-civil rights. The first college-educated First Lady was not only an advocate for African-Americans, but also had sympathies with the idea of suffrage.
James A. Garfield, Republican (1881)
President James A. Garfield sadly only had six and a half months in the Oval Office due to his assassination. Though he had a very short term, second only to William Henry Harrison, Garfield was remarkably progressive on a number of issues and was already starting reform work. Some historians believe he could have been one of the greatest US Presidents had he lived longer.
Again, Garfield did not discuss the issue openly. His wife Lucretia, like Lucy Hayes, was never openly a suffragette, but supported women’s rights. When she discovered that one of the doctors who treated him was paid unequally because she was a woman, Mrs. Garfield kicked up a fuss until the issue was rectified.
Chester A. Arthur, Republican (1881-85)
President Chester A. Arthur was deeply distrusted when he came to office following Garfield’s assassination – not helped by the assassin’s support of Arthur. He did not publically discuss the issue of suffrage. His sister Mary was his First Lady due to the early death of his wife Ellen, and she was a member of the Albany Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage.
Grover Cleveland, Democrat (1885-89, 1893-97)
President Grover Cleveland was one of the few Democrats elected between the Civil War and WW2. He tried to placate the suffrage movement by supporting women’s organisations and movements, but did not support the vote. Nearly a decade after his presidency ended, he wrote this:
Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote. The relative positions to be assumed by men and women in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence.
His wife, Frances, said that women weren’t intelligent enough to vote yet. She also served as Vice President for the New Jersey Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and was President of their Princeton, New Jersey chapter.
Benjamin Harrison, Republican (1889-93)
President Benjamin Harrison, grandson of William Henry Harrison, is noted by historians for his favourable record on encouraging African-American voting rights. He also did have a favourable view of women’s issues, though he did not ever talk about the vote. One first that Harrison achieved, however, was the hiring of the first woman in a non-domestic role in the White House. Alice Sanger was a presidential secretary and was seen as a very valued worker.
William McKinley, Republican (1897-1901)
President William McKinley is known to many as the victim of an assassin’s bullet and the man overshadowed by his successor, Theodore Roosevelt. His views on the vote for women are unknown, but he did have sympathy for the movement. He invited America’s most famous suffragette, Susan B. Anthony, to the White House for her 80th birthday. His wife Ida was famously pro-suffrage and refused to meet an anti-suffrage delegation when invited to the White House.
Theodore Roosevelt, Republican (1901-09)
President Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent of female suffrage, even before he was in the White House. His views on female equality were remarkably progressive – he wanted equal rights for women and corporal punishment of wife-beaters. He also supported introducing ladies to the NYPD. This is what he wrote:
Viewed purely in the abstract, I think there can be no question that women should have equal rights with men.… In the very large class of work which is purely mental… it is doubtful if women are inferior to men … individually many women are superior to the general run of men… if we could once thoroughly get rid of the feeling that an old maid is more to be looked down upon than an old bachelor, or that woman’s work, though equally good, should not be paid as well as man’s, we should have taken a long stride in advance.… I contend that, even as the world now is, it is not only feasable [sic] but advisable to make women equal to men before the law.… Especially as regards the laws relating to marriage [sic] there should be the most absolute equality preserved between the two sexes. I do not think the woman should assume the man‘s name. The man should have no more right over the person or property of his wife than she has over the person or property of her husband.… I would have the word “obey” used no more by the wife than by the husband.
As long as the world continues in its present state, just so long will women in actual life be continually subjected to abuse, owing purely to their weakness.…
In 1912, when running for the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party nomination, Roosevelt promised that if he was elected, he would bring in equal suffrage. Even more remarkably, his nomination was seconded by famous social worker Jane Addams. This was the first time in US history that a woman had spoken at a convention like this. A year or so later, he started defending female union workers.
William Howard Taft, Republican (1909-13)
President William Howard Taft was not a suffrage advocate, as seen by historical events when he was hissed at by female suffragettes. He thought them to be emotional, and said this:
On the whole, it is fair to say that the immediate enfranchisement of women will increase the proportion of the hysterical element of the electorate.
He also said this at the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s convention, no less:
The theory that Hottentots or any other uneducated, altogether unintelligent class is fitted for self-government at once or to take part in government is a theory that I wholly dissent from.
His wife and daughter, both named Helen, were ardent supporters of women’s right to vote.
Woodrow Wilson, Democrat (1913-21)
It was under President Woodrow Wilson that the fight by the suffrage movement was won. Wilson personally supported suffrage, though he had to keep it quiet as southern Democrats tended to be very much against it. To satisfy the best of both worlds, he called it a “state’s issue.” He was President during the height of the movement, listening to women protest outside of the White House, even as World War One raged.
Though Wilson did not like the picketing, he was not in favour of the women being forced into hunger strikes in prison. His middle daughter Jessie was a famous figure in the movement. His first wife Ellen was privately pro-suffrage whilst his second wife Edith was against – interesting, considering she basically became the first female President in all but name.
It was the war that actually swayed his opinion. Wilson saw firsthand that women were a key part of the effort, a similar argument that helped British women win the vote. Just after the war ended, Wilson said this in front of Congress:
We have made partners of the women in this war… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?
This did not work, so for the next half a year, Wilson pushed hard for voting equality. Eventually, it was passed by the House and Senate in June 1919, though it was not until the 18th August 1920 that it was successfully ratified. By that point, Wilson had suffered a serious stroke that meant that he was unable to publically celebrate the 19th Amendment.
In 1920, Florence Harding became the first First Lady to vote for her husband. Unsuccessful Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt had his mother Sara and wife, future First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, cast their first ballot for him. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 paved the way for African-American women to vote. Earlier legislation allowed the same for Chinese-American ladies.
Since then, three women have been on major party tickets: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984, Sarah Palin in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Joe Biden has promised a female running mate. Even before 1920, we saw women like Victoria Woodhull bravely put themselves forward as President. We saw Margaret Chase Smith become the first woman to have her name placed in nomination at a major party convention in 1964. Shirley Chisholm became the first to run for the Democrats and the first major-party black candidate.
It’s not just those who have run for the Presidency. It’s Jeanette Rankin and Nancy Pelosi and every single female voter.