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A Century of Suffrage

Today’s office-holding, business-owning, C-suite-level women are fulfilling the dreams of turn-of-the-century activists from the women’s suffrage movement.

Suffragists struggled to improve women’s rights in every societal sphere, and this year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of one of their greatest victories: in 1919 Congress passed the nineteenth amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote and accelerating the pursuit of equal gender rights.

1. Suffrage in Action

More than 8 million women voted for the first time in 1920—and they took it seriously. A Denver bookseller reportedly sold more books on politics in the eight months after women got the vote than in the previous fifteen years combined. Since 1964 female voters have outnumbered male voters in every presidential election.

2. Tweet-Sized Text

The nineteenth amendment—only 39 words, or 215 characters—was written in 1878 by well-known suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony and Senator Aaron Sargent of California. The Senate rejected bills introduced by Sargent and other senators for forty years until pressure from activists helped pass a bill with Sargent’s original text in 1919.

3. Suffrage in Color

Susie Fountain, an African-American woman, had to take a literacy test to register to vote; the “test” was a blank sheet of paper. For decades, similar underhanded tactics were used to prevent women of color from voting. These women are often discounted in suffragist histories, yet their contributions to the movement were significant.

4. First to the Polls

In 1896 the Territory of Utah gave women full voting rights—one of the first territories or states to do so, behind Wyoming and Colorado. On the other hand, even after the nineteenth amendment was adopted, some states didn’t officially ratify it for decades. The last was Mississippi in 1984, more than sixty years after the amendment became federal law.

5. Ripple Effect

Recent research links women’s suffrage with various seemingly unrelated social achievements. For instance, suffrage appears to have led to increased spending on social programs, greater acceptance of gender equality, children staying in school longer, more progressivism in politics, and as much as a 15 percent dip in child mortality.

6. Candidates Who Can’t Vote

Even before women could vote, they ran for office. In 1866 Elizabeth Cady Stanton was the first woman to run for the House of Representatives; she received 24 of 12,000 votes. The first woman mayor was elected in Kansas in 1887, and the first woman state senator was elected in Utah in 1896.

7. From Bloomers to Pantsuits

The famous bloomer trousers worn by some suffragist leaders were the precursors for many politics-related fashion changes for women: harem pants, WWII work pants, bell bottoms of the Vietnam War era, and pantsuits—the last accepted in Congress only since 1993.

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Written by Clarissa McIntire

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