On This Day August 26, 1920: The Significance of Ratification of the 19th Amendment
“The Secretary has signed the proclamation,” the Secretary of State’s office told Carrie Chapman Catt over the phone on August 26, 1920.
“So quietly as that,” lobbyist Maud Wood Park, who was there, later wrote, “we learned that the last step in the enfranchisement of women had been taken, and the struggle of more than seventy years brought to a successful end.”
“We were all too stunned to make any comment.”
Suffragists had finally won their epic, decades-long struggle for the vote and the formal proclamation that the Secretary signed merely confirmed it. The legislature in the state of Tennessee ratified the amendment on August 18, making it the required 36th state to do so. However, as New York suffragist Mary Peck recognized, the Secretary’s act “was public notice that the Tennessee ratification had been received, examined, accepted and formally recorded as the final step in adopting the Nineteenth Amendment.” The United States would never be the same.
At the suffragists’ great celebration in the capital that night, Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby represented the Administration and, as Carrie Catt noted, “congratulated the suffragists upon their freedom.”
A Permanent Change
Ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution altered our country in an essential and permanent way. On this day, as surely as a war is ended or a monarchy is toppled, male-only rule in the United States was outlawed. Women, with the support of many men, had won adoption of a Constitutional amendment that banned discrimination in voting based on gender. Through it, American women won the right to participate in the political process as voters and, for the first time, the opportunity to freely shape their own future as enfranchised citizens.
This was an extraordinary change for the entire country, directly affecting half the adult population. And it took some getting used to, particularly since suffragists had faced such intense opposition from men, in and out of government, for decades. Many women realized that, despite the new amendment, the same old attitudes and underlying prejudices were still there. The reluctance of most male political figures to even acknowledge passage of the 19th Amendment was obvious. There were no national victory parades or official ceremonies, no government actions or even voter preparation from the federal government for the millions of new women voters.
For women in the 36 ratifying states it was different. As Carrie Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association noted, “The action of their respective Legislatures in ratifying the Federal Suffrage Amendment was greeted by the women of every State with a vast State pride and gratification because that commonwealth stood forth before the world as an upholder of the American ideal of democracy.” In some states, both houses passed ratification unanimously. One hundred years later, each of these 36 states proudly celebrated the centennial of their state’s ratification.
It was left to the women themselves to herald their new national success, and coast to coast they toasted their long-sought victory. Bells rang in major cities, residents gathered to celebrate, and women and state governments prepared for the November election. Throughout the country, suffragists regrouped and established chapters of the new League of Women Voters to carry on their work.
A New Type of Organization
During the movement, suffragists pioneered a new type of political organization and paved the way for later social justice movements in America. As historian Sarah Graham emphasized, despite the prejudices of the movement, “suffragists had done a great thing: they had given America a model of a new democracy that not only enfranchised women but gave other groups the tools to protest their political and social exclusion in the years to come.” By 1920, the multi-faceted women’s suffrage movement had grown into a powerful political pressure group that utilized a wide range of tactics that were not based on violence, threats, or deception. These nonviolent methods featured coordinated public actions including public speaking, lobbying, local and precinct organizing, electoral campaigns, drives to defeat opponents, demonstrations, parades, boycotts, protest meetings, picketing, arrests, and hunger-strikes in prison.
While suffragist Maud Park believed that “the long campaign of education, organization, and legislative effort in the states . . . was the fundamental cause of the final success,” it really involved more than that. The bold, assertive strategies suffragists employed, particularly in the final decade, were critical to winning both public visibility and political support. Simple lobbying and slow state approvals were not enough, given the strength of the opposition. As many suffragists realized, the movement needed more aggressive, targeted, and publicity-generating methods to win their goal.
Author Elaine Weiss recognized this in her recent book, The Woman’s Hour: “The crusade for woman suffrage stands as one of the defining civil rights movements in the history of our country, and its organizing strategies, lobbying techniques, and nonviolent protest actions became the model for the civil rights campaigns to follow in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.”
A Transformation for Women
Ratification of the 19th Amendment symbolized not only a transformation for the nation but also a transformation for women. Speaking to victorious supporters on August 27, 1920, Carrie Catt emphasized this new identity: “We are no longer petitioners, we are not wards of the nation but free and equal citizens. Let us practice the dignity of a sovereign people.” While their long movement had its serious limits and contradictions, suffragists still, at great cost, moved us one step closer to a more democratic nation.
“It must be remembered,” Sara Graham wrote, “that their vision of politics and society, flawed and narrow as it was, did in fact bring votes to women and thus achieved a significant expansion of American democracy. Sadly, their new democracy, like the old, was tainted and limited by racism and elitism . . . [that] compromised a larger progressive and feminist vision for America.”
History that Empowers
This anniversary honors women’s key role in American history – demanding justice and expanding democracy to include women. The quest for a new, more inclusive vision for America continues today. By celebrating the centennial of the 19th Amendment, we are insisting that the nation recognize women’s past and present fight for equality. How women in the U.S. won the vote is the kind of history that teaches and empowers. Learning about the fierce opposition suffragists faced reminds us that women were denied the vote and access to power in the U.S. for 120 years. And suffragists changed that.
On August 26, 1920, the women’s suffrage movement proved that those without power can still achieve real and lasting change, without violence and the needless causalities of war, if they are willing to work, sacrifice, and organize. Women were able to permanently change the country 100 years ago, and today, following in the footsteps of the suffragists, Americans are ready to write a new history of inclusion, justice, and equality. As the suffragists showed us, together, women and men can shape our nation and guide our country towards a better future for all its citizens.
Robert P. J. Cooney, Jr. has studied the historic drive to win the vote by American women for more than 25 years. After attending the University of Santa Clara in California, he joined the staff of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence in Palo Alto where he designed and co-edited The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States (Peace Press: 1977). This illustrated history traced nonviolent tactics and philosophy throughout U.S. history from before William Penn to after Martin Luther King, Jr., and awakened an interest in the woman suffrage movement. In 1993, he started the Woman Suffrage Media Project to coordinate and further efforts to help popularize this little-known part of America's story. He also began research for a photographic history of the suffrage movement, and visited or corresponded with major libraries and historical societies across the country.
Recipient of a research grant from The Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard, he served as a consultant on several suffrage-related books, publications, and films including the PBS documentary, “One Woman, One Vote.” After 12 years of work, he published the lavishly illustrated history, Winning the Vote: The Triumph of the American Woman Suffrage Movement (American Graphic Press: 2005), full of facts and nearly 1,000 images documenting women’s early political achievements. In 2015, he designed and edited Remembering Inez: The Last Campaign of Inez Milholland, Suffrage Martyr, which includes accounts in suffragists' own words of a young New York activist's final speaking tour. Mr. Cooney received the “Write Women Back Into History” Award in 2005 from the National Women’s History Project in recognition of his work uncovering this central and inspiring chapter in American history. Recently, he has been working on the 2020-2021 women’s suffrage centennial celebration. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, he lives with his wife in northern California.
Catt, Carrie Chapman and Nettie Rogers Shuler. Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1926.
Graham, Sara Hunter. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.
Park, Maud Wood. Front Door Lobby. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960.
Peck, Mary Gray. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Biography. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1944.
Weiss, Elaine. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. New York: Viking, 2018.
 Maud Wood Park. Front Door Lobby. Boston: Beacon Press, 1960, p. 276.
 Mary Gray Peck. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Biography. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1944, p. 338.
 Carrie Chapman Catt and Nettie Rogers Shuler. Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement. New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1926, p. 455.
 Ibid., p. 462.
 Sara Hunter Graham. Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996, p. 147.
 Front Door Lobby, p. 268.
 Elaine Weiss. The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote. New York: Viking, 2018, p. 5.
 Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement, p. 342.
 Woman Suffrage and the New Democracy, p. 164.