On Aug. 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was formally adopted into the U.S. Constitution.
The brief 39-word amendment represents the culmination of a long suffrage battle waged by American women (and some men) for nearly a century:
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.
Long road to suffrage
While suffrage was on the minds of American women since the country's origin, the women's suffrage movement emerged in the mid-19th century and formally organized at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. In Seneca Falls, New York, about 300 hundred women and men gathered in the first women’s rights convention to discuss the "social, civil and religious condition and rights of woman," according to notes from the meeting.
After two long days of conversation, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and several other event organizers presented a list of resolutions on women's equality to be signed by attendees. A heated debate about suffrage sprang up, with many arguing against it, including some women.
But African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered an eloquent and impassioned defense, saying he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women didn't also have suffrage. Afterward, the resolution on suffrage passed with a large majority.
Despite this victory, national women's suffrage was still a long ways off. After the convention, Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and other activists formed suffrage organizations, held rallies and lobbied the government.
Before the 19th Amendment’s passage, these suffragists launched 484 campaigns asking legislators to submit the suffrage amendment, 47 campaigns encouraging state constitutional conventions to write suffrage in at the state level and 277 campaigns urging state party conventions to include women's suffrage.
Winning the vote
In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson switched his stance on women's voting rights from objection to support, and when the suffrage amendment came up for vote, Wilson made an appeal to the Senate. The amendment fell short by two votes in the Senate. Yet these discussions garnered enough momentum that, when the suffrage resolution was reintroduced in 1919, it cleared both chambers.
Within a few days, the amendment was sent to the states for ratification. By March of 1920, 35 states had approved it — one state short of the required two-thirds. Finally, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee tipped the scales in favor of women’s suffrage.
The deciding vote came down to Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old representative from East Tennessee, who opposed the amendment himself. His mother, however, convinced him to approve it.
On the morning Burn was to vote, Phoebe Ensminger Burn sent her son a letter endorsing the suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt: "Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification." In the end, Burn followed his mother's counsel.
Utah’s unique path
While most American women had to wait until the 20th century to vote, Utah women actually voted much sooner. They were the first women to vote in a national election when Utah was still a territory. And when Utah became a state, it was the second to extend voting rights to women, following Wyoming.
Strangely enough, it was the controversy surrounding polygamy that first allowed Utah women to vote. In the East, antipolygamist activists adamantly argued Utah women should be granted suffrage, convinced that "oppressed" and "downtrodden" Utah women would use it to end the practice of plural marriage.
In her book on plural marriage and women's rights, A House Full of Females, American history scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich points out that the first mention of enfranchising Utah women occurred in a New York Times editorial, where the writer concluded that empowering Utah women was the key to ending polygamy.
Brigham Young and other Utah leaders knew granting women suffrage would not change Utah marriage practices. But they agreed to extend these voting rights because they felt it would reverse the stereotype of submissive Mormon women and help curtail antipolygamy legislation.
As soon as they were enfranchised, many Utah women eagerly embraced their new political roles. Women's Relief Societies initiated programs to educate women in the political process. And Emmeline B. Wells, Zina Young Williams and other Mormon women attended national suffrage conventions and formed alliances with eastern suffragists.
For 17 years, Utah women could cast their votes — until Congress revoked their voting rights as a provision of the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker antipolygamy act. This action prompted a number of Utah women to more fully immerse themselves in the national suffrage fight, petitioning state leaders and even bringing Susan B. Anthony to Utah again — she first visited in 1870 — to join their local campaigns.
Reclaiming the vote
The question of women’s suffrage became one of the most hotly-debated during the state’s constitutional convention in 1895. Opponents, including prominent Mormon leader and politician B.H. Roberts, argued women would defile themselves if they entered the "filthy stream of politics."
Yet others contended women "would be a purifying and cleansing force in politics," according to the Utah State Historical Society. In the end, the delegates present for the April 1895 vote were unanimous for suffrage, enfranchising Utah women once again.
After winning the vote twice, Utah women stayed committed to fighting for national suffrage and connected to their suffragist allies throughout the country. When Susan B. Anthony heard voting rights for women would indeed be included in the state's constitution, she booked a train to Utah to join in a three-day celebration.
And after Anthony's death in 1906, her secretary sent Utah Relief Society leaders a copy of Anthony's biography inscribed with the words, "To the women who were loyal and helpful to Miss Anthony to the end of her great work."