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How Women Voted 100 Years Ago

by Jessica Campbell

Generations of American women fought hard for the right to vote. They endured mockery, belittlement, and disregard, not to mention retribution, assault, and imprisonment. The first wave in the struggle for women’s suffrage lasted roughly 100 years, coming to an end in 1920 with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. Women finally had the vote.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The race to register women

Though the bill behind the 19th Amendment had been approved by Congress in June 1919, it would take more than a year for the required ratification by state legislatures. By the time Tennessee became the 36th state needed to ratify the amendment and make it law, there were just nine weeks remaining until Election Day 1920.

League of Women Voters (Library of Congress)

The League of Women Voters spearheaded many registration efforts. Across the country, the LWV and other organizations sponsored registration picnics, held practice voting sessions, and even produced dramatic reenactments of the voting process.

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LWV volunteers advertise voter registration picnic in 1920 (Getty Images / Corbis / Minnesota Historical Society)
(Wikimedia Commons / Missouri History Museum)
Women learning how to vote October 1920 (Wikimedia Commons)

But what would happen when the “weaker” sex went to the polls?

Many politicians at the time were concerned about what a women’s voting bloc could mean. Roughly 26 million American women had been enfranchised. Would women coalesce around certain issues and wield their collective voting power? 

(Wikimedia Commons)

“[N]othing has brought so many women of different classes together on a common working basis as suffrage… We have come to know each other as we could not otherwise, and have had our eyes opened to the economic struggle in these United States… the votes of women cast intelligently in the struggle against the present sick economic order may make considerable difference…”

—Stella Crossley Daljord, The Nation, 1920
(Getty Images / APA)

On Nov. 2, 1920, women across the United States voted for the first time in a presidential election.

Many were voting for the first time in their lives.

At the polls in New York City (Library of Congress)

When the votes were tallied, Warren Harding was president and Calvin Coolidge vice president. Roughly 26,750,000 Americans had voted, eight million more than in the previous election—an increase that can be attributed for the most part to women voting.

(Wikimedia Commons)

But with 26 million eligible female voters, the total number of votes could have been much higher. Only 36% of eligible women voted that day, compared with nearly 70% of eligible male voters. 

Florence Harding, wife of presidential candidate Warren G. Harding, stands in line to vote in 1920. (Getty Images / Underwood Archives)

Why the low turnout among women?

Restrictive election laws, for starters. 

Some states—including Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina—excluded women from voting in 1920 because ratification occurred after those states’ deadlines for voters to register or pay poll taxes. Other states failed to make the necessary accommodations to get women registered in time. 

Mrs. Rosa Boyles of Jefferson County, Alabama paid the poll tax of $1.50 on October 22, 1920.
(Alabama Department of Archives and History)

Even states that acted to help more women register had other barriers to voting. Both Connecticut and Massachusetts required a literacy test. Prior to the election, Massachusetts added a poll tax, while Connecticut instituted a morals clause and a long residency requirement. 

How could so many women be prevented from voting when the U.S. Constitution had just been amended to allow women to vote?  


The 19th Amendment does not actually guarantee women the right to vote.

(National Archives)

Rather than endorse the fundamental right of every American woman to vote, the amendment states merely that the right of U.S. citizens to vote cannot be abridged on the basis of sex

In other words, a woman can’t be prevented from voting just because she’s a woman. Any other cause a state might find to suppress her vote, however, might still be considered fair game.


“The colored women… will be shamefully treated”

To prevent Black women from voting in 1920, local governments employed a variety of voter suppression tactics—including poll taxes, literacy tests, and stringent residency requirements—just as they had done with Black men ever since the 15th Amendment, passed 50 years earlier, had prohibited the denial of the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude.  

Black women in Delaware showed up at the polls in droves. Many were turned away due to failure “to comply with the constitutional tests.”

“The colored women of the South will be shamefully treated, and will not be alowed [sic] to vote, I am sure. I hope the Republicans will do something toward enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment. We are so helpless without the right of citizenship in that section of the country where we need it most.”

—Mary Church Terrell, October 1920 

In Richmond, Virginia, voter registration offices were overwhelmed prior to the election. The city appointed three additional registrars, but only for white women. Black women seeking to register endured long lines and wait times, as potential voters were questioned and challenged.

Nine Black women, all faculty members at Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University), succeeded in registering in the fall of 1920 and became the first African American women to vote in Ettrick, Virginia. First row, left to right: Mary Branch, Anna Lindsay, Edna Colson, Edwina Wright, Johnella Frazer (Jackson), and Nannie Nichols. Back row, left to right: Eva Conner, Evie Carpenter (Spencer), and Odelle Green. (Encyclopedia Virginia / Virginia State University)

In addition to government efforts to limit voting, entities such as the Ku Klux Klan instituted their own voter suppression tactics. In 1922, the Topeka State Journal reported that members of the KKK flew over Oklahoma City’s Black neighborhoods and dropped cards warning people to be cautious before heading to the polls. 

Members of the KKK with an airplane (Library of Congress)

In 1926 in Birmingham, Alabama, a group of Black women were beaten when they attempted to register to vote. 

In the face of violence and intimidation, Black women would continue the struggle for voting rights for another half century, helping to secure the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Black civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977) should have been able to vote as soon as she reached adulthood. After all, she was 3 when the 19th Amendment was ratified. But that wasn’t the way things worked in the segregated South. Hamer was nearly 45 when she first attempted to register. Time and again she faced regulatory roadblocks (legal knowledge tests, poll taxes) and intimidation (directly from her boss, indirectly from the KKK). Her experiences trying to register and vote in early 1960s Mississippi spurred her into political action. (Getty Images)
Dorothy Ryan registering to vote in 1958 (Getty Images / Gado / Afro American Newspapers)

“No dogs, no negroes, no Mexicans”

States could, and did, use similar voter suppression tactics against people of Hispanic heritage. 

English language requirements disenfranchised Hispanic voters in some areas. This would not be rectified until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited electoral practices that abridged the rights of language minorities. (A 1975 amendment to the act stipulated that states provide voting materials in languages other than English.)

(Twitter)

Meanwhile, several southern states including Texas had laws stipulating that only white people could vote in primaries. In practice, this often meant the exclusion of Latinos as well as Black people. 

New Mexico in 1920 was unique. It had just become a state, and Anglos were a minority. Spanish-speaking women in Nuevo Mexico had political advantages not enjoyed by Latinas in other states. Hispanic suffragists, having played a crucial role in ratifying the 19th Amendment, would help to elect many Latinas in the years after suffrage.

Adelina “Nina” Otero-Warren was a Latina educator and suffragist who served as the head of the National Woman’s Party in New Mexico and later ran for office (Wikimedia Commons)

“This is a white man’s neighborhood”

Immigrants from Asia at the Angel Island immigration center in California (National Archives)

Many Asian American women couldn’t vote in 1920 because they lacked citizenship. Assorted immigration laws prevented most Asian immigrants to America from naturalizing as citizens. Those exclusionary policies wouldn’t begin to change until the 1940s. Naturalization restrictions were lifted for Chinese Americans in 1943, Filipino and Indian Americans in 1946, and finally all Asian Americans in 1952.

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee was 5 when her family immigrated from China to the U.S. As a teenager, she became a suffragist, marching for a woman’s right to vote. She went on to graduate from Barnard College and earn a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University. But she herself wouldn’t be allowed to vote until the Magnuson Act of 1943 permitted Chinese Americans to naturalize as citizens. (Library of Congress / New York Tribune)
Anti-Japanese American sentiment in 1920 (Getty Images)

Non-citizens in their native land

Similarly, Native American women like suffragist Zitkala-Sa weren’t allowed to vote in 1920. Not because they were women, but because as indigenous people they did not enjoy the benefits of U.S. citizenship. 

Suffragist and indigenous rights activist Zitkala-Sa (Library of Congress)

Zitkala-Sa, also known as Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, continued the campaign for suffrage after the 19th Amendment, helping to secure passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Later she co-founded the National Council of American Indians dedicated to uniting the tribes and using the vote to improve the welfare and legal status of Indian communities.

Being able to vote in the white man’s government was essential to promoting and protecting indigenous rights. But enfranchisement was nothing new to native women, many of whom came from matrilineal, matriarchal, or egalitarian societies where for generations women had governed alongside men.

(Wikimedia Commons)

In 1920, the benefits of woman suffrage were enjoyed mostly by white women.

Though certainly not all white women. And as women who were able went to the polls in November 1920, many must have been keenly aware of the rights still denied to them.

For example…

A woman in 1920 couldn’t get a passport in her own name. 

Only her husband’s.

Passport issued to American jazz musician Eubie Blake and his wife Aves in 1920 (Wikimedia Commons)

Women weren’t allowed to serve on a jury in most states.

By the end of the decade, half of states had begun to allow women on juries, though with restrictions in many cases. Half a century later, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933–2020) would go to the Supreme Court to challenge the validity of voluntary jury duty for women. Ginsburg successfully argued that participation in jury duty was a citizen’s vital governmental service and therefore should not be optional for women. 

“Women are too sentimental for jury duty.” (Library of Congress)

Women could not enlist in the military or receive benefits.

This, despite women having served on the front lines during World War I as nurses and ambulance drivers. Though many endured the same lasting psychological trauma that impacted male soldiers, women wouldn’t be allowed to enlist and receive benefits until the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. 

United States Marine Corps

A woman could be fired for being pregnant. 

Legal protections for working mothers did not come about until the 1970s. Meanwhile, women in 1920 had little access to contraception and no safe, legal way to terminate a pregnancy. Thousands of women died each year from abortions.

Margaret Sanger (center) during her 1917 trial for operating a birth control clinic. (Wikimedia Commons)

Women had no wage protection under the law.  

Women comprised 20 percent of the paid labor force in 1920. World War I had opened up many opportunities for working women, though not necessarily in regard to equal pay.

In June 1920, the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor was established to advocate for women in the workplace. The Women’s Bureau, according to DOL.gov, remains “the only federal agency mandated to represent the needs of wage-earning women in the public policy process.”

Even so, advancing opportunities for women’s profitable employment takes time. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 would establish a minimum wage without regard to sex. Women would not be legally entitled to equal pay until 1963. In 2020 women still earn less than men.

National Archives

Women voters got to choose one man or another. 

Female candidates were few and far between. Unless you lived in Yoncalla, Oregon, where women had had the vote since 1912. There, dissatisfied with the performance of male leaders, women took control of all government positions in 1920.  The town council of Jackson, Wyoming (another early adopter of women’s suffrage) was comprised solely of women from 1920-23

Elsewhere, women campaigned to get more female candidates elected to office.

Jackson’s all-woman town council: Mae Deloney, Rose Crabtree, Grace Miller, Faustina Haight, and Genevieve Van Vleck. (Jackson Hole Historical Society)

There was just one woman in Congress.

Jeannette Rankin of Montana was elected to the House of Representatives in 1916, just two years after women in her state achieved suffrage.

Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana
Jeannette Rankin (Getty Images)

Over the past 100 years, women have gradually taken their place in the House and Senate and now occupy 25 percent of Congressional seats. How long until women and men represent their states and districts in equal numbers? At this rate, it could be another 100 years. 

Or sooner, perhaps. More and more, women are exercising their voting power. 

The 1964 presidential election marked a milestone: For the first time, women voters outnumbered men, a trend that has continued in every national election since. In the 1980 presidential election, and everyone since, the proportion of women voting has been higher than that of men. That is, a higher percentage of eligible female voters go to the polls than do their male counterparts. 

Historically, American women have not coalesced often around a single issue or candidate. Women’s political opinions are as diverse as those of men. If there is one thing we can be certain about as American women prepare to cast their ballots in the election that marks the 100th anniversary of their right to vote, it’s that their power to make their voices heard is greater than ever.

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