By the time the final battle over ratification of the 19th Amendment went down in Nashville, Tennessee in the summer of 1920, 72 years had passed since the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York.
More than 20 nations around the world had granted women the right to vote, along with 15 states, more than half of them in the West. Suffragists had marched en masse, been arrested for illegally voting and picketing outside the White House, gone on hunger strikes and endured brutal beatings in prison—all in the name of the American woman’s right to vote. See a timeline of the push for the 19th Amendment—and subsequent voting rights milestones for women of color—below.
1848 - Seneca Falls
Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other participants at the inaugural women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls adopt the Declaration of Sentiments, which calls for equality for women and includes a resolution that women should seek the right to vote. The suffrage resolution passes by a narrow margin, helped along by the support of the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, an early ally of women’s rights activists.
1869 - Wyoming Passes Women's Suffrage Law
Tensions erupt within the women’s rights movement over the recently ratified 14th Amendment and the proposed 15th Amendment, which would give the vote to Black men, but not women. Stanton and Susan B. Anthony found the National Woman Suffrage Association to focus on fighting for a women’s suffrage amendment to the Constitution, while Lucy Stone and other more conservative suffragists favor lobbying for voting rights on a state-by-state basis.
Despite the longtime association between the abolitionist and women’s rights movements, Stanton and Anthony’s refusal to support ratification of the 15th Amendment leads to a public break with Douglass, and alienates many Black suffragists.
In December, the legislature of Wyoming territory passes the nation’s first women’s suffrage law. Admitted to the Union in 1890, Wyoming will become the first state to grant women the right to vote.
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1872 - Suffragists Arrested for Voting in NY
Anthony and more than a dozen other women are arrested in Rochester, New York after illegally voting in the presidential election. Anthony unsuccessfully fought the charges, and the court fined her $100, which she never paid.
1878 - California Senate Drafts Amendment
Senator Aaron Sargent of California introduces a women’s suffrage amendment to the U.S. Senate for the first time. Drafted by Stanton and Anthony, it reads: “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.” (When Congress passes the amendment 41 years later, the wording will remain unchanged.)
1890 - NAWSA Forms
The two sides of the women’s movement reunite, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). With Stanton as president, the organization focuses on a state-by-state fight for voting rights.
1896 - Black Suffragists Organize National Group
A group of women including Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell form the National Association of Colored Women Clubs (NACWC). In addition to women’s enfranchisement, the organization advocates for equal pay, educational opportunities, job training and access to child care for Black women.
Early 1900s - Black Suffragists Barred from Conventions
African-American women fighting for the right to vote continue to face discrimination from white suffragists, especially as the latter group seeks support in Southern states. In 1901 and 1903, the NAWSA conventions in Atlanta and New Orleans bar Black suffragists from attending.
1913 - Alice Paul Creates Militant Group
Impatient with the pace of the state-by-state fight for suffrage, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns break from NAWSA and found the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (later the National Woman’s Party) to press for federal action. Inspired by the tactics of Great Britain’s more militant suffragists, Paul leads a protest march of some 5,000 to 10,000 women in Washington, D.C. on the day of Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.
1916-17 - Jeanette Rankin Elected to Congress, ‘Night of Terror’
Jeanette Rankin of Montana, a former NAWSA lobbyist, becomes the first woman elected to Congress. With the U.S. entrance into World War I, NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt commits the organization to working toward the war effort. Paul and others take a different approach, holding peaceful protests outside the White House calling for Wilson to support women’s suffrage. Many of the protesters are arrested and jailed for obstructing sidewalk traffic; Paul and others undertake hunger strikes to bring attention to their cause.
On November 14, 1917, guards at the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia beat and terrorize 33 women arrested for picketing, an ordeal that will become known as the “Night of Terror.”
1918 - President Wilson Changes Position, Supports Suffrage
In January 1918, Rep. Rankin opens debate in the House of Representatives on a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing women’s suffrage. The House votes in favor, but the amendment fails to win a two-thirds majority in the Senate. In a speech to Congress in September, President Wilson officially changes his position to support a federal women’s suffrage amendment.
1919 - House, Senate Pass Amendment, Ratification Effort Begins
On May 21, 1919, the House again passes what would become the 19th Amendment, popularly known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. The Senate follows suit on June 4 by a narrow margin (just over the two-thirds requirement), and it goes to the states to be ratified. Ratification requires 36 states, or three-quarters of those in the Union at the time.
Eleven states—Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Kansas, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, Iowa and Missouri—vote to ratify by late July 1919. On July 24, Georgia’s state legislature becomes the first to vote against ratification, thanks to a determined anti-suffrage effort in the Peach State. (Georgia won’t formally ratify the 19th Amendment until 1970.) The “antis” draw strength from powerful business interests including the railroad, liquor and manufacturing industries, as well as religious and conservative groups.
By year’s end, Alabama becomes the second state to vote against ratification, while state legislatures in Arkansas, Montana, Nebraska, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah, California, Maine, North Dakota, South Dakota and Colorado have all voted to ratify the amendment. Suffragists are 14 states short of their target.
January 1920 - Five More States Ratify
The first month of the new decade brings ratification from Kentucky, Rhode Island, Oregon, Indiana and Wyoming, and rejection from South Carolina.
March 1920 - 35 States Ratify, One More Needed
By the end of March, Virginia, Maryland and Mississippi have also voted against ratification. But Nevada, New Jersey, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Washington ratify, bringing the total to 35 states—one short of the goal needed for the amendment to become law.
June 1920 - Delaware’s Vote Against Ratification Strikes a Blow
Delaware’s vote to reject ratification shocks suffragists, and deals a serious blow to their momentum. Suddenly, the fate of the suffrage amendment appears in doubt. Anti-suffrage sentiment runs high in most of the states left to vote: State legislatures in Connecticut, Vermont, Florida decline to consider the amendment, leaving only North Carolina and Tennessee, with North Carolina sure to reject.
August 1920 - Tennessee Provides Final Vote
Called into special session, the Tennessee state legislature meets to decide the fate of the women’s suffrage amendment. Catt and other prominent national “Suffs” travel to Nashville to personally lobby legislators for weeks, as do “Anti-Suffs” determined to keep women from gaining the vote. In the so-called “War of the Roses,” supporters of suffrage wear white roses, while their opponents don red ones.
The Tennessee Senate votes to ratify, but the vote is tied in the House—until one legislator, Harry Burns, changes his vote after receiving a letter from his mother urging him to vote for women’s suffrage. On August 18, 1920, one day after the North Carolina legislature rejects the suffrage amendment by two votes, Tennessee becomes the 36th state to ratify.
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On August 26, U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certifies the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gives all American women the right to vote for the first time in history. In November, more than 8 million American women cast their vote in the presidential election. These voters included many Black women, though many others were prevented from voting by discriminatory laws, intimidation and other tactics of disenfranchisement.
1924 - Native Americans Recognized as Citizens
Four years after the 19th Amendment is ratified, passage of the Snyder Act (aka the Indian Citizenship Act) makes Native Americans U.S. citizens for the first time. But many Native American women (and men) are still effectively barred from voting for the next four decades, until Utah became the last state to extend full voting rights to Native Americans in 1962.
1965 - Voting Rights Act Protects All Citizens’ Right to Vote
After a century of struggle by Black women (and men) against poll taxes, literacy tests and other discriminatory state voting laws, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act into law on August 6, 1965. The biggest legislative achievement of the civil rights movement, the bill protects all citizens’ right to vote under the 14th and 15th Amendments.
1984 - Mississippi Becomes Last US State to Ratify 19th Amendment
Mississippi formally ratifies the 19th Amendment on March 22, 1984, becoming the last U.S. state to do so.