A Little Background
A timeline of voting and civil rights in America
Curated by Chloé Hayat
The 13 colonies officially becomes the United States of America with the ratification of the Constitution in 1788.
The Seneca Falls Convention is held
“What is happening? Our very own Declaration of Independence!”
This is the first women’s rights convention organized by women – Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. 68 women and 32 men (including Frederick Douglass) sign the Declaration of Sentiments, which details the ways in which women are deprived on their inalienable rights in the United States, and what must be done to rectify this oppression. It demands that women be granted the full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
Sojourner Truth delivers her famous speech entitled “Ain’t I a Woman?”
Delivered at a woman’s rights convention in Akron, Ohio, Sojourner Truth speaks to intersectional feminism with “Ain’t I a Woman” (also known as “I am a Woman’s Rights”). This speech is still remembered as one of the great speeches of the 19th Century. There is an ongoing debate as to which written recording of that speech is the most accurate, but what remains true is Sojourner’s wisdom, wit, and incredible storytelling and oration skills.
Click here to watch reenactments of her speech, transcribed by Marcus Robinson for the Anti-Slavery Bugle in 1951.
Two years into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln passes the Emancipation Proclamation.
However, the Emancipation Proclamation only frees enslaved people in the Confederate states, where Lincoln’s presidency is not recognized. It leaves slavery intact in the Unionist border states.
The 14th Amendment is passed.
The 14th Amendment grants full citizenship and protection under the law to all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. It forbids any infringement on those rights without due process of law. It explicitly excludes Native Americans from citizenship. It also plainly states that only the male citizens aged 21 and over have access to voting rights. It also forbids ex-confederates from claiming emancipated slaves as loss of property.
The territory of Wyoming grants women the right to vote and hold office.
In 1869, Wyoming legislators pass the Wyoming Suffrage Act of 1869, granting women in the territory the right to vote. When Wyoming becomes a state in 1890, women retain the right to vote, making it the first state in the U.S. to grant suffrage to women.
The 15th Amendment is passed
The 15th Amendment is passed to reinforce the voting protections in the 14th Amendment. It states that “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, backlash from the majority of Southern states saw the introduction of the Grandfather clause- stating that anyone who had the right to vote prior to 1866, and their lineal descendants would be exempt from the recently enacted poll taxes, literacy tests, or property requirements- in an effort to prevent Black men from voting, but to insure impoverished and illiterate white voters still had access to the polls.
The Dawes Act is passed as a tactic for the US government to seize and control Native American land.
Native American tribes across the US are told if they disavow their tribe and give up their land to the US government they would get a plot of land back for farming and agriculture then they would be granted the right to vote.
Mary Church Terrell, Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Margaret Murray Washington, and Francis E. W. Harper found The National Association of Colored Women
It is later called National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs after a merger of many other clubs founded for the same purpose across the country. Their motto is “Lifting as We Climb.”
Susan B. Anthony and Carrie Chapman Catt found The National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) as the first united to form a single national organization
NAWSA’s goal is to lobby local and state governments for women’s right to vote. However, NAWSA organizations across the country are exclusionary to Black women- they are either entirely excluded from membership or told to join segregated branches. (Alice Paul joins NAWSA in 1910)
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded
Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, W.E.B. DuBois and Archibald Grimké are among the large group of activists that found The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded.
The NAACP‘s original charter lists their goal as “To promote equality of rights and eradicate caste or race prejudice among citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for their children, employment according to their ability, and complete equality before the law.” Today, their mission statement is “to secure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights in order to eliminate race-based discrimination and ensure the health and well-being of all persons.”
The Uprising of 20,000
Because “communists are more idealistic and better organized.”
20,000 workers (mostly immigrant women) from 500 factories rise up and go on strike. They demand a 20% rise in pay, overtime payment and a 52 hour work week. Alva Belmont provides funding to support the striking workers for months, and Rose Schneiderman, as a member of the New York Women’s Trade Union League, is an organizer of the protests.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
“I know that might be difficult for a woman who’s never had a job [in a sweatshop in 1911] to understand.”
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City erupts in flames, killing 150 workers (mostly immigrant women) due to inhumane working conditions.
The fire spurs union leaders to strike again on behalf of immigrant/women workers demanding safe working conditions. During the following strike, Rose Schneiderman coins the term “Bread and Roses” to express that the needs of the worker should not just be survival, but comfort as well.
The Women’s Suffrage Procession
The day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, Alice Paul organizes a march down Pennsylvania Avenue of approximately 8,000 women from around the US in support of women’s suffrage. Over half a million people come to view the parade. With insufficient police protection, the situation soon devolves into a near-riot. Police do nothing to protect the women from rioters. About two weeks following the parade, protestors are granted a meeting with President Wilson. President Wilson proclaims that it was not time to grant women the right to vote in the constitution.
The parade is funded by Alva Belmont. Native American activist Mary Louise Bottineau marches with the lawyers contingent in the procession, and Latinx activist from the California delegation, Maria Guadalupe Evangelina de Lopez Lowther, is present as well.
The NAACP newspaper reported that although many Black women, such as Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells, were registered marchers of the parade, upon arrival they are told by organizers to march at the back of the procession, away from the white women leading the parade.
“You sold out negro women time and again without a moment’s hesitation. You wouldn’t let Mary Church Terrell march in your suffrage pageant, and did everything you could to keep Ida B. Wells at the back of the bus.”
Alice Paul founds the Congressional Union (CU) for Women’s Suffrage after butting heads with NAWSA over methods and goals
This organization is formed to lobby congress for the right to vote, and (spoiler alert!) will later become The National Woman’s Party. Members of the CU include Latinx activist and suffragette María Adalina Isabel Emilia Otero and Helen Keller.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns found The National Woman’s Party
The Woman’s Party is more radical than NAWSA and the CU, favoring active protest including marches, hunger strikes and civil disobedience over lobbying and theorizing. It intends to hold politicians accountable, rather than attaching itself to a political party.
Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the U.S., in Brooklyn, New York.
“What does birth control have to do with equality? Women are dying, dear, unnecessarily, to put it mildly. Access to abortion is a human rights issue.”
Having experienced the tragedy of relentless and taxing pregnancies and back alley abortions for poor immigrant women on the Lower East Side of New York, Margaret Sanger opens her birth control clinic. Because of the Comstock Law (an anti-obscenity act making it illegal to sell, give away, or possess any obscene literature of any kind, this included information about pregnancy, birth control, and women’s bodies, and further made contraceptives themselves illegal), her clinic is raided multiple times. She later forms the American Birth Control League (ABCL), a precursor to Planned Parenthood.
Margaret Sanger — while making incredible advancements in women’s bodily autonomy — believes in the growing eugenics movement of the time, hoping that birth control would also limit disabled people from having children, and has associations with white supremacist movements.
Silent Sentinels protests begin
“Day after day, in the cold, in the rain. Being harassed and beaten while the police looked on and did nothing, or worse, arrested them… They suffered all that together, these old broads, and didn’t give up until they reached their goal: the right for women to vote.”
The National Woman’s Party stages the first political protest and picket at the White House in American history. The picketers hold banners demanding the right to vote reading “MR. PRESIDENT HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?” “MR. PRESIDENT WHAT WILL YOU DO FOR WOMAN SUFFRAGE?
After a few months of constant protesting, in June 1917, picketers are arrested on charges of “obstructing traffic.” Over the next six months, many protesters are convicted and incarcerated, but even during their incarceration, Alice Paul leads her followers on a hunger strike from prison. President Wilson is pressured to pardon the incarcerated protesters initially due to the press’ outrage that well-to-do white women were being treated harshly. As WWI progresses and war fever spreads, the protest become more violently opposed. The suffragists- accused of unpatriotic behavior- are attacked by passers-by, and are arrested and jailed instead of their attackers. Exactly one year after the picketing begins, Wilson announces his support for the amendment “as an act of right and justice to the women of the country and the world.”
Women gain the right to vote federally with the passage of the 19th Amendment
The 19th Amendment states that “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.”
Because a number of suffrage organizations believed obtaining the vote state by state was most plausible, a few states have already granted women the right to vote before the federal amendment passes such as New York, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Oklahoma.
And despite the milestone for women, the 19th Amendment still does not give voting rights to Native Americans, or Chinese immigrants, and the systematic disenfranchisement of Black Americans continues.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)
“What amazes is that after their achievement, they didn’t do a victory lap and disband; no, they pressed on. The Equal Rights Amendment was written that very year. And the Woman’s Party endured. With a new passion: That not just voting rights but any right that a man gets, we get it, too; automatic, no evasions. That the U.S. Constitution would finally include language to recognize women’s equality.”
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), written by Alice Paul is introduced in congress.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, women’s rights activists focus their attention on the next stage of gender equality. The potential amendment is introduced on the Congress floor by Senator Curtis and Representative Daniel Anthony of Kansas (a nephew of Susan B. Anthony!). The document states that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In order for the amendment to pass into law, it needs to be approved by the U.S. Senate, and then the House of Representatives with a majority of 38 votes.
Henry Gerber founds The Society for Human Rights
“I’m not less than you because I choose to exercise my sensual desires.”
The Society for Human Rights is the first gay rights organization in America. The organization began its publication Friendship and Freedom to raise awareness and shortly after their first publication, police raid Henry Gerber’s home, arresting him and the other members of the group. After his release from jail, Gerber continues his pioneering efforts for the gay community. He continues to publish essays in defense of homosexuality, and runs a periodical called The Modern Thinker. Despite his efforts, the police succeed in erasing Gerber and his organization from history until the 1960’s, when Gerber finally receives a national platform through the growing and public gay rights movement.
The Indian Citizenship Act is passed
This act grants Native Americans the right to citizenship, but because it also leaves much of the privileges of citizenship up to state governments, the right to vote is largely denied to most Native Americans.
Zitkála-Šá founds the National Council of American Indians
This group focuses their action on lobbying Washington for full citizenship and voting rights for Native Americans, improvement in education opportunities and healthcare, and cultural recognition and preservation. It rejects the idea of assimilation of Native American culture, which many Native American advocacy groups predating the NCAI supported.
The Hays Motion Picture Production Code is enacted
The Hays Motion Picture Production Code is an anti-obscenity law that attempts to “clean up” Hollywood films. By the mid 1930’s it enforces the code harshly. Included in the obscenities to be avoided in film are nudity, profanity, suggestive dancing, drinking, ridicule of religion, passionate or lustful scenes, interracial relationships, and homosexuality and other “sexual perversity.”
The mid 1920’s saw a rise in the celebration of queer culture in burlesque halls, Broadway theaters, and even in Hollywood (quite similar to the celebration of drag and ball culture enjoyed today!). This code, when harshly enacted, not only erased queerness from the celebrated public eye for years, but also made queer performers lives more dangerous than they had already been. Women who made their living in burlesque halls such as Mae West fell under the shadow of the Hays code, as female sexuality under the code was seen as immoral and dangerous to viewers. This law set the cultural acceptance and celebration of queerness back decades.
The code wasn’t repealed until 1945, and even then its effects lingered for much longer.
Alva Belmont’s Funeral
“Do you remember Alva Belmont’s funeral? I can’t stop thinking about it. These images keep playing in my head. The pageantry. The unity. And female pall-bearers! I never saw that before.”
When activist, socialite, and leading member of the NWP, Alva Belmont dies at 80, she is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. She has women of the National Women’s Party serve as pallbearers at her funeral.