The 19th amendment was passed by Congress on June 4th, 1919, and formally ratified over a year later on August 18th, 1920. While that breakthrough deserves celebration, it also deserves perspective. While women have had the right to vote for a century, it took nearly a century to win it. Even before the Civil War, reformers and suffragists were discussing the future of women’s rights, paving the way for the liberties we are proud to have today. The 10 amazing women below are just a few of the figures who dedicated their lives to our rights.
Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)
One of the most recognizable names in women’s rights history, Susan B. Anthony was raised by her Quaker parents to be confident, independent and dedicated to her beliefs. She was encouraged to believe that men and women should live equally and strive to rid the world of injustice, and she took that message to heart. She started out campaigning for married women to have property rights, before joining abolitionist leagues and speaking out against slavery.
So firmly did she believe in equal voting rights for men and women, however, that she refused to support any suffrage movements for African Americans that only included men. This created a divide between activists, but the two groups eventually joined forces to form the National Woman Suffrage Association with Elizabeth Cady Stanton as its president. Anthony later became the group’s second president, and she dedicated the rest of her life to the suffrage movement she helped to found.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)
Another early suffragette, Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a philosopher and a pioneer of the women’s rights movement. She married an abolitionist named Henry Brewester Stanton in 1840 and traveled with him to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London. After being told women were not permitted, she was enraged. With the help of other reformers including Lucretia Mott, she planned the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls. It’s reported that 240 people attended, agreeing that women’s rights were non-negotiable and it was time to fight for equality. This was the true beginning of the women’s suffrage movement.
Like Susan B. Anthony, Stanton was against the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men voting rights, but not women. While she passed away 18 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified, a statue of her, Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott stands at the U.S. Capitol in honor of her achievements.
Lucy Stone (1818-1893)
Lucy Stone was tough as nails. She boldly refused to take her husband’s last name, stating that the age-old tradition “refused to recognize the wife as an independent, rational being” and “conferred on the husband an injurious and unnatural superiority.” She worked hard as a traveling lecturer against slavery and sexism, and unlike some activists, she supported the 15th Amendment.
Stone continued to fight for universal suffrage, however, assisting with the creation of the American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1871, she and her husband founded a feminist newspaper called “The Woman’s Journal,” which remained in publication until 1931, nearly 40 years after her death!
Lucy Burns (1879-1966)
A fiery activist in both the British and American suffrage movements, Lucy Burns was a good friend of fellow activist Alice Paul. They were leaders in the formation of the National Woman’s Party, and Burns in particular was known for her passionate and aggressive tactics. She was among the suffragettes arrested for protesting at the White House, later being force-fed during a hunger strike.
By the time the 19th was ratified, Burns had suffered through a considerable amount of jail time and was understandably exhausted. She retired from activism, reportedly saying, “I don’t want to do anything more. I think we have done all this for women, and we have sacrificed everything we possessed for them, and now let them fight for it now. I am not going to fight anymore.” Her later years were devoted to the Catholic Church and the upbringing of her orphaned niece.
Alice Paul (1885-1977)
Building on the work of earlier activists, Alice Paul was even more bold in her approach to winning the vote. The Quaker suffragette spearheaded the most militant branch of the women’s suffrage movement, working alongside Emmaline Pankhurst in the Women’s Social and Political Union in London. Their tactics were far from “ladylike,” using civil disobedience to capture media attention and raise awareness. When she became the chair of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee, she organized a massive suffrage parade to clash with President Wilson’s inauguration- a mass publicity stunt that ignited further protests. In 1914, she moved on to start her own organization, the Congressional Union.
This soon evolved into the National Woman’s Party, which was responsible for many loud, highly-visible protests including a picket of the White House that lasted for months. As retaliation for this act of rebellion, she was imprisoned and force-fed for weeks, eventually winning the sympathy of the public…and the president. The pickets were one of the final moves leading to the ratification of the 19th amendment.
Paul also proposed an additional Equal Rights Amendment, but 100 years later, it still has yet to be ratified.
Ida B. Wells (1862-1931)
Ida B. Wells started out as a schoolteacher in Memphis. While she was there, she wrote for the city’s Black newspaper, The Free Speech, covering the racial injustice and violence in the South. Many were outraged and violently threatened her, destroying The Free Speech office in an angry mob. She moved north for her own safety, but never stopped campaigning for civil rights.
In addition to her anti-racism activism, she was determined to fight for women’s suffrage- even when she wasn’t welcome. Although most early suffragists supported racial equality, by the beginning of the 20th century that wasn’t always the case. Many white suffragists only joined the cause in hopes of giving “their” women the right to vote to maintain their hold on white supremacy. Many white suffragists didn’t want to march with Black people at all, but that didn’t stop Wells. She marched anyway, continuing to fight for civil rights for the rest of her days.
Frances E.W. Harper (1825–1911)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper didn’t have the easiest upbringing, but that didn’t slow her down. She was orphaned at a young age and raised by her uncle, William Watkins. He was the founder of the Watkins Academy for Negro youth and an outspoken abolitionist, and Harper followed in his footsteps. She became a teacher at schools in Ohio and Pennsylvania, but couldn’t return to her hometown Maryland without risking her freedom. Her writing and lectures advocated for both women’s rights and anti-slavery groups. She was one of just a handful of Black women involved in the women’s rights movement in the late 19th century, founding the National Association of Colored Women Clubs. She was also one of the first Black women to become a published author in the United States.
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
Mary Church Terrell was raised in Tennessee by remarkably successful parents. They were once enslaved, but they defied the odds and built extremely successful businesses. Her father became one of the South’s first Black millionaires! After she graduated from college, she worked as a teacher and became an activist, supporting women’s rights and Ida B. Wells’s anti-lynching campaign. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women Clubs with Wells and acted as the organization’s first president.
Later, she picked alongside Alice Paul in front of the White House. She spoke prolifically on civil rights, trying to engage more Black women in the suffrage cause. She didn’t soften with age, either. When she was over 80 years old, she sued a D.C. restaurant after she was refused service, leading to the desegregation of Washington’s restaurants in the early 50s.
Carrie Chapman Catt (1859- 1947)
Susan B. Anthony had some big shoes to fill when she left her position as president of the NAWSA, but she left it in good hands. Carrie Chapman Catt was elected to take on the role, representing the less confrontational branch of the women’s rights movement. During her many years as an activist, she also contributed to the formation of the Women’s Peace Party and the International Woman Suffrage Association. Once the vote was finally one, she said, “Now that we have the vote let us remember we are no longer petitioners. We are not wards of the nation, but free and equal citizens. Let us do our part to keep it a true and triumphant democracy.”
She retired after the 19th Amendment was ratified, but not before establishing the League of Women Voters. She also co-authored a book called “Woman Suffrage and Politics: The Inner Story of the Suffrage Movement” in 1923.
Lucretia Mott (1793- 1880)
One of the earliest women’s rights activists, Lucretia Mott was a social reformer who sought to change the role of women in society entirely. Her Quaker roots instilled a fundamental belief in equality, inspiring her to attend early women’s rights and abolitionist meetings. When she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton arrived at the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, she thought they had been invited as delegates.
Instead, she was taken to a segregated women’s section, furthering her resolve to bring about social change. She helped draft the Declaration of Sentiments during the historic Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, and she didn’t stop there.
When slavery was outlawed, she advocated giving former slaves of both genders the right to vote. She was later elected the first president of the American Equal Rights Convention, and she attempted to use the platform to conduct women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements at the same time. Her skill as a speaker helped further both movements, establishing her as one of the most memorable and accomplished female activists of the 19th century.