How Women Won the Vote: In the Pleasant Haze of Half-Remembered History, the Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment Is Surrounded by Images of Determined Suffragist on the March over the Protests of Buffoonish Men. the Reality Was a Lot More Interesting Than That

By Amar, Akhil Reed | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

How Women Won the Vote: In the Pleasant Haze of Half-Remembered History, the Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment Is Surrounded by Images of Determined Suffragist on the March over the Protests of Buffoonish Men. the Reality Was a Lot More Interesting Than That


Amar, Akhil Reed, The Wilson Quarterly


In August 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, some 10 million American women finally became the full political equals of men, eligible to vote in all local, state, and federal elections. In terms of sheer numbers, the Woman Suffrage Amendment represented the single biggest democratizing event in American history. Even the extraordinary feats of the Founding and Reconstruction had brought about the electoral empowerment or enfranchisement of people numbering in the hundreds of thousands, not millions.

Woman suffrage came as a thunderclap. As late as 1909, women voted on equal terms with men only in four western states, home to less than two percent of the nation's population. How did they get from the Wilderness to the Promised Land in so short a span? First, it's necessary to ask how they got from bondage to the Wilderness--that is, how they managed to get equal voting rights in four Rocky Mountain states in the late 19th century.

The process began when the Wyoming Territory broke new ground in 1869 and 1870 by giving women equal rights with men to vote in all elections and to hold office. Twenty years later, Wyoming entered the Union as the first woman-suffrage state. Colorado, Utah, and Idaho soon followed suit.

Conditions in the West were especially favorable for woman suffrage. Women were a rare and precious resource in the region; under the laws of supply and demand, men had to work that much harder to attract and keep them. The city of Cheyenne's leading newspaper was quick to tout the significance of woman suffrage: "We now expect at once quite an immigration of ladies to Wyoming. We say to them all, 'come on.'" Just as the Constitution's original promises of freedom and democracy in the 1780s were meant to entice skilled European immigrants to travel across the ocean, so these immigrants' pioneer grandsons evidently aimed to persuade American women to journey through the plains and over the mountains.

The 1890 census provides some support for this admittedly crude theory. For every 100 native-born Wyoming males, there were only 58 native-born females. No other state had so pronounced a gender imbalance. Colorado and Idaho were the fifth and sixth most imbalanced states overall in 1890. The other early woman-suffrage state, Utah, had a somewhat higher percentage of women (a consequence of its early experience with polygamy), but even it had only 88 native-born females for every 100 native-born males, ranking it 11th among the 45 states in the mid-1890s. Also, the second, third, fourth, and seventh most imbalanced states--Montana, Washington, Nevada, and Oregon--would all embrace woman suffrage in the early 1910s, several years ahead of most other states. In all these places, men voting to extend the suffrage to women had little reason to fear that males might be outvoted en masse by females anytime soon.

The experience of other countries is also suggestive. In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation in the world to give women the vote in all elections--though it withheld from them the right to serve in Parliament until 1919. From one perspective, New Zealand's niche within the British Empire was not altogether different from Wyoming's within the United States: a remote outpost eager to attract new settlers, especially women. At the turn of the century, New Zealand males outnumbered females by a ratio of 9 to 8. Among certain communities of European immigrants, the gender imbalance exceeded 2 to 1.

Australia gave women the vote in national elections in 1902, when there were fewer than 90 non-indigenous females for every 100 non-indigenous males. Before and after Australia's continental enfranchisement, each of the six Australian states that united to form the nation in 1901 followed its own suffrage rules for elections to local parliaments. The least densely populated and most gender-imbalanced region, Western Australia, was the second-fastest to give women the vote. …

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How Women Won the Vote: In the Pleasant Haze of Half-Remembered History, the Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment Is Surrounded by Images of Determined Suffragist on the March over the Protests of Buffoonish Men. the Reality Was a Lot More Interesting Than That
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