Women’s Suffrage

Here’s a great video to get kids interested in the subject of voting rights in the United States:

Women’s Suffrage in the United States

In the United States voting laws are made by each individual state and not by the federal government.  So while most women in America before 1920 could not vote some could, especially in many of the western states such as  Wyoming and Utah.

In the 1840s there began to be a national movement for women’s suffrage.  Suffrage is another word for voting rights.  In 1848 a conference was held in Seneca Falls, New York to talk about women’s rights.  At the conference a resolution was passed to favor and campaign for women’s suffrage.  Many people at the convention thought this idea was too radical, but Frederick Douglass, who attended and spoke at the convention, argued forcibly for including voting rights for women as a focus.

This is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was one of the founders of the Women’s Suffrage movement and one of the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention.  Image in the public domain, Wikimedia.

Women began turning up at the polls to vote.  When they were turned away they sued hoping the case would make it to the Supreme Court and the Court would rule in their favor.  In 1875 a case did finally make it to the Supreme Court, but the court ruled against the women because the federal government has no right to establish voting laws; each state has that right.  So the women decided they would have to amend the Constitution.  Meanwhile the women worked within each state trying to get the states to change their voting laws.

One of the things women did to bring attention to the cause was to march in parades.  This photo was taken in New York City in 1912.  Image in the public domain, Wikimedia.

In 1890 an organization called the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed with Susan B. Anthony as its head.  Their whole focus was on gaining the vote for women across the whole nation.   In 1916 the National Woman’s Party was founded by Alice Paul.  The members picketed the White House, were arrested and many went on hunger strikes, being force fed in jail.  All these things brought media and national attention to the issue of women’s suffrage.  Public opinion was beginning to change.

These women are part of the National Women’s Party and are picketing in front of the White House. After this picture was taken they were arrested and spent a couple of days in jail.  Image in the public domain, Wikimedia.

The women’s rights movement made great strides in the states before they achieved national sucess.  This map, below, shows the progress of women’s suffrage just before the passing of the 19th Amendment.

The green states had full suffrage. The red and pink states had little to no suffrage. The orange, blue, and yellow states had partial suffrage, for example women could vote in local, but not national, elections.  Image by Lokal_Profil, CC license, Wikimedia.

19th Amendment

Finally in 1920 the congress of the United States passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and the states ratified it.  The 19th Amendment 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.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Now no states could deny the vote to women just because they were women.


Discuss with kids the reasons why some people in a society are not allowed to vote while others are:

  • not considered competent (uneducated, not wise enough, weak minded)
  • a desire to keep power in the group that already has power and can therefore make laws that favor the special group
  • a belief that some have more of a stake in society than others

Why are any of these beliefs destructive of the rights of some groups?

Some ways the right to vote has made a difference to women include:

  • Women are now allowed to own property and have jobs once reserved only for men.
  • Women can now testify in a court of law and serve on juries where before this right was limited or nonexistent.
  • Women were protected by law where before they were completely subject to the whims of their husbands in many cases.
  • Women are no longer considered property, but full and equal human beings, because they have equal power and rights with men.
  • The different perspective and focus of women is represented in laws made in the country.
  • Women can now hold public office.
  • Women can now sign contracts and make legal agreements.

Women were some of the most vehement opponents of women’s suffrage. Why would this be? The reasons they gave were that men were natural leaders appointed by God. It was tradition and women did not need to vote. Women ought not to desire the positions of men. It was unseemly and inappropriate for women to be involved in public life at all. What do you think of these reasons? Would you argue for or against them and what would be your reasons?

Famous Folks

Read biographies of some of the forceful characters of the Women’s movement (every country has their own heroines). Amelia Bloomer, for whom I will be eternally grateful, was the woman who paved the way for women to wear pants and is a very colorful character.

This is Christabel Pankhurst, one of the leaders of the Women’s Suffrage movement in England. Public domain.

Here are some other key figures (notice that there were many men) in the Women’s Rights movement:

United States

  • Susan B. Anthony
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton
  • Lucy Stone
  • Alice Paul
  • Carrie Chapman Catt
  • Margaret Fuller
  • Samuel J. May
  • Gerrit Smith
  • Lucretia Mott
  • Frederick Douglass
  • Henry Blackwell
  • Aaron A. Sargent

United Kingdom

  • Mary Wollenstonecraft
  • Emmeline Pankhurst
  • Christabel Pankhurst
  • Sylvia Pankhurst
  • Harriett Taylor
  • Lydia Becker
  • Helen Taylor
  • Millicent Fawcett
  • Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
  • Emily Davies
  • George Lansbury
  • John Stuart Mill

 Voting Rights Exploration

Have your kids construct a cardboard voting booth and ballots and run a vote for a family outing or what to have for dinner, etc. Have your kids decide who in the family is eligible to vote and who is not. Make them defend their reasons (even if they say everyone can vote, ask them why). Then let every eligible person vote and carry out the results of the vote.


Additional Layers

  • Some inventions that gave women more freedom include the bicycle, the washing machine, and electricity. Find out more about these inventions.
  • In the western territories of the United States women were allowed to vote in many places, but once they became states they lost that right. How has government been used to retard social progress in other areas?
  • Some people today say that certain groups should not vote.  For example, “people who don’t pay taxes shouldn’t vote” or “there should be a civics test before people can vote.”  What are the pros and cons of these ideas?
  • Another controversial issue today is voter ID.  What is the purpose of voters showing an ID card before being allowed to vote?  What are the pros and cons of voter ID?
  • Voting is a civic right, not a natural right.  Learn more about the difference between civic rights and natural rights.
  • In some places, like Australia, voting is a requirement.  In Australia if you are 18 or older and mentally sound you must vote or face steep fines.  Do you think voting should be required?  Why or why not?

More From Layers of Learning

Here is a series of guides on the Federalist Papers for teens and their mentors.
Here is a series of guides on the Federalist Papers for teens and their mentors.

Printable Civil Rights Timeline and more activities to learn about MLK.
Printable Civil Rights Timeline and more activities to learn about MLK.

Printable Bill of Rights matching game
Printable Bill of Rights matching game

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