So You Want to Vote?

During Women History Month, a month dedicated to the achievements of more than 50% of our population, researchers may wish to investigate women suffrage and its slow, arduous process to ­achieving full voting rights in the United States.  Although the 19th Amendment sealed this process, Early State Records provides an in-depth look at the skirmishes and accomplishments leading to this final victory.

A good way to consider the status of women during the 18th and 19th century can be found in an essay in The Cumberland Gazette, June 26, 1789 (LLMC#24258). Entitled “A Reasonable Woman,” the author noted that this woman rises and gets ready to be devout and cheerful, as well rendering herself in a quick toilette to be “more agreeable” to her husband.   After reviewing all her duties to house, husband, family, and even guests, the author concluded that her position in life is to not envy beauty, nor crave popularity nor attention; rather, to be pleased with discharging her duties, having the love of her husband, and otherwise attending to everything that is expected of her on the domestic front.  Considering a woman as the purveyor of home, children, and service seemed the dominant view of the times and emphasized the smallness of her world vision, and the lack of respect for her intelligence. 

Not surprisingly, encounters surrounding the women suffrage met with unsuccessful results.  For example, Mr. Weaver, a delegate to the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1875, eloquently argued on September 23, 1785 that the “feminal influence of a virtuous woman, as a legal voter, would do more to protect that shrine of the people's rights than all the laws to guard the elective franchise that have heretofore been passed (LLMC #61076 p. 191-192).  Following the referral of this resolution to the Committee on Suffrage, another delegate sought to have the same expunged from the Journal, which was likewise referred to the committee (p. 196).  The resolution to enfranchise women never made it out of that committee, presumably because the members concluded that this resolution was contrary to a woman’s true calling.   

Similarly, on Saturday, April 16, 1870, the delegates at the Illinois Constitutional Convention of 1870 turned to the issue of women property owners and women suffrage in general (LLMC #61048, volume 2).  This debate initially centered on the question of whether women property owners should be allowed to vote on matters which created an indebtedness or levied a tax on their property, and the specifics of that language (p. 1299).[1]  The debate eventually expanded to a query if this provision would lead to furthering the cause of women suffrage.  In response, a delegate, Mr. Sedgewick, stated that the amendment would “take away a great deal of the thunder of the women who are traveling about the country and crying out for women suffrage.”  He continued that political representation would not follow; indeed allowing property owners to vote on tax issues would “take away that thunder” and that good can come out of this “agitation” (p. 1300).

Another delegate, Mr. Scholfield stated that if females could vote in this instance, why not others, as all would directly or indirectly affect their property.  He then argued that property does not qualify for intelligence, and that provision should not be the requirement for voting.  Ultimately he stated that there would be gross inconsistency if female suffrage should not be allowed in all instances.   Opposition to that position followed: Mr. Well called the attempt to vote “one of foolish humbugs of these woman’s rights women in pantaloons and petticoats” (p. 1302).  After various speakers argued pro and con regarding the specifics of the original or subsequent amendments on women property owners, or the question of general suffrage for women, Mr. Wendlings then concluded that the women of Illinois had not asked for the right of suffrage.  Rather, he stated that a “few itinerant lectures traveling over the country agitating this question” were requesting suffrage (p. 1305).  Relying on religion and women’s highest duties as a mother, he contended that allowing suffrage could “degrade and debase them” to the level of voters and politicians, as well as lower them in the estimation of men.  Finally, Mr. Underwood summarized the current rights of woman (p.1308-9), concluding that “suffrage and holding office are laborious and responsible duties,” which were actions for the “better qualified” men, rather than women who are too involved in domestic and other such issues.[2] Thereafter, the issue of women’s suffrage was sent to the Committee on Revisions and Adjustments.  Ultimately, this debate and committee review resulted in no changes in the 1870 constitution regarding giving women the right to vote.

Other states, such as Montana, allowed women to vote only in school elections.  (LLMC #01095t Article IX, section 10).  Interestingly, women taxpayers were also allowed to vote upon all questions submitted to the vote of taxpayers, under the same conditions as their male counterpart (section 13).  New Mexico’s 1910 Constitution also allowed women to vote in school elections, although there was an opt-out clause that allowed a majority of voters in a particular district to petition the board of county commissioners against women suffrage.  (LLMC #00795t, Article VII, section 1). 

Some states put the issue to the voters, as shown in the 1876 Constitution of Colorado, Article VII. This provision provided that the General Assembly could extend the right to vote to women, with enactment following the approval of the majority of the voters (LLMC #00880t).  A subsequent law passed by the General Assembly on January 29, 1877 provided for this election and the process to be used in determining the voters’ decision.  (LLMC #00860t, p.648). Ultimately, a referendum was passed on November 7, 1893[3]

Interestingly there was one state that believed in equal voting rights earlier than the late 19th-early 20th century.  In New Jersey’s 1776 constitution, voting was allowed for all persons who otherwise met the age, residency, and property requirements (LLMC #24412, p.6).  In 1800, statutory language added “he or she” to clarify the requirements regarding who were permitted to vote (LLMC #24409, p.231).  However, some things are fleeting: by 1807, the 32nd General Assembly at its October sitting decided to only allow “free, white, male citizens” who otherwise fulfill the other requirements (LLMC #98836, p.14).  So women were again relegated to second class citizenship, similar to many other people living in the United States.  

Finally, the first law to consistently allow women the right to vote occurred in the Wyoming Territory (LLMC #01029t).  Approved on December 10, 1869, Chapter 50, of the Compiled Laws allowed women to vote and hold office, similar to other electors.    Other western states followed.  The Territory of Utah, passed an act conferring women the elective franchise on February 12, 1870 (LLMC #01057t; Chapter II)[4].  Indeed, during the Utah Constitutional Convention of 1895 (LLMC #95238), the delegates returned to the issue, concerned that continuing woman suffrage would result in a denial of statehood (p. 497-804).  Ultimately, the provision for allowing women to vote was passed with a margin of 75 to 16 (p. 804) and was incorporated into the Utah State Constitution.  

Luckily, in researching the road to woman suffrage, Early State Records provide many examples of individual states’ positions and arguments for and against this basic constitutional right.  Although some individuals remained unconvinced of the appropriateness of women voting, Tennessee passed the necessary ratification of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920 and the amendment was incorporated in the Constitution (LLMC #99933, p.104).  And given that more women than men exercised this privilege in the last election, as well as in every presidential election since 1864[5], women have valued this right. 

 Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here* as well as a grant award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  LLMC is digitizing 2000+ reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 48 states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 

[1] It was noted during that discussion that the 1861 legislature graciously gave married women the right to own their own property in their own name; presumably widows and “spinsters” already enjoyed that right. 

[2]   And of course, no man respects a “cold-blooded woman” involved in partisanship intrigues (p. 1309).


[4] However, this right was taken away by Congress in the Edmunds-Tucker antipolygamy act in 1887, which apparently blamed women votes as the cause of the continuation of polygamy in the Church of the Latter Day Saints religion.