There are a small handful of women whose names you likely associate with the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are two of the few, if not only, women often celebrated for their accomplishments in attaining women’s right to vote. While their roles in the movement were instrumental, they did not act alone. There are far more than a handful of women who played a significant role in women’s voting rights whose names are often forgotten from our history books.
The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution marks a significant milestone in American history for many reasons. In its simplest terms, this amendment prohibited state and federal governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on sex and in turn gave women the right to vote. It mirrored the 15th Amendment which gave black men the right to vote, stating voting rights could not be prohibited based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, passing the 19th Amendment was far from simple. A bill for women’s voting rights was first introduced in 1878. It was rejected and continued to be rejected when it was reintroduced every year for the next 41 years. But even when that bill was passed in 1920, it did not guarantee the right of every woman in the United States to vote.
The suffragette movement in the United states has a contentious history with the civil rights movement. While the two should seemingly work in tandem — two disenfranchised groups working to gain basic civil liberties — racism within the suffragette movement often prioritized the rights of white women over the rights of people of color, women of color included. In fact, most Asian American women and man were barred from citizenship until the early 1950s, preventing them from voting among other civil rights.
Voter suppression is also problem that persists today, preventing people — primarily black people — from voting. Because the criminal justice system incarcerates people of color at disproportionate rate, a significant portion of black people cannot vote. So, while everyone, in theory, has the right to vote, systemic barriers and actual accessibility prevent this from happening in practice.
History has a habit of only remembering the people in power, of giving a small handful full credit while ignoring the work of others. There are many women whose work helped make the 19th Amendment happen. Here are seven whose names you should remember.
1. Ida B. Wells
While the name Ida B. Wells may sound at least a little familiar, she’s likely less of a household name than, say, Susan B. Anthony. The two share more in common that simply a middle initial. Wells was a civil rights activist as well as a women’s rights activist, leading one of the initial crusades against the lynching of black people. Her work laid the foundation for the NAACP, and she is also helped from the National Association of Colored Women. Wells’ work is the pinnacle of intersectionality within a movement, working for the advancement of all people within disenfranchised groups.
2. Alice Paul
Alice Paul co-authored the original Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), designed to give equal rights to all citizens regardless of sex. Paul’s work was committed to the establishing equality of women in society. Serving as the 19th Amendment’s main architect in 1910, Paul was instrumental in the bill passing a decade later. If you’re looking for a new mantra, let Paul’s words guide you: “There will never be a new world order until women are a part of it.”
3. Crystal Eastman
Crystal Eastman worked with Alice Paul to write the aforementioned original ERA. Eastman’s work as an equal rights leader among the civil rights and women’s suffrage movement has led her to be lauded as one of the great civil liberties leaders in U.S. history. Along with a handful of other civil rights supports, Eastman established National Civil Liberties Bureau, the organization that would later become the ACLU. She was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2000.
4. Anna Julia Cooper
Anna Julia Cooper was an educator and distinguished scholar. Her political activism began at age nine when she protested the preferential treatment of men and boys at her school. Cooper dedicated her life to the advancement of black women, describing her own work as “the education of neglected people. Cooper was a gifted orator, speaking about her activism at events like the 1893 Chicago World fair. Here are Cooper’s words on having an insatiable desire for truth and knowledge: “I constantly felt (as I suppose many an ambitious girl has felt) a thumping from within unanswered by any beckoning from without.”
5. Nannie Helen Burroughs
Nannie Helen Burroughs was an educator and activist. She dedicated her life to mentoring black women and girls through education and leadership training. Regarding voting rights for women of color, Burroughs stated, “When the ballot is put into the hands of the American woman, the world is going to get a correct estimate of the Negro woman. It will find her a tower of strength of which poets have never sung, orators have never spoken, and scholars have never written.”
6. Sojourner Truth
Sojourner Truth was a badass to the core. After spending most of her life as a slave, she escaped or, as she told her slave owner, “I did not run away, I walked away by daylight.” She was heavily involved in both the antislavery and women’s rights movements. Truth attended the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention and gave what is now regarded as one of the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speeches ever entitled, “Ain’t I A Woman?” Do yourself a favor and watch this video of Kerry Washington reading Sojourner Truth’s famous words.
7. Lucretia Mott
Lucretia Mott was a strong proponent of the feminist and abolitionist movements. One of the founders of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, Mott knew the work was never done and continued to fight for the rights black people long after the Civil War was won. She is best known for her feminist philosophy, which she wrote about in her work Discourse On Woman. You should read her work in full, but I’ll leave you with Mott’s words on asking permission when it comes to equality, “Let woman then go on—not asking as favor, but claiming as right, the removal of all the hindrances to her elevation in the scale of being.”