Women’s Political Participation After 1920: Myth and Reality

by Kristina Graves, Ph.D.

In a 1912 letter written to British suffragist Millicent Garrett Fawcett, President Theodore Roosevelt remarked that he was “amused” that women in suffrage states voted similar to men and that their votes contributed to his defeat for a third presidential term.[1]  Though Roosevelt was an avid supporter of women’s suffrage, he believed that women’s involvement would have no significant involvement in American politics, a belief that many Progressive era Americans did not share.  Roosevelt wrote to Fawcett six years before American women gained the right to vote under the Nineteenth Amendment, but his words contradicted what many suffragists argued: that women’s involvement in voting and politics would create broad changes that would create a better, stronger America.

In American history, the Nineteenth Amendment represents the end of a long-fought eighty-year campaign for women’s voting rights.  The popular narrative of this watershed is that women were not politically active prior to 1920.  This version of history often ignores the reality that American women have aligned and acted according to political ideology since the days of the American Revolution.  Furthermore, the assumption that all women did not have the right to vote because there was no federal amendment is a false one.[2]  Several western states granted full voting rights to women prior to 1920, such as Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, California, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington.  Southern states did not grant women voting rights, but some mid-western and eastern states allowed women to vote in local or state elections.[3]  Not only did women vote in key states, they also participated in national party politics.  During the Antebellum period, women were key players in the Free-Soiler, Liberty, and Republican Parties and, during the Gilded Age, women participated in the political “machinery” to expand their opportunities and access to the public sphere.[4]

Historian Christine Stansell states that the Nineteenth Amendment was the “single greatest act of mass enfranchisement” in American history.  Despite this, the 1920 watershed is a problematic one.  One, it did not enable black women to vote in the South.  It would take several decades before black women specifically, and women of color generally, would achieve full voting rights in the United States.[5]  Two, it did not drastically increase the number of women voters in elections.  Finally, it did not create a “gender gap” capable of significantly influencing American elections.[6]  Prior to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, suffragists argued that women’s voting rights would benefit society.  Suffragists like Carrie Chapman Catt, President of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, suggested that women voters would clean up society on issues like temperance, ending white slavery, child labor laws, and government corruption.  Furthermore, some suffragists argued that granting white women the right to vote would act as a preventative measure against groups considered inferior, such as African-Americans in the South; Native Americans, Chinese, and Mormons in the West; and Western and Eastern European immigrants in the North.[7]

In reality, the Nineteenth Amendment, and women by the same standard, had very little impact on the voting landscape of America in the years following the ratification of the federal amendment.[8]  The generation immediately following World War I was so apolitical that some former suffragists did not even vote.[9]  Voter apathy among women was so prevalent that magazines ran articles titled “Is Woman Suffrage a Failure” and “Woman Suffrage Declared a Failure.”[10]  In a survey conducted in 1927, it was determined that only 35 to 40 percent of eligible women voters participated in the presidential elections of 1920.  In the same survey, it was stated that women followed the political example of their husbands and fathers when deciding whether or not to vote in the election.  Furthermore, Illinois was the only state that recorded the presidential vote according to sex.[11]  This makes it difficult for historians to determine exactly how many American women voted in the 1920 and 1924 presidential elections.

While it is difficult to determine specific numbers of gendered voting, historians have identified trends that influenced the first nationally voting generation of women.[12]  One of the main reasons for voter apathy among women was that men did not easily relinquish political power to women.  A good example of this is the southern states of Mississippi and Georgia’s response to the Nineteenth Amendment.  The political leadership of both states defied the newly ratified amendment in a deliberate act of voter suppression by refusing to update the deadline for registering newly enfranchised women.[13]  Political party leadership also made it difficult for many women to participate in the process and only acknowledged women as a voting group when it was convenient or necessary for election success.[14]  After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and the failure of party leadership to acknowledge women’s issues as legitimate issues, many women’s organizations embraced non-partisanship as their official platform.  Such was the case with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and later the League of Women Voters (LWV) which, both under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, embraced candidates from a wide array of political parties.[15] On an individual level, women continued to vote according to partisan preferences.  Generally speaking, women in the North and West tended to vote for the Republican Party because it was the party with the most distinct ties to the women’s suffrage movement.  In the South, white women overwhelmingly favored the Democratic Party despite the fact that the leadership never supported women’s voting rights.[16]  Women were not solely responsible for the successful election of Warren G. Harding as president in 1920, but they did contributed to an overall Republican landslide in other races at the local, state, and national levels of government.

Discouragement of women’s involvement was not limited to voting, but also running for political office.  One of the main promises that suffragists made was that women would become more involved in the political machinery and help to clean out corruption.  In reality, women were seldom elected to positions of political power.  Often, this was because women tended to embrace concepts of pacifism, feminism, and gender equality which made them controversial candidates.[17]  Political party leadership only supported women candidates when it benefitted the party as a whole and actively discouraged women from running for political office.  These tactics were effective and long-lasting.  In 1925, out of 7500 state legislature seats, women only held 150 of the seats.  By 1930, there were only 13 women elected to Congress, but half of them were temporarily filling it for vacant seats. Women did not begin voting in record numbers and form an increasingly Democratic voting bloc until the 1980s.  This was in response to the women’s liberation movement far more than the suffrage movement.[18]  It would not be until 1992 that women gained a significant number of seats in Congress.  With each subsequent election, more and more female candidates are elected to serve at the local, state, and national levels of government.[19]

The gender gap that was predicted by suffragists never happened.  Women proved to be more divided on issues than previously anticipated, particularly on matters of protective legislation and racial issues.  A good example of this is the debate over the ERA during the 1920s because women were divided on the language of the proposed amendment.  Militant suffragists like Alice Paul, who authored the amendment, and the National Woman’s Party supported gender equality, while more conservative women like Carrie Chapman Catt and the League of Women Voters, established from the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1919, supported the protective labor laws for women and were fearful that the ERA would erode this legislation.[20]  Similarly, racial issues split the women’s vote along color lines, particularly in the American South.  Issues of white womanhood, religious fundamentalism, and fears of miscegenation complicated the outcome of the vote for white women.  The 1920s witnessed the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and white women comprised four million members in the organization, furthering the group’s commitment to racial purity and radical conservatism with efforts designed to mass disenfranchise the South’s black population.[21] 

Then, as is the case now, women did not vote for candidates just because of their gender and some refused to vote for another woman out of personal disagreements with the individual.[22] Furthermore, just as women had been some of the more vocal opponents to women’s voting rights, women voters did not always vote in line with the feminist platform.  Women disagreed on issues of birth control, pre-marital sex, and fashion and those differences translated into differences in the voting booth.  The “New Woman” of the Progressive era and the younger “flapper” generation were stark contrasts in American womanhood.  The shift in values from citizen as voter to citizen as consumer had a major impact on women after World War I and contributed greatly to women’s apparent apathy towards the vote.[23]  In contrast to what suffragists argued, women were not more inclined to participate in political discourse now that it was legal for them to do so.

The Nineteenth Amendment as a watershed moment in American women’s history was a success because it was the largest example of enfranchisement in the nation’s history.[24]  However, the Nineteenth Amendment did not become the broad stroke of equality for which suffragists advocated.  For black women in the South, gerrymandering and Jim Crow would prevent access to the vote for another forty-five years before African-Americans would be able to make use of their legal voting rights.  This was also true of other women of color: Latinas, Asian-Americans, and Native-Americans in the west faced discrimination in voting laws similar to African-Americans in the South.  The groups that would have benefitted the most from enfranchisement under the Nineteenth Amendment were the least able to access their rights legally for a significant portion of the twenty-century.

It is for this reason that the Nineteenth Amendment has a mixed legacy.  For one, it enfranchised, legally, a large percentage of American women.  In reality, many women were still unable, or unwilling, to vote.  In the 1927 research study examining women’s voting patterns, the League of Women Voters responded to the data by claiming that “women are the worst offenders” when it came to non-voting.[25]  According to the Pew Research Center, the gender gap promised by suffragists began to rise in the late twentieth century with the women’s liberation movement.  However, as recent as the 2016 presidential election, the data also shows that white women and black women continue to be divided in their votes.  By a large margin, white women voted for President Trump, while black women were solidly voting for Hillary Clinton.[26]

While the Nineteenth Amendment will continue to be an important event studied in history classes at the secondary and collegiate level, it is critical that we examine the amendment for what it actually did versus what suffragists argued it would accomplish.  Women continued to be partisan and apolitical, just as before the passage of the amendment.  Issues of race, morality, and religion influenced women’s voting behaviors.  Despite the amendment and promises of a female-centered future, men overwhelmingly continued to hold a tight grip on the American political system in the years to come.  The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s would be the generation to attempt increasing women’s political presence.  Nevertheless, women in America continue to this day to be split between black and white, liberal and conservative, young and old.  The reality of the Nineteenth Amendment is that the law demonstrates the complicated political history of American women, one that is deeply divided and still growing.