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Eight Women's Voting History Stories You May Not Know

Graphic with text: Storming the House Wilhelmina Dowsett. Photo of Dowsett surrounded by Hawaiian flowers. Illustration of Hawaiian women holding "votes for women" signs.

By Ashleigh D. Coren of the National Portrait Gallery and Sara E. Cohen of Because of Her Story

Advocating for voting rights was a job so big that no woman could do it alone. Get to know women who worked in their communities to advocate for the right to vote in this video series.

Note: Spanish versions of these videos are available on the Smithsonian YouTube channel

1. Shutting Down the Street

 

Black women battled voter disenfranchisement laws for four decades after the 19th Amendment was ratified. While living in New York City, Lyda Newman used her financial status to support her community and allow less fortunate women to take part in democracy. Newman's Negro Suffrage Headquarters supplied the space for Black women to be a vital part of the suffrage movement. Other women who used their fortunes to lift up their community include Madam C.J. Walker, who created employment opportunities for fellow Black women, and Lydia Flood Jackson, who advocated for suffrage as a leader in the California Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. In the 1950s and 1960s, activists Fannie Lou Hamer and Septima Poinsette Clark continued this work for Black voting rights.


2. Lead the Charge

 

The year 1912 was a banner year for Chinese and Chinese American suffragists. In April, a group of women made the news by forming an equal suffrage society in Portland, Orgeon. On May 4, Mabel Ping-Hua Lee rode horseback in a significant suffrage parade in New York City. Just 15 days later, Tye Leung Schulze became the first Chinese American woman to cast a ballot in a Presidential primary election. During a time when the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred many Chinese immigrants from voting, these women mobilized their communities to fight for suffrage for all. Their quest to gain the right to vote, like the struggles of American Indian women, shows the limitations of the 19th Amendment.  


3. Translating Your Message

 

Nine years before the 19th Amendment passed in Congress, California became the sixth state to grant women suffrage in 1911. This milestone was achieved by a coalition of women from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The campaign succeeded, in part, due to Latinas like activist and educator Maria de Guadalupe Evangelina Lopez de Lowther. Lopez understood that advocating for suffrage in Spanish and English was a more inclusive way to gain support. Her work allowed more women to influence local and state politics that affected their communities.


4. Knocking on Doors

 

Anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells and white activist Belle Squire founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago in 1913. The club published a newspaper, the Alpha Suffrage Recordand helped elect their preferred candidatesBy 1916, the group included nearly 200 members. Oscar Stanton De Priest, who the club helped elect as a Chicago alderman, later became the first African American elected to Congress in the 20th century. During his three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, he was the only African American serving in Congress. In a time when many American women could not vote, the Alpha Suffrage Club underscored the power of Black women voters.


5. Uniting the Movement

 

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin founded the Woman's Era Club in Boston with her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and Maria Baldwin. The club offered members opportunities for self-improvement. Members worked to address issues that faced the African American community. They focused on local politics, education, and the violence affecting fellow African Americans in the South. The club's newspaper, The Woman's Era, became a national outlet for Black women's clubs across the country. Ruffin hoped African American clubs across the U.S. would unite in a single, powerful organization. The National Association of Colored Women, inspired by Ruffin's work, became one such organization.


6. Bring Your Own Ballot Box

 

Activists Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell lectured about suffrage at Vineland, New Jersey's Plum Street Hall on December 4, 1866. Audience members, including Portia Kellogg Gage, felt moved to found an Equal Rights Association. The Association supported voting rights for people, "irrespective of sex or color." Gage's mock elections, held next to official ones, attracted suffragist Susan B. Anthony's attention. Anthony wrote to C.B. Campbell, a friend of the Gage family, after learning 172 women cast a ballot in November 1868. She wrote, "Vineland women did splendidly on Election Day and will no doubt continue to do the same."


7. Storming the House Floor

 

The history of suffrage in Hawaiʻi is closely connected to the story of American imperialism. During the 19th century, the U.S. acquired territories in Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaiʻi. After the annexation of Hawaiʻi in 1898, Native Hawaiians lost political power. Emma Ahuena Taylor, Emma Kaʻilikapuolono Metcalf Beckley Nakuina, and Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett fought for suffrage in a rapidly changing world. Hawaiian women would not gain full suffrage until Hawaiʻi became a state in 1959. Long before statehood, Dowsett and other women proved that Hawaiian women deserved a seat at the table.


8. Speaking Up for Citizenship

 

Many American Indian women fought for citizenship. In addition to Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), other movement leaders included Zitkála-Šá (Yankton Sioux) and Susette LaFlesche Tibbles (Omaha). Their work lasted beyond the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Even after the Indian Citizenship act passed, state governments continued to use many methods to bar American Indians from voting. Literacy tests, poll taxes, tax laws, reservation residency, and other factors related to political status all limited Native American voting rights until the late 20th century.


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Learn more about lesser-known women's suffrage with our #19SuffrageStories project.

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