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Calm About It: Women Exercised their Voting Rights Before the 19th Amendment

By Tanner Probst

Women may have won the right to vote in 1920, but some voted decades before it was legal. The women’s suffrage movement won their battle with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, and most people assume the victorious movement sent women flooding to the polls in the next election in a historic first casting of their ballot. And while they did flood the polls, the reality is that this was not the first time.

Many women, and men, felt women were granted the right to vote far earlier by the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868, declaring, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.” That position was further supported in 1870 by the 15th Amendment’s declaration “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 race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Women were U.S. citizens, and the 15th amendment implied protection of all citizen’s suffrage.

According to Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, “Hundreds of women tried to vote during the Reconstruction era, between the 1860s and 1870s, believing that the 15th Amendment, which said the right to vote would not be denied on the basis of race or color or prior servitude, had guaranteed it.” In 1872, civil rights activist Susan B. Anthony even voted in the presidential election—for Ulysses S. Grant—before being jailed and fined $100.

In the ensuing criminal trial, United States v. Susan B. Anthony, in Rochester, New York, Anthony cited the aforementioned 14th Amendment. If you are looking for a villain in this story, look no further than Ward Hunt, the Supreme Court Justice responsible for the circuit court of the trial. He not only disallowed discussion amongst jurors and directed them to find her guilty but also barely let Anthony speak. When Anthony refused to pay the aforementioned $100 fine, Anthony intentionally did not jail her again to avoid giving her grounds to take the case to the Supreme Court. The hero of this story? Anthony. She ignored Hunt’s orders to sit and be silent and protested "this high-handed outrage upon my citizen's rights.” In character, the passionate leader declared, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.” Anthony and the Reconstruction Era activists with their illicit voting laid the groundwork for the women’s suffrage movement—a peaceful but passionate demonstration of their inherent rights as citizens of the United States, a movement—rooted in good and not violence—that could not be squashed.

Women continued illicit voting as the suffrage movement gained momentum after World War I. Here, three suffragists cast ballots in New York City in 1917.

This picture was originally captioned, “Calm about it. At Fifty-sixth and Lexington Avenue, the women voters showed no ignorance or trepidation, but cast their ballots in a businesslike way that bespoke study of suffrage.” These calm, peaceful expressions of their perceived right to vote were emblematic of the larger movement and worked effectively toward gaining the greater public’s support and the eventual victory of the cause of women’s suffrage.

Tanner Probst is a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He serves in an academic-based community service class under Professor Lorene Cary, helping to share stories promoting civil engagement while working with the youth voter registration initiative Vote That Jawn.

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