Research: the struggle for women’s suffrage

Dec 29, 2021 | Fleischaker/Greene

(Editor’s note: Photo by Levi Guzman on Unsplash)

By Leo Bertucci

Fleischaker-Greene Scholar

Geographic differences between the West, Midwest, and South explain why pro-women’s suffrage movements in each of these regions dealt with different challenges. Historical context, which outlines the prevailing attitudes about a woman’s role in society, helps to explain why people in some geographic regions became persuaded by a pro-suffrage argument, while people in another area held on to traditional values connected to voting. By using research findings, typical experiences for female suffragists in the West, Midwest and South are summarized and compared with one another.

This paper analyzes why some western U.S. states granted full suffrage for female voters before many others.

During a 35-year period, 10 of the 15 states to pass a women’s suffrage measure prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment were in the western half of the United States (“State ballot measures”; “Census Regions”).

Women’s Suffrage Ballot Measures by State
StateYear Passed
Utah  1895

According to researchers McCammon and Campbell, a cluster of states along the Pacific and within America’s mountains and plains adopted women’s suffrage in part because many communities wanted to ensure religious values were conserved for as long as possible (p. 57, 2001).

McCammon and Campbell argued that an energized campaign for women’s suffrage in the West persuaded male government leaders to adopt full suffrage. Western states, specifically Nevada and Utah, may not have had as many suffrage advocacy organizations as Connecticut, for instance, but the massive show of support (Utah: 40.70 members per 10,000 people between 1892 and 1919; Nevada: 33.43 per 10,000) in these two states kept the movement afloat (McCammon and Campbell p. 59).  However, simply having a large membership base didn’t mean that suffrage movements were bound for success. North Dakota, with the 10th largest member-to-total population figure between 1892 and 1919, did not pass a full suffrage law before the 19th Amendment was ratified (McCammon and Campbell p. 61, 2001).

Besides ideological differences, which will be explored in depth later, suffrage amendments would have to overcome the parliamentary procedures states use when reforms are on the table. Most states allowed registered votes to decide a suffrage amendment’s fate, but several, such as Michigan, involved its state legislature in the process (McCammon, p. 65, 2001). McCammon and Campbell reference Illinois as a state with one of the most complex systems: passage through the state legislature, a constitutional convention, and lastly, the registered voters, all of which were male (p. 65, 2001). The authors stated that “the states granting full suffrage to women had simpler reform procedures on average than did states not granting voting rights to women” (McCammon and Campbell p. 65, 2001).

McCammon and Campbell’s study found that West Coast movements for women’s suffrage were more likely to succeed when they were backed by fundraising for the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. The West (and East) outperformed the South in donations made to NAWSA (p. 64, 2001).

“The western movements, in fact, may have had greater need for funds…given the greater geographic differences they had to cover to spread their message and the travel costs this entailed,” McCammon and Campbell wrote.

 Abundant fundraising allowed members of the movement to promote their campaign inside state legislatures and through print advertising (McCammon and Campbell p. 69, 2001).

Suffrage groups with strong fundraising capabilities did not necessarily have to be large in number, as McCammon and Campbell found that, once again, group size was not a useful predictor for a movement’s success.

Suffragists in western states also adopted multiple methods for persuading state legislators directly. A speech inside a legislative chamber or a letter or petition landing inside a politician’s office were proven ways to get the attention of lawmakers (McCammon and Campbell p. 61, 2001). Outside of the state capitol, suffragists created newspaper advertisements and met regularly with their group, whether that be a social gathering or training for field organizers. McCammon and Campbell wrote that in order to “keep a low profile,” western suffragists often preferred legislator persuasion over promotion to the general public (p. 61, 2001).

In the late 19th century, western women argued that being “the caregivers and nurturers of society” (McCammon and Campbell 2001) meant that they could reasonably understand society’s problems. If women can comprehend prevalent issues in the public sphere, they should be allowed to head to the polls, the suffragists claimed.  This viewpoint can be classified as an “expediency argument” (McCammon p. 469, 2001).

McCammon found that in areas where the expediency argument was widely used, group mobilization was not entirely necessary for the advancement of women’s suffrage. This pattern might exist because female-specific civic associations, such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, already had a strong influence in the local political scene (McCammon p. 470, 2001). Another popular argument for women’s suffrage during the height of group mobilization claimed women have a natural right to participate in political matters alongside men. McCammon considered this to be a “justice” (p. 469, 2001) argument. The concept of equality was a central idea in this perspective. Women that accepted an ideological argument rooted in equal justice were motivated to push a social change movement forward. The progressive movement of interest made considerable strides in the West, but in the southeastern United States, reforms were made at a slower pace.

The summer of 1920 was a high-stakes period for the suffragists of the time. The final stage of the suffrage amendment ratification process was set inside the divided state legislature of Tennessee (Case). Congressman Harry Burn submitted the decisive “yes” vote, making the Volunteer State the 36th state to accept the 19th Amendment (Case).

As the story goes, a note written by Burn’s mother persuaded him to adhere to the demands of renown suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt (Case). According to Sarah Case, author of the article “Women’s Suffrage in the Southern States,” the South was a particularly intense battleground for women’s suffrage in 1920 because of its longstanding history with strict gender and racial norms. A strong example of these norms coming into play, although it does not entirely relate with gender, were the attempts to ignore the 13th and 14th Amendments, the reforms that abolished slavery and made the enslaved full citizens during the Reconstruction era (Case)

Case stated that affluent white women in the South were most likely to be active in political affairs during the pre-Civil War period. The 1830s and 1840s marked the beginning of civic associations in the South (Case). The largest barrier to progress during the mid-19th century were the local and state governments, which had successfully initiated poll taxes and literacy tests as voter registration requirements for Black men (Case). An aversion to diversity caused several decades of little momentum until NAWSA entered the picture with the hope of bringing southern women into the national cause through the establishment of local offices (Case). Because many of the southern NAWSA heads in the 1890s were from other regions of the country, southern women needed to fill a leadership gap once the visitors left (Case). A failure to fill the hole led to a decline in group membership, which persisted until Catt governed NAWSA (Case). A later section will evaluate what happened in the South just before the 19th Amendment’s introduction.

In the article “Women Suffrage in the Midwest,” Elyssa Ford characterized the Midwestern experience as something that had quiet and complex beginnings. Unlike the West, states in the Midwest region did not make strides toward full suffrage in the late 19th century (Ford). Historians cannot simply state this happened because of intense racism, as was the case in the South, Ford wrote. However, discrimination was an issue in the Midwest.

Illinois native Ida B. Wells led a suffrage movement for Black women in part because she thought her home state would cut women of color out of reforms (Ford). Wells promoted the idea that if Black women registered to vote, they could have Black men represent them in local offices. Soon, voter registration in Wells’ primarily Black neighborhood in Chicago soared (Ford).

Midwestern suffragists did experience some of the difficulties their contemporaries faced, such as the struggle to link women’s groups together for a more powerful force. As seen in the West, voting expansion leaders in the Midwest employed expediency arguments to convince residents that through participation at the polls, women could help their communities advance moral values, Ford stated. Such values included sobriety, which is what the Cleveland-based WCTU, an ally of the suffrage movement, sought to defend (Ford). Predictably, the Midwestern brewing industry combated the WCTU with their numerous connections to D.C. politicians.

The next area of this paper reviews the impact suffrage associations had in the overall movement. Suffrage associations have already been mentioned in the geographic histories of the Midwest and South, but it is important to note the varying influences of groups in the West as well.

Some western states, such as Wyoming, were not home to women’s suffrage associations because it adopted full or partial suffrage shortly after being granted statehood (McCammon 2001 p. 466). Activism may not have been feasible, McCammon surmised, because western communities generally were not as dense as the eastern urban areas. This development supports the idea that the politics of the West were markedly different from the rest of the country. Westerners could be more easily persuaded through the usage of justice and expediency arguments, while southerners and Midwest natives needed a group to rally around because of the existing political circumstances. Speaking of circumstances, it is time to return to the suffrage situation in the South.

As the 1910s progressed, so too did the southern women’s suffrage movement. Over 150,000 women in Atlanta were members in a local suffrage organization in 1910 — an increase of approximately 85,000 in a twenty-year span. Rising industrialization in Atlanta and other southern cities helped an urban middle class emerge (Case). Women in the new class likely had better educational attainment than their predecessors and they were able to apply their skills in teaching or other professions (Case). Pro-suffrage organizations that arose in the South during the early 20th century did not exactly have the same objectives. Several southern women aligned with the national NAWSA groups and similar to the Midwest, Black women connected with groups that promised to fight for suffrage on equal terms (Case).

The Equal Suffrage League of Virginia was an example of a group that used justice arguments to convince Black women and men that disenfranchisement was eminent if African Americans did not defend their right to vote (Case).

One of the more notable movements to spring during the 1910s was Louisianan Kate Gordon’s Southern States Women’s Conference (Case). Gordon’s goal was to persuade states, not the federal government, to enfranchise white women. A rivalry spawned between SSWC and NAWSA members, and it turned out to be detrimental to the suffragists cause. Had SSWC and NAWSA members united to promote an amendment in Gordon’s Louisiana, the measure may have overcome its political opponents (Case). However, victories would come, albeit on a very small scale, when Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida agreed to allow women to vote in select elections. Texas and Arkansas allowed white women to vote in all elections in 1920 (Case).    

States in the South that had women’s suffrage associations likely did so, McCammon found, because members of third parties held public offices (2001 p. 466). The most prominent parties were the Populists of the late 19th century and the Progressives in the early 20th century (McCammon 2001 p. 466). The endurance of the suffrage movement likely convinced a segment of Republican and Democrat politicians to implement voting rights for women into their platforms (McCammon 2001 p. 456). If political elites from either the main parties or third parties sided with the pro-suffrage group, the suffragists received endorsements and an opportunity to score support from additional lawmakers (McCammon and Campbell p. 65, 2001). Political actors within America’s two-party system likely accepted this movement because they wanted to dismantle the momentum of third parties and woo voters who aligned with the opposition (McCammon 2001 p. 456).

While southern women struggled to unite along racial and ideological lines, midwestern suffragists, with their expediency arguments as weapons, took on anti-suffragists and the liquor industry simultaneously (Ford). The influence of the WCTU had by now expanded outside of its Ohio base and into other midwestern states, including Michigan, which passed a full suffrage amendment in 1918. One of the major female figures pushing new reforms was the iconic social worker Jane Addams (Ford).

“Drawing upon her experience with settlement houses in Chicago, Addams argued not that women were different from men…but that women’s household tasks made them uniquely qualified to be city leaders and clean up the problems caused by industrialization,” Ford wrote.

Female residents in midwestern urban centers were the most likely to accept Addams’ expediency argument. Urban leaders in Nebraska decided to advertise their suffrage amendment campaign to a previously left-out rural population, and the attempt worked to some extent, as Nebraska granted women partial suffrage in 1918 (Ford).

As in the South, suffrage groups established by women of color were not treated with warmth when they advocated more for voting rights for Black women instead of women in general. In the first decade of the 20th century, Black women in the Midwest, such as Josephine St. Pierre, were ridiculed when they called for equal voting rights, and when Black women joined whites at suffrage conferences, they were not allowed to speak (Ford). Problems continued to emerge two decades later. When the Republican Party-led legislature in Ohio denied a statewide women’s suffrage amendment in 1919, the Colored Women’s Republican Club took offense, changed its name and faced criticism from leaders of other associations (Ford). NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt, a midwestern herself, advised the Black female suffragists from Ohio to reconnect with their white neighbors to create a more formidable dissent. In Wisconsin and Minnesota, white suffragist leaders urged similar sentiments, hoping that small organizations would latch on to the national movement (Ford).   

The ultimate fate of the midwestern and southern suffrage movements will be mentioned in the concluding section, so it is time to examine what research shows about the contribution of women’s suffrage groups. Women’s organizations that existed prior to the establishment of a suffrage association, such as the WCTU, influenced suffragist activism in both the Midwest and West (McCammon 2001 p. 467). Considering that it would be easier to mobilize a movement if members already have experience with activism, this finding seems plausible. McCammon identifies South Dakota and Kansas as examples of states with WCTU members that were able to mobilize pro-suffrage activities without the presence of a women’s suffrage-specific group. The South’s story is noticeably different, McCammon wrote, because the typical religious values shared by those in political power in the region limited group activity (p. 467, 2001).

A common strategy for the WCTU and national suffrage organizations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was to send leaders out to communities across the country (McCammon 2001, p.468). The suffragist missionaries would then deliver speeches, distribute pro-suffrage literature and provide financial support to the new organizational branch (McCammon 2001, p. 468). If these actions sparked interest among the local populace, mobilization for the women’s suffrage movement would continue. In eastern states, the work of pro-suffrage groups benefited mobilization greatly, while in the South, the impact of mobilization bore limited positive results (McCammon p. 468, 2001).

Now that the historical information provided by McCammon, Campbell, Case and Ford has been evaluated, the final section of this paper summarizes why the West, and not the Midwest and South, ultimately became the most women’s suffrage-friendly region in the country prior to the summer of 1920. To reach that conclusion, the author of this paper will infer the typical experience for a suffragist living in each of the three studied regions.

Before heading West, one last overview of the Midwest and South is necessary. The following table, which lists states that did not allow for women’s suffrage for any election prior to 1920, used information from the book “She Votes” by Bridget Quinn and the U.S. Census Bureau’s geographic regions. The census regions are more specific than “Midwest” and “South,” but for the sake of conformity, the standard East North Central and West North Central districts are identified as “Midwest” and the East South Central and South Atlantic regions are called “South.”

Southern and Midwestern States with No Women’s Suffrage Before 19th Amendment
North CarolinaSouth
South CarolinaSouth
West VirginiaSouth

As the table shows, nine states in the Midwest and South that fully denied voting rights to women. Two-thirds of the states listed are a part of the current South Atlantic census region (“Census Region”), meaning that this area of the country must have been the heart of the anti-suffrage contingent.

Interestingly, the Midwest had a diverse set of state suffrage laws. While Indiana and Missouri prohibited suffrage for women, most Midwestern states allowed suffrage to some extent (Quinn 2020). Michigan and South Dakota represented the full suffrage states, while Illinois, Nebraska and North Dakota allowed women to vote in presidential and municipal elections during some of the 1910s. In Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, women could vote on school bonds, but nothing more. Last, Ohio, with its prevalent racial divide within its statewide suffrage campaign, joined Florida as a state that allowed women in select cities to vote in local elections (Quinn p. 120-121, 2020). The Midwest has a complex story in the history of women’s voting rights, but a general plot can be briefly recapitulated.

A midwestern women’s suffrage movement most likely stemmed from the advocacy of a separate issue that was salient to women at the time, such as alcohol abuse (Ford). This means that the WCTU must have been primarily responsible for launching the suffrage movement in the Midwest. Early activists likely saw growing midwestern cities as places where their campaign could gain considerable traction (Ford). The use of expediency and justice arguments, with the possibility of one being used more than the other based on location, were used as tools for persuasion. Women convinced by one or both arguments likely became members of their local suffrage organization and as members, they attended frequent meetings and may have even been trained as field organizers. The field organizers continued group mobilization in new cities and towns with the hope of connecting urban and rural movements together for an effective campaign inside state legislative chambers. In Nebraska, Ford said female suffragists from a city like Omaha were armed with justice arguments when they spread out to agricultural centers. Ford provided an example in which Nebraskan suffragists argued that if women in farming communities are essential to the continued operation of their family business, they should be allowed to express their opinion on tax policies and other local politics at the polls. It is apparent that social mobilization would not be effective in the Midwest without the resources of large groups, mainly the WCTU and NAWSA.

From an ideological standpoint, particularly with its consensus views on race, the South clearly had some unique features that did negatively affect regional suffrage organizations. However, since Midwestern groups also had to grapple with the question of racial equality as well, the plot lines of the South’s women’s suffrage experience could be written up North as well.

The South does not stand out because of the rifts between white women-first groups and the organizations run by females of color. Recall that the Midwest, specifically Ohio, hosted these divisions and instead of supporting racial minority groups, national leadership called on the dissenting organizations to rejoin the broader movement (Ford).

In the southern states, pushback of voting rights for Black women should not be surprising considering that some people in the region, like the suffragist Kate Gordon, held racist beliefs even after the enslaved were granted full citizenship (Case). Literacy tests and poll taxes, which have been regarded as blatantly unnecessary today, were clearly methods attempting to limit racial minority influence in politics. Case stated that some white female suffragists in the South believed enfranchisement for white women exclusively would “ensure white supremacy.” Rather than continuing to question whether the South was truly promoting democracy during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is sufficient to know that without federal intervention, the South’s tendency to lawfully discriminate on the grounds of race may have persisted indefinitely.

Over in the West Coast, the biggest hurdle to group mobilization is not divisions among people, but the distance between communities (McCammon and Campbell p. 64, 2001). In the Midwest and the South (to a lesser extent), suffragists such as Wells in Chicago likely did not have to travel far to inform her Black neighbors about the grievances of local politicians. In fact, the opportunity to reach out to a dense urban population propelled Wells’ Chicago precinct to earn the sixth-highest share of registered voters in the area (Ford). Recall that the western suffrage leaders, meanwhile, needed a large share of fundraising to travel to a distant town (McCammon, p. 69, 2001). Of course, the good news for the suffragists out West is the inclination of local women to welcome a progressive reform. Secondly, expediency arguments, with the idea that as mothers and homemakers in society, women can understand the importance of politics in everyday life (McCammon and Campbell p. 469, 2001). Thousands of voters in Montana seemed to accept this concept when they elected the first women to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1915 (Quinn p. 95, 2020).

Jeanette Rankin’s 1915 victory technically fulfilled one of Carrie Chapman Catt’s political dreams, but the NAWSA president was unimpressed with the Republican from a sparsely populated state (Quinn p. 95, 2020). Catt envisioned a congresswoman who was a mother with children, educated as a lawyer and friendly with Washington’s political elites (Quinn p. 95, 2020).

Rankin was none of these, and to make matters worse for Catt, she was staunchly independent. Rankin voted against the United States’ entrance into World War I during her first week in Congress, which disappointed Catt and the overwhelming majority of lawmakers who allowed President Woodrow Wilson’s request for war. After failing to get re-elected in 1918, Rankin returned to the House in 1941. She would once again have to vote on going to war — this time it was World War II — and she said “nay” for the second time, prompting another defeat in the following election (Quinn p. 97, 2020).

The unpopular choices of Rankin seem to prove that as with men, all women do not share the same political beliefs. Therefore, it is not a forgone conclusion that women would ruin the American political system if enfranchised. In hindsight, the fears of anti-suffragists appear to have been fueled on sexism rather than reason. Finally, the justice argument concept stated by McCammon may still have some effective persuasion in an era in which men and women share many of the same professions.

Works Cited

Case, Sarah H. “Woman Suffrage in the Southern States.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,,could%20not%20be%20restricted%20%E2%80%9Con.

“Census Regions and Divisions of the United States.” U.S. Census Bureau,

Ford, Elyssa. “Woman Suffrage in the Midwest.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,

McCammon, Holly J. “Stirring up Suffrage Sentiment: The Formation of the State Woman Suffrage Organizations, 1866-1914.” Social Forces, vol. 80, no. 2, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 449–80,

McCammon, Holly J., and Karen E. Campbell. “Winning the Vote in the West.” Gender & Society, vol. 15, no. 1, 2001, pp. 55–82.,

“State Women’s Suffrage Ballot Measures.” Ballotpedia,

Quinn, Bridget, and Nell Irvin Painter. She Votes: How U.S. Women Won Suffrage, and What Happened Next. Chronicle Books, 2020.

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