On Aug. 18, 1920, Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment. Eight days later, ratification was certified by the secretary of state. The right to vote for women across the United States was officially enshrined in the Constitution.
The codification of suffrage was the result of nearly a century of activism, which began even before the Seneca Falls convention in 1848. From those early years to the formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890 to the Woman Suffrage Procession in Washington in 1913, generations of American women and men devoted their lives to fighting for the vote. The movement was a decades-long game of democratic Telephone: Of the 68 women who gathered in that town in upstate New York and declared what was then a radical notion — that all men and women were created equal — only one, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, would live to see their dream become a reality.
And their struggle did not end with the amendment. Well after 1920, there were many women in the United States, including Native Americans and Chinese immigrants, who were not able to vote and many more, particularly African-Americans, for whom it was extremely difficult. One hundred years later, the country is continuing to grapple with many of the same questions the suffragists raised, not only who gets to vote but also what it means to be a citizen and how to ensure that all Americans are equal in the eyes of the law. And as we mark this centennial, the generation that came after the suffragists, and the ones that have come after that, are still in the fight.
“Learning your history is an essential tool, and a call to action,” said Liza Mickens, a great-great-granddaughter of the suffragist Maggie Lena Walker. “I’m honored to be a part of this legacy.” (Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.)
Adele Logan Alexander, 82, New York
Granddaughter of Adella Hunt Logan
Adella’s portrait — the one that’s the cover of my book “Princess of the Hither Isles: A Black Suffragist’s Story from the Jim Crow South” — hung in my parents’ apartment, so she’s always been a visible, physical presence in my life, even though she died when my father was only 6 years old. And, of course, I was named for her. When I was in my early 40s, a young historian who was working on a Ph.D. dissertation about Black women in the suffrage movement was the first one to show me Adella’s writings. I hadn’t had that kind of specifics before, and I got totally hooked on trying to find out more about her as a suffragist. My father was dead by that time, so I asked my mother, “Did you know all this?” And her response was, “Of course.” Not only was Adella involved, but my mother’s mother was, too: They were both light-skinned enough to pass, so the two grandmothers, well before my parents were born, would go together to white suffrage conferences in the South, and then come back and share the information they learned with the Black community.
But even before I knew the details of my family’s story, voting and political involvement were very much a part of my growing up. One of my first memories is of my hand reaching up for my mother’s as she walked with me to the New York Public Library, down through this back labyrinth to where the voting booths were. I always knew that this was something very precious, and not to be taken for granted.
Coline Jenkins, 68, Greenwich, Conn.
Great-great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, great-granddaughter of Harriot Stanton Blatch, granddaughter of Nora Stanton Blatch de Forest Barney
My dad had died when I was little, so it was my mother and my grandmother, these two very strong women, who raised me. They both had jobs — my grandmother Nora was the first woman in the country to get a degree in civil engineering and my mother was an architect — and they were civically active all the time. Nobody sat me down and told me about Elizabeth or Harriot: I learned vicariously through these two powerful women in my life. Then when I was around 17 I started visiting some of the historical sites and reading Elizabeth’s memoirs and putting together the mosaic of values and ideas that have been expressed through the generations.
If you want to know about democracy, and the tools of democracy, then learn about the suffrage movement. This was warfare, and the suffragists used every single weapon available: petitions, lobbying, newspapers, speeches, marches — everything except the gun. That’s why it’s called the world’s greatest bloodless revolution. These women worked their full lifetimes, and then the next generation did the same, and the next. I’m very proud to be the daughter of the daughter of the daughter of the daughter. People talk about the mitochondrial DNA that passes down through the mother. That’s the powerhouse within the cell. And I’m proud to have that power boost.
Michelle Duster, 56, Chicago
Great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells-Barnett
My grandmother Alfreda was very purposeful when I was growing up about making sure we knew who her mother was, and passing down her values, while also not putting pressure on us to live up to anybody else’s legacy. People underestimate how much pressure there is for children dealing with a parent who’s such a public figure, and I think that’s why my grandmother was so determined that we would have our own identities.
At the same time, she was relentless about making sure Ida was not forgotten. She was the one who found the manuscript for her mother’s incomplete autobiography. She was a widow raising five children on her own, and she would stay up working on it when the kids were asleep. She managed to get it published in 1970. We now have four generations of my family that have created or supported some kind of work around Ida’s legacy, and it all started with my grandmother.
I can only imagine that Ida might be slightly disappointed if she saw where we are now. She spent over 50 years fighting for equality and justice, and here we are, almost 90 years after she died, still fighting. We still haven’t reached the point where there is true racial and economic and gender equality in this country. Then again, maybe she wouldn’t be surprised, because she knew that social change takes a long time.
Sandra Shreve, 79, Denver
Great-great-niece of Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Most of what I know about Mary came from reading books written by others and from reading things she wrote herself. She was a woman who would go all over, selling her newspaper (the first to be published by a Black woman in North America) and sharing ideas of freedom and liberty. I’ve been just fascinated by her and her life and how feisty she was and the things she was able to accomplish at a time when women were not being heard.
In 1998, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y. I went to the ceremony with my cousin Dorothy Shadd Shreve. The evening before, we were all given candles and lined up, 10 abreast, to march down the main road to the hall. Dorothy was in her 90s, but there she was, in her high heels, walking very forcefully down the street. As we marched arm-in-arm with all these remarkable women, the people from the town lined up on both sides of the street and applauded. I remember Dorothy saying, “And we’re still fighting for the rights of women!” I’ll never forget that experience.
Sarah Plimpton, 83, New York
Granddaughter of Blanche Ames Ames
My grandmother was absolutely wonderful — just this extraordinary, vibrant person. I remember, in the early days of television, she would sit in front of it and argue with whomever she was listening to. She would never take anything for granted or believe what someone said if she couldn’t verify it herself.
We heard a lot around the dinner table about her struggle to get support for a women’s hospital in Boston, and she and my mother were involved with Planned Parenthood. But when it came to women and the vote, I think we all took it for granted. I never doubted that a woman could do anything. Maybe that was naïve. But she imbued us with this feeling that you could pursue anything you put your mind to.
David Steele Ewing, 67, Nashville
Great-great-grandson of Isabella Ewing
My father died when I was 2 years old, so I grew up not knowing a lot about the Ewing family. But at a family reunion about 25 years ago, I kept hearing about Prince Albert Ewing and Isabella, my great-great-grandparents. It was a surprise to me to hear about people who I’m related to, who lived in the city where I’ve always lived and who were so involved in the Nashville African-American community.
This was before the days of online genealogy, so I did the old-fashioned work of going to courthouses and libraries to discover more information. They were both enslaved, Prince Albert at a place called Travellers Rest and Isabella at the Hermitage. They were married in 1871 and purchased some land near the Hermitage, where they built a house. That’s where I found their voting cards. Prince Albert was a magistrate in the 1880s. He was elected three times. But Isabella couldn’t vote for him. So it was very important, even though he was no longer on the bench, that she went to register as soon as she could.
There’s all this talk that women were “given” the right to vote. Women were not given the right to vote: They fought for the right to vote. They organized for the right to vote. They demanded the right to vote. This didn’t happen by magic. They really had to fight for it.
Pamela Michael, 71, Hudson, N.H.
Granddaughter of Frank Tafe and Delia Lefavor Tafe
My grandmother was quite a gal. She was one of the first women to graduate from Nashua High School, and she had a career as a secretary at the Nashua Card, Gummed and Coated Paper Company (later known as the Nashua Corporation) before she married at 32. She was unique and progressive for her time, very independent. And my grandfather was very supportive. Both of my grandparents stood up for what they believed in.
He died before I was born, and she died when I was about 13. My grandmother never really talked to me about women’s rights in much detail because I was so young. But I’ve been very active politically, so it must be in the blood. Speaking out seems to run in the family, and the women are quite strong. We don’t sit back. We’re not passive. And Delia wasn’t either.
Liza Mickens, 23, Richmond, Va.
Great-great-granddaughter of Maggie Lena Walker
My brother and I were brought up telling Maggie Walker’s story, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously. But the family narrative I grew up telling was focused on the work she did as the first African-American woman to charter a bank in the United States. It wasn’t until recently, as part of my work campaigning in Virginia for the Equal Rights Amendment, that I really learned about her involvement in the political field. Knowing her, though, it didn’t come as a surprise: In everything she did, her focus was on empowering her community.
She was not necessarily out and marching — Maggie was partially disabled because of diabetes — but she organized. When women did get the right to vote, she made sure it wasn’t just for white women: She registered hundreds of Black women to vote that first year. She and other contemporaries also formed a “Lily Black” ticket, in response to the “lily white” ticket in the Republican Party, and in 1921 she became the first Black woman to run for statewide office in Virginia.
This 100th anniversary is coming at a pivotal time. We’re seeing the call for Black voices to be highlighted in this country, where they’ve been silenced for so long. It’s so important for young Black women to have somebody like Maggie to look up to, and being able to use my voice to share her story is a huge honor.
William Bellamy, 73, Laramie, Wyo.
Great-grandson of Mary Godat Bellamy
I was 7 when Mary passed away, so I remember her just as great-grandma. She had a corner store where we would hang out when I was a kid, and she would read our palms. I always kind of knew what she did — we all knew she was the first woman legislator in Wyoming and that she had worked hard in the Democratic Party for suffrage — but it wasn’t until fairly recently that I spent more time researching her accomplishments.
The history of political movements is forgotten pretty rapidly after things are changed one way or the other — how the movement went forward, how long sometimes it takes to change a social norm and what needs to be done to get actual change accomplished. What we learn from the suffragists is how hard people worked to get something done for future generations because they believed it was truly the right thing to do. My great-grandma taught a kind of Jeffersonian attitude: You do what you can do for society with the gifts you’re given. That was how she looked at life, and that’s what she did.
1. Harriot Stanton Blatch, 1911. Library of Congress
2. Maggie Lena Walker, circa 1920s. Courtesy of National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
3. Ida B. Wells-Barnett with her family, 1917. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library
4. Ida B. Wells-Barnett with her children, 1909. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library
5. Mary Godat Bellamy, circa 1910. via William Bellamy
6. Adella Hunt Logan with her family, 1913. Arthur P. Bedou, reproduction by Mark Gulezian
7. Blanche Ames Ames with her daughter Pauline Ames Plimpton, mother of Sarah Plimpton, and her husband, Oakes Ames. Undated. Ames Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
8. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, circa 1850. Library and Archives Canada/Mary Ann Shadd Cary collection/c029977
9. Isabella Ewing, 1916. via David Steele Ewing
10. Blanche Ames Ames, 1899. Ames Family Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
11. Maggie Lena Walker with her family, circa 1920. Courtesy of National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site
12. Nora Stanton Blatch de Forest Barney, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriot Stanton Blatch, left to right, 1892. via Coline Jenkins
13. Frank Tafe and Delia Lefavor Tafe, circa 1918. via Pamela Michael