Women’s Suffrage: Pennsylvania’s Ratification of the 19th Amendment

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The struggle for women’s suffrage in Pennsylvania has a long history. Throughout the Colonial Period, 1681–1776, only adult males who owned property could vote. After breaking from the British crown, Pennsylvania’s revolutionary political leaders broadened male voting by abolishing the property qualifications; however, they did not extend the vote to women.

A significant precursor to the women’s suffrage movement was abolitionism. By 1804 all states above the Mason-Dixon Line provided for the “gradual abolition” of slavery — Pennsylvania was the first to do so by legislative action in 1780. Subsequently, many northerners expressed opposition to slavery in the South as well. In 1833 the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was formed. After they and others were denied admission to an international antislavery convention in London in 1840 because of their gender, the women determined to hold a convention of their own at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. There they declared that the rights of women required the same emphasis as the rights of slaves. Leaders, such as Pennsylvania’s Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), proclaimed that “all men and women are created equal” and demanded full political rights.

The movement to abolish slavery succeeded during the 1860s with the cost of a great civil war, but the campaign for women’s suffrage continued. By 1915 advocates of women’s suffrage were successful in getting the Pennsylvania legislature’s approval for a referendum on an amendment to the state constitution that would give women the right to vote. Despite intense lobbying, the referendum failed; however, state and national organizations maintained the pressure.

Although many states granted partial or full voting rights to women prior to the 19th Amendment, Pennsylvania was one of several states that resisted until the amendment was adopted. In the meantime, Pennsylvania women organized suffrage associations, held rallies, wrote songs and pamphlets, and became prominent in the effort to enact a suffrage amendment.

Seventy-one years after the Seneca Falls Convention, the United States Congress capitulated and on June 4, 1919, passed a joint resolution calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution decreeing that American citizens would not be denied the right to vote on the basis of sex. Pennsylvania took just 20 days to agree: The 19th Amendment was ratified by a joint resolution of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly on June 24, 1919, becoming the seventh state to approve it. The ratification resolution, now held in the Pennsylvania State Archives (RG-26), is shown here.

The 19th Amendment itself was adopted on August 18, 1920, when Tennessee’s approval met the requirement that amendments be ratified by three-fourths of the states. U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the results, giving women throughout the United States the right to vote on August 26, 1920. The monumental victory for women’s suffrage had been won.

 

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.