Women demanded political equality even before the nation’s founding. In March of 1776 Abigail Adams instructed her husband, John Adams, to “remember the ladies” as he and other delegates to the Continental Congress drafted founding principles for a newly independent nation. For more than a century, even while denied access to the ballot box, women continued to engage in politics as abolitionists, petitioners, runaways, plaintiffs, correspondents, spouses, preachers, and public speakers. Political activists met at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to organize a national movement for women’s legal and political rights. During the years of the Civil War and Reconstruction, while lawmakers in Congress debated the legal and civil rights of formerly enslaved people, women petitioned Congress for their own right to vote. Those efforts failed, but suffragists continued to carry the torch for reform throughout the post-war years and into the 20th century.
In 1878 Senator Aaron Sargent became the first member of Congress to formally propose a constitutional amendment specifically to extend voting rights to women. The Senate never voted on Sargent’s proposal, but the idea and the suffragists who supported it persisted. Senators—some of them working closely with activists—continued to debate women’s political rights over the next four decades as suffrage lobbyists ramped up pressure on members of Congress. After several failed attempts, the Senate finally approved a constitutional amendment for woman suffrage on June 4, 1919. Ratified in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution includes only 39 words, two sentences that represent the work of generations of activists and a dedicated group of congressional reformers.
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 sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.