50th Space Wing Public Affairs
At 7 a.m. on Aug. 31, 1920, Marie Ruoff Byrum braved the pouring rain to cast her ballot in Hannibal, Mo., for a special election to fill the seat of an alderman who had resigned. With this action, her name has been imprinted forever in the annals of American history as the first woman to vote in the state of Missouri and the first woman to vote in the United States under the 19th, or Suffrage, Amendment.
Hers and other women’s right to vote would not have been made possible if not for a peaceful civil rights movement that formally began in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
With little financial, legal or political power of their own, and working against a well-financed and entrenched opposition, women fought for their rights of citizenship and the right to vote. When they first organized to gain political power, women were a virtually powerless, disenfranchised class. Yet without firing a shot, throwing a rock or issuing a personal threat, women won for themselves the kind of political power that revolutionaries elsewhere required violent rebellions to achieve.
To win the right to vote, women circulated countless suffrage petitions and gave speeches in churches, convention halls, meeting houses and on street corners. They published newspapers, pamphlets and magazines. They were frequently harassed and sometimes attacked by mobs and police. Some women were thrown in jail, and when they protested the injustice they were treated brutally. Still they persevered.
Carrie Chapman Catt, the last National American Woman Suffrage Association president, reported that suffragists had undertaken 56 campaigns of referenda to mail voters; 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks; 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt woman suffrage planks in party platforms; and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.
The movement culminated with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution Aug. 26, 1920, granting women in the United States the right to vote.
At the behest of Representative Bella Abzug, in 1971, the U.S. Congress designated Aug. 26 as Women’s Equality Day. The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution.
The product of profound struggle and determined hope, the 19th Amendment reaffirmed that America is a place where anything is possible and where every person is entitled to the full pursuit of happiness. Although often understated, the social, economic and political contributions of American women profoundly affected the course of this nation. The American Woman Suffrage Movement stands as a lasting affirmation of the country’s democratic promise and re-emphasizes the importance of the most fundamental democratic values: the right to vote, and the possibility of peaceful yet revolutionary political change.
(Information courtesy of Department of Labor, Navy and the National Women’s History Project)