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Society of American Archivists article "100 Years After the 19th Amendment: A New Exhibit Explores the Struggle to Win the Vote"

July 2018

The Constitution of the United States, the founding document of our government, begins with the bold words “We the People,” and a fundamental right of “the People” is the ability to vote and have a say in government. Yet for the nation’s first 130 years, that right was denied to American women, even though proponents of woman suffrage promoted their cause and urged enfranchisement.

In January 1918, while the United States was engaged in war in Europe, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin of Montana opened debate in the U.S. House of Representatives on a proposed constitutional amendment to grant women the right. She spoke of the women and men involved in the war effort and asked, “How shall we answer their challenge, gentlemen; how shall we explain to them the meaning of democracy if the same Congress that voted for war to make the world safe for democracy refuses to give this small measure of democracy to the women of our country?”

The proposal passed the House but failed in the Senate. The next year, however, both houses of Congress passed the 19th Amendment and sent it to the states for ratification. After many years of struggle, the amendment was ratified in August 1920, and the right of women to vote was finally part of the Constitution. To commemorate this landmark amendment’s 100th anniversary in 2020, the National Archives will present exhibits and programs based on the historical records in our care.

In March 2019, we will open “Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote,” a new exhibit in Washington, DC, that uses National Archives records to tell the story of women’s struggle for voting rights as a critical step toward equal citizenship. The five sections of the exhibit will address these questions:

  • Who decides who votes?
  • Why did women fight for the vote?
  • How did women win the vote?
  • What was the immediate impact of the 19th Amendment?
  • What voting rights struggles persist after the 19th Amendment?

Through exploring the answers to these questions, visitors will discover a fuller historical narrative of the woman suffrage movement, including the critical milestones and setbacks in the struggle to win the vote for different groups of women.

 In addition to this exhibit in the National Archives Building, we will make available a traveling exhibit (“One Half of the People”) and a pop-up display for smaller venues to bring the resources of the National Archives to people across the country. Throughout the centennial commemoration, educational programs, lectures, and special events will explore the many facets of the fight for woman suffrage.

The 19th Amendment is rightly celebrated as a major milestone made possible by decades of suffragists’ relentless political engagement, yet it is just one critical piece of the larger story of women’s battle for the vote. When thinking about the woman suffrage movement, familiar names such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Alice Paul, or Carrie Chapman Catt spring to mind. But popular accounts featuring only famous names do not begin to capture the full range of activists involved in the struggle, nor do they acknowledge that women have sometimes been disenfranchised on grounds other than sex. “Rightfully Hers” will explore how American women across the spectra of race, ethnicity, and class advanced the cause of suffrage.

The struggle for voting rights did not end with ratification of the 19th Amendment. The exhibit goes well beyond 1920 to look at ongoing and more contemporary voting rights issues. In telling a fuller historical narrative of the woman suffrage movement, “Rightfully Hers” documents the critical milestones and setbacks in the struggle to win the vote for different groups of women.

We’re very excited about the upcoming centennial and the exhibits and activities we are planning. The 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment reminds us that the right to vote, which is basic to our understanding of democracy, is not always guaranteed but was won through the work of generations of tireless activists.

“Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote” will be on display from March 8, 2019, through September 7, 2020, at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.