Aug. 18, 2022

The 19th Amendment Gives Women the Right to Vote

The 19th Amendment Gives Women the Right to Vote

August 18, 1920. The United States Congress ratifies the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.


Cold Open

CONTENT WARNING: A listener note: this episode contains depictions of violence that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s a cold drizzly night on November 14th, 1917, about twenty miles southwest of Washington D.C.

Superintendent W. H. Whittaker stands outside the gates of the facility he supervises: the Occoquan Workhouse, a correctional facility in Fairfax County, Virginia. Raindrops slide from the brim of his cap as he awaits the arrival of a fresh batch of inmates. 

In the distance... he sees headlamps loom through the mizzle and fog. It’s a convoy of police vans, creeping up to the prison gates.

A young officer steps out of a vehicle… and hurries up to Whittaker, shouting over the rain: "Same again, sir.”

Whittaker growls back: “How many this time?”

The officer shrugs: "Hard to say. Maybe around thirty?"

Whittaker grimaces. Not long ago, Occoquan was a typical correctional facility, containing vagrants, thieves, and ruffians. But over the last few months, Whittaker has witnessed an influx of a new breed of inmate: suffragists - those petticoated trouble-makers with their incessant cries of “Votes for Women!”

Whittaker grumbles again under his breath as he waves the police vans through.

Moments later… Whittaker strides into the prison intake facility, where the new detainees are being lined up. Whittaker scans the row of women, his eyes gleaming with contempt. 

The Superintendent warns the suffragists that in his prison, he will not tolerate disobedience; any misbehavior will be promptly punished… with force if necessary. 

One of the women returns Whittaker’s gaze, fixing him with a recalcitrant stare. He recognizes the tall, flame-haired woman: Lucy Burns, one of the leaders of the suffragist movement. Whittaker knows that in order to break these women’s spirits and cow them into submission, he will first have to subjugate Lucy Burns… and it's only a matter of time before he gets his chance.

Hearing a commotion coming from the women’s block, Whittaker finds Lucy Burns whipping up her fellow suffragists into an agitation! The superintendent leaps into action. He orders forty prison guards to arm themselves with wooden truncheons. He leads them to storm the women’s block, and teach “the suffragists a lesson…”

On the infamous night of November 14th, guards at the Occoquan Workhouse brutally attack the women inmates, beating many to the brink of unconsciousness. Lucy Burns receives the harshest punishment of all: she is stripped naked and strung up by her wrists until morning. And the abuse doesn’t end there. During their incarceration, the suffragists will be fed maggot-infested food, kept in solitary confinement, and often beaten – a campaign of savage violence intended to crush their spirits and shatter their resolve.

But these women will not be silenced. In the face of adversity, they will only grow stronger and more determined. And after their release from prison, they will continue to agitate for equality, until their voices drown out the opposition, and the United States Congress finally ratifies the women's right to vote on August 18th, 1920.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is August 18th, 1920: The 19th Amendment Gives Women the Right to Vote.

Act One: Votes For Women!

It’s November 20th, 1907, 13 years before Congress ratifies the 19th Amendment.

On a winter’s evening in Birmingham, England, a 22-year-old American graduate student, Alice Paul, is having dinner with some classmates. Conversation flows around the table, but Alice hasn't spoken a word. She bolts down her food before excusing herself and hurrying out the door. The bracing cold hits Alice when she steps outside. She climbs onto her bicycle and sets off through the foggy streets, pedaling furiously beneath her ankle-length skirt.

After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania earlier in the year, Alice traveled to England to continue her studies in sociology and economics. Ambitious and whip-smart, Alice has always taken her education seriously. She wants to go into politics one day. And since the only professions open to women at this time are teaching and nursing, Alice knows she will have to work hard to achieve her goal.

Recently though, Alice has become interested in another subject, something outside of her studies: the cause of women's suffrage. Here in the United Kingdom, and back home in the United States, women can't vote. Tonight, Alice is on her way to a lecture to be delivered by Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, both prominent advocates for women's suffrage, or as they’re known here in the UK: suffragettes.

Alice parks her bicycle and heads inside Birmingham Town Hall. It's mostly men in the auditorium. And as Christabel starts to speak, the men jeer, whistle, and shake rattles - anything they can to silence the suffragette. Somebody throws a dead mouse in the air, prompting raucous laughter. Still, Christabel remains poised. She shouts over the pandemonium, driving home her message.

And while the men roll their eyes and go foul, Alice is transfixed.

Not long after this event, Alice moves to London to study at the London School of Economics. Inspired by what she heard in Birmingham, Alice signs up to be a part of the Women's Social and Political Union, or WSPU, an organization founded by Emmeline Pankhurst to campaign for women's suffrage. The WSPU is known for its militant, sometimes violent tactics. Its members heckle politicians, smash windows, plant bombs, and commit arson – all in the name of women's right to vote.

For Alice, being part of a bold, aggressive movement is exhilarating. Back in America, the campaign for women’s suffrage is very different. The suffragists, as they’re known in the US, are largely law-abiding and mild-mannered. The gradual, constitutional approach to achieving the vote is influenced by 19th-century activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who both condemned violence. But in England, Alice is learning that sometimes, in order to effect change, you have to break things. 

Alice quickly becomes an active member of the WSPU. Her charisma and intelligence propel her into a more prominent role, leading rallies and selling copies of the organization's newspaper on street corners. Soon, Alice's increasing involvement with the WSPU will lead to her first confrontation with the law.

On June 29th, 1909, Alice takes part in a protest outside Parliament. With Emmeline Pankhurst leading from the front, several thousand suffragettes march to the House of Commons, insisting their demands be met by the British Prime Minister.

Scuffles break out between protesters and police. Alice pushes forward, screaming "Votes for Women!" when suddenly, she feels a strong hand close around her wrist. Alice turns and looks up into the ruddy face of the policeman. He places Alice in handcuffs and leads her away to a waiting van.

Alice is thrown into a holding cell at Canon Row Police Station. Her heart pounds with adrenaline as she looks around at the hundred or so other detained suffragettes. Across the dingy, bare-brick cell, Alice spots a red-haired woman with an American flag pinned to her lapel. She approaches and introduces herself.

The woman's name is Lucy Burns. And like Alice, Lucy was an American graduate student studying at Oxford. But after meeting Emmeline Pankhurst, Lucy abandoned her studies and began working full-time for the WSPU.

Alice and Lucy immediately strike up a friendship. In some respects, the two women seem to be opposites: Alice is small and dark-haired, while Lucy is tall, with auburn hair and pale skin. Alice is hot-tempered and aggressive. Lucy is gentler and more willing to compromise. But both women are tough, fearless, and utterly committed to achieving their goal.

A few months after meeting, Alice and Lucy concoct a scheme to infiltrate a banquet at Guildhall, a government building in London. They disguise themselves as cleaning staff and slip past the security guard unnoticed. Then, while the Prime Minister delivers an address, Alice tears off her disguise and shouts "Votes for Women!" Meanwhile, Lucy confronts another politician - the future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill - and demands the release of suffragettes in jail.

For this brazen act, Alice will be locked up again, this time in the notorious Holloway Prison.

Her time behind bars proves traumatic. She goes on hunger strike, but prison authorities have means to counter this popular form of protest among suffragettes. They force-feed her by glass tube, and this brutal treatment leaves Alice blistered, bruised, and ridden with illness.

Badly shaken by her thirty days at Holloway, Alice will sail back to America in January of 1910. But though her body is weak, her resolve is stronger than ever. Emboldened by the militant tactics of Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU, Alice Paul intends to fight for women's suffrage in the country of her birth, and she intends to bring that fight directly to the doorstep of the most powerful man in America.

Act Two: How Long Must We Wait?

It's March 3rd, 1913 in Washington D.C., several years before the 19th Amendment is ratified.

A train pulls into Washington Union Station. Sitting on board, peering out of the window with a faint smile on his long, drawn face, is President-elect Woodrow Wilson.

Tomorrow is Wilson's inauguration. A progressive Democrat, Wilson won his race by promising to strengthen the individual rights and liberties of the American people. He sincerely believes that freedom and democracy are what makes America great, and this sentiment and a split opposition helped him win the election in a landslide.

But given his overwhelming mandate, Wilson is a little disappointed by the crowd assembled to greet him at the station today. As Wilson's motorcade drives through the city, the sidewalks too are eerily deserted.

Wilson wonders aloud: "Where is everybody?" And one of his associates in the car replies, "They’re on the Avenue, watching the Suffrage Parade."

Across town, more than 8,000 suffragists march down Pennsylvania Avenue with banners and floats on their way to the US Capitol. Regaled in the purple, white, and gold of the women's suffrage movement, these demonstrators are here to loudly and boldly demand their right to vote. Holding the procession the day before the inauguration is no coincidence. The organizers want President-elect Wilson to sit up and take notice.

By 1913, a handful of US states have already extended the franchise to women. But there has never been a federal ruling on a woman's right to vote. A bill was introduced to the Senate decades ago. But as of 1913, that bill has repeatedly failed to pass in Congress.

Part of the problem is the suffrage movement itself. Many blame the National American Women's Suffrage Association or the NAWSA. Many feel the NAWSA is a stuffy, antiquated organization bereft of good ideas. But things are changing. A new generation of women is rising through the ranks, determined to turn the moderate movement into a full-blown revolution…

And one member of that new generation is Alice Paul. Now 28 years old, Alice is the chairwoman of the NAWSA's Congressional Committee. Along with her co-chair Lucy Burns, it's Alice's responsibility to agitate for constitutional change here in Washington.

So today, Alice marches with the parade as they advance toward the Capitol. Crowds of spectators choke the sidewalks. And before long, the onlookers spill into the street. Eventually, violence breaks out, as a hostile opposition tears down banners and harass the suffragists. By the end of the afternoon, the non-violent protest has descended into a near-riot.

But Alice is pleased. A peaceful demonstration would have been forgotten. But today's procession will make headlines across the country. And indeed, the procession in D.C. helps catapult the women's suffrage movement into the public eye. But it also spells trouble for the movement, as it highlights the growing divisions at the heart of the NAWSA leadership...

Alice Paul believes the success of the march is proof that an aggressive, militant approach is vital to achieving suffrage. But many of the older generation still disagree. They've been fighting this battle for a very long time, and they urge patience. NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt favors a gradual state-by-state approach - not a sweeping all-at-once federal amendment. But Alice Paul isn't interested in gradual change. She wants the vote. And she wants it now.

So one month after the violent procession in D.C., Alice and Lucy split from NAWSA and form a new organization, the Congressional Union, dedicated to putting pressure on President Wilson and members of Congress. But years go by with little to no results. And in the end, Alice and the Congressional Union are forced to resort to even more drastic measures.


It’s January 10th, 1917; three years before the 19th Amendment is ratified.

President Woodrow Wilson sits in the backseat of his limousine as it rumbles along Pennsylvania Avenue. The President has just been re-elected, but he's in no mood to celebrate.

Over the last four years, the suffragists, led by that troublemaker, Alice Paul, have been a thorn in his side. They’ve been agitating for something he isn't prepared to give: women's voting rights. Wilson considers himself a progressive. But he's a firm believer in states' rights. And in his mind, if the individual states don't want to enfranchise women, Wilson isn't going to force them to. 

Riding in his limousine, Wilson soon sees something up ahead. A group of twelve women standing outside the White House, their backs to the iron fencing. As his car draws nearer, Wilson can read one of their placards: "MR. PRESIDENT, HOW LONG MUST WOMEN WAIT FOR LIBERTY?”

Wilson pales. He averts his eyes as the limousine roars through the gates.

And over the coming weeks, these suffragists stand vigil outside the White House nearly constantly. Known as the "Silent Sentinels", the protestors return every day, rain or shine, and silently picket the President. Eventually, Wilson decided enough is enough, and authorizes the police to begin rounding up the suffragists and carting them off to prison.

But soon, reports of the suffragists’ inhumane treatment behind bars is picked up by the press. Many Americans are outraged; in no small part because the US recently entered World War One. To many, it seems hypocritical for America to be fighting for freedom in Europe while half the American population can’t vote; especially when women across the country are contributing to the war effort, toiling in munitions factories, and making sacrifices to buttress the nation’s economy. The cries of outrage grow so loud that President Wilson feels compelled to reevaluate his stand. 

In November 1917, Wilson will release the imprisoned suffragists. Two months later, he will publicly endorse their cause, standing before the Senate and declaring: “Shall we admit women only to a partnership of suffering, sacrifice, and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?" But despite the President's newfound support, an amendment to grant women the vote will not become law right away. It will be another two years before the hard work of women like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns pays off, granting women the most fundamental of democratic rights.

Act Three: Mother Knows Best

It’s a sweltering summer’s day on August 18th, 1920, in Nashville, Tennessee.

Temperatures are rising inside the Tennessee State Capitol Building, where a fierce debate is taking place. State representatives grow red in the face as they bellow across the chamber. High up in the balcony, members of the public watch the drama unfold, fanning themselves to keep cool.

The representatives are arguing whether or not to ratify a federal amendment granting women the right to vote. After repeatedly failing to receive enough votes in the Senate, Congress finally approved the amendment last June. All that was needed for it to become law was for 36 states to independently ratify it. So far, 35 states have. And today, Tennessee could be the 36th.

While the debate rages, 24-year-old Representative Harry T. Burn quietly sits on the back benches, trying to gather his thoughts. Harry is personally ambivalent about women’s suffrage. Many of his constituents are firmly against it. But before coming to vote today, Harry received a letter from his mother. In it, she wrote: “Dear Son, hurrah and vote for suffrage… don’t forget to be a good boywith lots of love, mama.

But despite his mother’s wishes, Harry sides with his constituents. When it’s his turn to vote, he goes against the amendment. But after the House Speaker tallies up the votes, it becomes clear the room is split. The final count is 48 to 48 - a dead tie.

Harry hopes the motion will be tabled. But the Speaker declares that there’s going to be another round. Harry nervously fondles his mother’s letter in his pocket. He thinks about her words, and about the right he is suddenly empowered to grant her.

This time, when Harry casts his vote, he switches sides and votes for the amendment.

Pandemonium erupts. Abuse rains down on Harry from the balcony, and from the benches beside him, as many of his fellow representatives turn apoplectic with rage. Fearing for his safety, Harry flees the building. He clambers over the back of the bench and jumps through an open window.

But with Harry T. Burns’ decisive vote, Tennessee ratifies the amendment, turning the bill into law. The 19th Amendment will be added to the U.S. Constitution, prohibiting the states from denying a citizen the right to vote “on the basis of sex”.

The 19th Amendment will enshrine women’s suffrage into law. But it won’t immediately enfranchise all women. The Amendment will not abolish state laws designed to keep Black Americans away from the ballot box. 45 years later, the 1965 Voting Rights Act will finally prohibit racial discrimination in voting. So for many women of color, the 19th amendment was not the final victory; but only one step in the ongoing struggle for equality, one that moved forward momentously when the 19th amendment was ratified on August 18th, 1920.   


Next on History Daily.  August 19th, 1991: A group of Communist Party hardliners attempt to save the collapsing Soviet Union by staging a coup against party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.