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Let's Talk About It: Women's Suffrage: Themes/Program Materials

Program Themes

The theme of Let’s Talk About It: Women’s Suffrage was developed by Melissa Bradshaw, senior lecturer in the department of English at Loyola University Chicago, and Allison K. Lange, associate professor of history at Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Let’s Talk About It: Women’s Suffrage seeks to deepen popular understanding of the complex history of women’s voting rights by engaging communities in critical reflection and discussion on the decades of struggle, resistance, and demonstration that led to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. 

The American Library Association has provided a background essay and discussion questions for the chosen books and themes: 


Women's suffrage is particularly important to bring to wider attention in light of the lack of representation of women and women's experiences in U.S. state history standards. For more information, please see the report from the National Women's History Museum

Key Humanities Themes

Promises and Limitations of Our Country’s Founding Documents

The nation’s founding documents promised an equal society but implicitly entrenched a social hierarchy, including the patriarchy. Under the laws of coverture in the early United States, few married women could own property or control their money. Except for a brief stint in New Jersey from 1797 to 1807, women could not vote and did not hold office. Enslaved women did not even have the right to control their own bodies. Women’s rights activists began organizing in the 1830s and 1840s. The nation continues to strive to achieve the ideals of liberty and equality promised by — but also limited by — these foundational texts.

Voting Rights and Citizenship

We often think of voting as a basic right of citizenship, but suffragists proved that our Constitution does not guarantee voting rights. The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, guarantees the rights of all citizens. Suffragists believed that citizenship rights included the ballot. However, in 1875, suffragist Virginia Minor brought a case to the Supreme Court, which declared that voting is not a citizenship right. The decision still stands. Minor v. Happersett laid the foundation for modern voting rights debates, from late nineteenth-century poll taxes and literacy tests to twenty-first century voting regulations.

Inclusion/Exclusion of Suffrage History

During the early decades of suffrage activism, reformers often allied with men and women of color. However, in 1870, the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which removed race as a barrier to voting and effectively enfranchised Black men, strained the broad coalition. Some suffragists supported the amendment, while others — like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony — lobbied against it and drove away activists of color. Even when suffragists joined forces in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association, local and state organizations could and did exclude women of color. Women of color like Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell founded their own organizations to fight for their communities. When the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, leading suffragists like Alice Paul refused pleas by Terrell to address the literacy tests and violence that prevented women of color from voting.

The Aftermath of the Nineteenth Amendment Following the Women’s Suffrage Movement

The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment was a significant milestone for women’s rights, but women continued to organize after its passage. Native American and Puerto Rican women had to win citizenship rights before they could cast a ballot. For decades after the amendment, poll taxes and literacy tests in Southern states prevented many poor women from voting. Black women faced violence for registering to vote. This Let’s Talk About It focus area will emphasize the continued efforts to create a more equal society even after 1920.