Votes for Women!

American Suffragists and the Battle for the Ballot


By Winifred Conkling

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“Lively . . . Defiant . . . Pulling back the curtain on 100 years of struggle . . . The women who shaped the American narrative come to life with refreshing attention to detail.”—The New York Times Book Review

For nearly 150 years, American women did not have the right to vote. On August 18, 1920, they won that right, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified at last. To achieve that victory, some of the fiercest, most passionate women in history marched, protested, and sometimes even broke the law—for more than eight decades.
From Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who founded the suffrage movement at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, to Sojourner Truth and her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, to Alice Paul, arrested and force-fed in prison, this is the story of the American women’s suffrage movement and the private lives that fueled its leaders’ dedication. Votes for Women! explores suffragists’ often powerful, sometimes difficult relationship with the intersecting temperance and abolition campaigns, and includes an unflinching look at some of the uglier moments in women’s fight for the vote.
By turns illuminating, harrowing, and empowering, Votes for Women! paints a vibrant picture of the women whose tireless battle still inspires political, human rights, and social justice activism.



Everyone expected Harry T. Burn to vote against the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The twenty-four-year-old first-term member of the Tennessee House of Representatives was from Niota, Tennessee, a conservative area in the mountains. It was August 1920. Burn was running for reelection in the fall, and most of his constituents were opposed to female suffrage. If he wanted to win, surely, they thought, he would vote against the bill.

But Burn hadn't made up his mind.

Tennessee governor Albert H. Roberts had called the state legislature into special session to consider whether to support the Nineteenth Amendment. The year before, the United States Congress had passed legislation giving women the right to vote, but before it could become the law of the land, three-fourths of the forty-eight states needed to ratify or approve it.

Thirty-five states had voted in favor of the amendment. One more was needed to make it law. Would Tennessee be that state?

From the moment Burn and his fellow legislators arrived in Nashville, women on both sides of the issue had been pressuring them for their votes. Carrie Chapman Catt, president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, organized the pro-suffrage side. Josephine Anderson Pearson, head of the Tennessee State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, worked against ratification of the amendment.

Both women stayed at the elegant Hermitage Hotel, which became ground zero in the suffrage fight. Pearson took over the hotel mezzanine and decorated the room with American flags, red roses, and a sign that read Anti-Ratification Headquarters. She passed out propaganda arguing that women didn't need the vote because they were already represented by their husbands, fathers, and brothers.

Catt kept a lower profile. To downplay accusations of being an outside agitator, she ran her operation out of her hotel room, offering direction to state and local suffragists. She left the lobbying to a group of young, beautiful pro-suffrage Tennessee wives and mothers, whose presence undermined the argument of the "antis"—those who did not support women's right to vote—who said that the suffrage movement was run by outsiders and bitter, ugly old spinsters.

Both sides invited the legislators to receptions and dinners at the fashionable Hermitage, which was just down the street from the Tennessee State Capitol. As soon as politicians entered the building, women on both sides of the issue would approach the men. In what became known as the War of the Roses, the antis slipped red roses into the legislators' lapels. The suffragists, who supported women's right to vote, passed out yellow roses.

On the morning of August 18, a stiflingly hot day even by Nashville standards, elected officials gathered at the statehouse. The Tennessee Senate had passed the suffrage measure five days before. It was up to the House of Representatives to decide the issue.

Women crowded the second-floor galleries of the statehouse, waiting to see history made. A suffragist had attached a yellow sunflower to the golden eagle statue perched at the front of the chamber. Some tried to count flowers to determine which side was going to win, but the room seemed evenly divided between those wearing red and yellow roses.

Catt waited back at the hotel, sitting next to the window and listening to the noisy crowds at the statehouse.

At 10:30 a.m., Seth Walker, Speaker of the House and a dedicated anti, gaveled the meeting to order.

He called for a vote to set aside the decision until the fall, which would mean women would not be able to vote in that year's election.

The roll call vote on that question ended in a tie, 48 to 48.

The Speaker called for a second vote. The result was the same.

In that moment, Walker changed his strategy. Since the suffragists didn't appear to have enough votes to win, he decided to call for an immediate vote on the question.

The legislature debated the issue for an hour, but the arguments had all been heard before. It seemed that the legislators had made up their minds.

"The hour has come!" Walker said.

Harry Burn, the youngest member of the state legislature, wore a red anti-suffrage rose on his lapel. He had voted with the antis to delay the decision, but this was a vote on the main question.

The roll call began.

"Anderson," the clerk said.


Sweat trickled down Burn's face, a combination of a hot day, a crowded room, and nerves.

Blackman. Bond. Boyd. One by one, he heard the names of his colleagues called in alphabetical order. His name was seventh on the list. It all came down to this: a single man, a single vote, a single question. Yes or no. Should American women have the right to vote?

His heart pounded. What was he going to do?

"Burn," the clerk said. Burn had to make a choice, take a stand.

"Aye," he said in a weak voice. Yes.

Burn had changed his mind.

Every outward sign had indicated that Burn would vote against suffrage. What no one but Burn knew was that earlier that morning he had received an important letter that made him question his position. He had that letter in his pocket when he cast his vote.

The scene in the Tennessee State Capitol as the clerk tallied the votes on the suffrage question

With that single vote, that single syllable, the all-male Tennessee legislature had changed the United States Constitution and given women nationwide the right to vote.

The question seemed to come down to this single moment, but this vote, this turning point in history, had actually been more than seventy years in the making. Women had been working for the right to vote since Elizabeth Cady Stanton and a group of reformers first called for female suffrage in 1848.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, most Americans considered female suffrage a ludicrous idea, a radical position first suggested by a radical woman. But why was Elizabeth Cady Stanton willing to make such an unusual demand? What made her a rebel willing to challenge law and custom and risk scorn and rejection to take a stand for women's right to vote? The story of women's suffrage ended with Henry Burn's vote in the Tennessee statehouse in 1920, but it began almost a century earlier with Elizabeth Cady, a young girl in Johnstown, New York, in 1826.

A Confederate veteran of the American Civil War sits between Josephine Anderson Pearson (left, with flag) and Mrs. James Pinkard, president of the Southern Women's League for the Rejection of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.

"Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!"

Before Seneca Falls

Johnstown, New York, 1826

Elizabeth Cady listened to her older brother's barking cough echo down the upstairs hallway. She watched her father pace back and forth, straining to hear his son's next wheezing breath. Hour after hour, Elizabeth heard the rhythmic gasping, the silence growing longer between each lungful of air, until, finally, the breathing stopped.

It happened quickly: Eleazar, just twenty years old, had recently graduated from Union College and returned to the family estate forty miles northwest of Albany, planning to study law under his father. He had been perfectly healthy until that morning, when he woke with a fever and croupy cough. Twelve hours later he was dead.

In the days after the unexpected loss, the family mourned, but Elizabeth's father, Judge Daniel Cady, was inconsolable. He had already lost four sons to childhood illnesses, and he had expected Eleazar—the last surviving male heir—to be the one who would inherit his wealth and follow in his footsteps.

"A young man of great talent and promise, [Eleazar] was the pride of my father's heart," Elizabeth remembered, acknowledging that "this son filled a larger place in our father's affections and future plans than the five daughters together."

Her brother's death was a turning point in Elizabeth's life. Decades later, she still vividly remembered entering the darkened parlor in their home and finding the mirrors and pictures draped in white, a mourning custom of the time. Her father sat next to her brother's casket.

Elizabeth didn't want to leave her father alone with his grief, so she entered the room and climbed onto his lap. He mechanically put his arms around his eleven-year-old daughter, and she rested her head against his heart. They sat for several minutes in silence as Elizabeth tried to think of something to say or do to ease her father's pain.

Eventually, her father sighed and told her, "Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!"

In response, Elizabeth threw her arms around her father's neck and said, "I will try to be all my brother was." It was a mission that would motivate and frustrate her all her life. "Then and there," she later wrote in her autobiography, "I resolved that I would not give so much time as heretofore to play, but would study and strive to be at the head of all my classes and thus delight my father's heart."

Elizabeth began thinking about how she could live up to her promise. "All that day and far into the night I pondered the problem of boyhood," she wrote. "I thought that the chief thing to be done in order to equal boys was to be learned and courageous."

In the morning, Elizabeth went outside and greeted her neighbor, the Reverend Simon Hosack, who was working in his garden. She asked him, "Which do you like best, boys or girls?"

"Why, girls, to be sure," he said, undoubtedly sensing her need for support. "I would not give you for all the boys in Christendom."

"My father prefers boys," Elizabeth said.

She asked her neighbor for help studying Greek, a subject most often studied by boys. Reverend Hosack agreed to help. He lent her the textbook he had studied while attending the University of Glasgow, and she completed her first Greek grammar lesson before breakfast.

She also set out to prove her courage and physical strength. Elizabeth became a skilled equestrian and learned how to jump ditches and four-foot fences on horseback. At first, she was frightened, but soon she learned to ride as boldly as any boy she knew.

In addition to trying to earn her father's respect for her accomplishments, Elizabeth also stood by her father's side emotionally. She became her father's companion on his daily visits to the cemetery to visit her brother's grave.

"For months afterward, at the twilight hour, I went with my father to the new-made grave," she wrote. "Near it stood two tall poplar trees, against one of which I leaned, while my father threw himself on the grave, with outstretched arms, as if to embrace his child." This painful ritual went on week after week, until "at last the frosts and storms of November came and threw a chilling barrier between the living and the dead, and we went there no more."

Elizabeth longed for her father's approval, but he was stingy with his praise. Still, she kept up with her study of Greek and made rapid progress. When their neighbor, Reverend Hosack, would visit the house, Elizabeth would whisper in his ear, "Tell my father how fast I get on."

Eager to oblige, Reverend Hosack would boast about how bright Elizabeth was and how well she was doing, but her father would only sigh.

"I taxed every power," Elizabeth remembered, "hoping some

day to hear my father say: 'Well, a girl is as good as a boy, after all.' But he never said it."

Determined to prove she was her brother's equal, in addition to Greek, Elizabeth began to study Latin and mathematics with a class of older boys at the Johnstown Academy. Several years later, two prizes were presented for the top Greek students in the school. Elizabeth took second. "Now, my father will be satisfied with me," she thought.

Overjoyed, she ran down the hill, rushed breathlessly into her father's office, and placed her prize, a book written in Greek, on the table. "There, I got it!" she said.

Her father thumbed through the book and asked Elizabeth a few questions about the class, then handed the prize back to her.

She waited for him to say something about her achievement.

"You should have been a boy!" he said finally, and Elizabeth wilted. She knew her father loved her, but that was not the point. The one thing she could not do—be a boy—seemed to be the only thing that would improve her status in his eyes. She realized that she could never satisfy her father in this way no matter how hard she tried.

Daniel Cady (1773–1859) was a lawyer and judge in upstate New York. He was elected to the state legislature in 1808, and he served until 1814, when he was elected to Congress. He was defeated after one term and returned to Johnstown to practice law. In 1847, he became an associate justice of the New York State Supreme Court for the Fourth District and served until he was eighty-two years old. Elizabeth Cady Stanton described her father as "a conservative's conservative." She wrote, "Though gentle and tender, he had such a dignified repose and reserve of manner that, as children, we regarded him with fear rather than affection."

"Girls were considered an inferior order of beings"

Elizabeth Cady began to notice other ways that most people favored boys over girls. She thought back to one of her earliest memories, when she was four years old and her sister Catherine was born. Elizabeth noticed that when a boy was born, a family received congratulations, while disappointment often followed the delivery of a girl. "I heard so many friends remark, 'What a pity it is she's a girl!' that I felt a kind of compassion for the little baby," she wrote years later. "I did not understand at that time that girls were considered an inferior order of beings."

Elizabeth learned more about the second-class status of women when she overheard the female clients who came to beg for help at her father's law office, which adjoined the main house. One afternoon, Elizabeth listened to a widow named Flora Campbell tearfully explain that, without her consent, her husband had mortgaged the farm that had been in her family for years. Creditors now claimed the land, and Campbell didn't know what to do.

Surely, her father would come up with a clever legal solution, Elizabeth had assumed. Instead, she stood dumbstruck as her father explained that as a wife, Campbell had no legal right to challenge her husband: He had the freedom to do as he pleased with the land, and she could not stop him.

It wasn't fair.

After the meeting, Elizabeth went up to Campbell and offered to help. She said that she was going to get a pair of scissors and go through her father's legal books, cutting out the passages that were unfair to women, as if she could eliminate the laws by slicing them out of the legal texts.

Elizabeth's father found out about his daughter's plot and explained that the only way she could change the law was to go the capital of New York and convince the legislators to vote for new laws.

"When you are grown up, and able to prepare a speech, you must go down to Albany and talk to the legislators; tell them all you have seen in this office," her father said. "If you can persuade them to pass new laws, the old ones will be a dead letter."

So instead of cutting up her father's law books, Elizabeth read them and made notes in the margins of the sections that affected women. The more she learned about the law, the more unfair to women it seemed.

In the early nineteenth century, women had few legal rights. Married women had even fewer rights than single women. When they were young and single, girls were legally bound to do whatever their fathers said; when they married, women had to obey their husbands. Legally, a married woman suffered "civil death." In other words, she and her husband became one person—and that one was the husband.

Women did not have the right to own property.

Women could not enter into contracts or sign legal documents.

Women could not keep their wages; if a woman worked, her pay belonged to her husband or her father.

Women who did work had few job options, and they were always paid significantly less than men for the same work. Teaching was the most common female profession at the time, and schools typically paid women 20 to 50 percent less than they paid men.

A woman could not have custody of her children if she divorced her husband for any reason; her children—like all of her property—belonged to her husband.

Women could be beaten by their husbands and fathers, as long as the men used a whip no thicker than a thumb.

Women could not attend college; higher education was considered unnecessary for women, who were expected to manage the home.

Women could not serve on juries or testify in court.

Women needed male escorts when they traveled.

Women were expected to remain quiet in public. Addressing a "promiscuous" audience—a group of women and men—was considered scandalous.

Women did not have the right to vote.

Of all of these injustices, Elizabeth considered suffrage, the right to vote, most important. If women had the right to vote, she believed, they would have the power to change all the other laws that kept them unequal to men.

Speaking Out for Women's Rights

By the time she was a teenager, Elizabeth Cady had become outspoken in her support of women's rights. At any given time, two or three law students studied under her father, and many of them delighted in teasing Elizabeth about her passion for equality.

One Christmas, Elizabeth showed one of the law students a new coral necklace and bracelets she had been given. The law student taunted her, saying that if at some point in the future she should become his wife, then the jewelry would be his. "I could take them and lock them up, and you could never wear them except with my permission," he said. "I could even exchange them for a box of cigars, and you could watch them evaporate in smoke."

Elizabeth had no rebuttal. He was right. It was not fair, but it was the law.

Elizabeth enjoyed sparring with the young apprentices. She appreciated the fact that they took her seriously. "Nothing pleased

me better than a long argument with them on woman's equality," she remembered. "I confess that I did not study so much for a love of the truth or my own development, in these days, as to make those young men recognize my equality."

When not debating the law, she challenged the law students to chess and other board games. Her intelligence and take-no-prisoners approach to playing made her a formidable opponent. "I soon noticed that, after losing a few games of chess, my opponent talked less of masculine superiority," she wrote in her autobiography.

As Elizabeth grew older, Judge Cady may have become concerned about his daughter's feminist philosophy. Behavior that had seemed clever and precocious in childhood would have been considered uncouth in a young woman. He believed that women should have no public role outside the home. So after Elizabeth finished high school, her father encouraged her to enjoy her social life and learn "how to keep house and make puddings." He imagined a future for her as a wife and mother, defined by her sex and limited to her proper place—in the "domestic sphere."

Elizabeth envisioned a different future for herself. She wanted to continue her education. Her brother-in-law Edward Bayard defended her ambition. He urged her father to allow Elizabeth to attend Troy Female Seminary, a secondary school founded by Emma Willard in 1821. Bayard argued that Elizabeth's curiosity and intellect demanded additional education. Eventually, Judge Cady gave in.

However, Elizabeth was disappointed at the prospect of attending an all-girls' seminary instead of Union College. "The thought of a school without boys, who had been to me such a stimulus both in study and play, seemed to my imagination dreary and profitless," Elizabeth later wrote.

When she arrived on campus, Elizabeth discovered that she had already mastered most of the academic curriculum offered

at the school. "I had already studied everything that was taught there except French, music, and dancing," she wrote, "so I devoted myself to these accomplishments."

She settled in and began to thrive. "The large house, the society of so many girls, the walks about the city, the novelty of everything made the new life more enjoyable than I had anticipated," Elizabeth recalled.

Elizabeth's confidence vanished later that year, however, when she and some of the other girls at school attended a six-week series of religious revival meetings led by the Reverend Charles Grandison Finney, a dynamic evangelical minister, whom Elizabeth later called "a terrifier of human souls."

Reverend Finney was tall and intimidating: His voice boomed, his face grimaced and frowned, and his eyes stared, piercing and cold. He lectured about the personal choice between salvation and damnation, and although Elizabeth tried to remain on the side of righteousness, she was haunted by the prospect of hellfire and eternal damnation.

"Fear of the judgment seized my soul," she wrote. "Visions of the lost haunted my dreams." She became sick and had to return home, but she didn't feel safe, even in the security of her childhood bedroom. She had trouble falling asleep, and her nights were interrupted by vivid nightmares. "I often at night roused my father from his slumbers to pray for me," she wrote, "lest I should be cast into the bottomless pit."

It took weeks for her to sleep through the night. Rather than strengthening her faith, Elizabeth's traumatic experience with Reverend Finney made her skeptical of organized religion, a doubt that continued for the rest of her life.

Ultimately, it was the comfort offered by her brother-in-law Edward Bayard that calmed her. He encouraged her to read science texts to improve her understanding of the world around her. "Religious superstition gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts," she wrote, "and . . . as I looked at everything from a new standpoint, I grew more and more happy." Elizabeth's faith in science made her less anxious. She returned to school and finished her education, and she never again attended a revival meeting.

Troy Female Seminary, established in 1821 by Emma Willard, was the first secondary school in the country to provide women with an education equal to that offered to men.

Visiting Peterboro

After graduating from Troy Female Seminary in 1832, Elizabeth returned home. For a time, she fulfilled her father's expectation of living a frivolous, carefree life; she loved riding horses, singing, dancing, socializing, and flirting with the law students who studied with her father. She might have married and settled on a more

conventional path if she had not spent several weeks each summer visiting her cousin Gerrit Smith in Peterboro, New York.

Gerrit Smith (1797–1874) was one of the richest men in the United States, heir to a vast fortune acquired through fur trapping and land speculation. He used his fortune to finance liberal causes, including abolition, temperance, and women's rights.

Smith was an eccentric rebel who surrounded himself with people interested in the progressive issues of the day, and Elizabeth found the environment at his home a thrilling contrast to her father's safe, conservative household. "Here one was sure to meet scholars, philosophers, philanthropists, judges, bishops, clergymen, and statesmen," Elizabeth wrote. She loved the spirited discussions and provocative debates. "The rousing arguments of Peterboro," Elizabeth wrote, "made social life [at home] seem tame and profitless."

She often stayed at her cousin's estate for weeks at a time, enjoying "an atmosphere of love and peace, of freedom and good cheer." It was there that she underwent a radical education that changed her worldview and altered the course of her life.

One day, Elizabeth was in the parlor of her cousin's Peterboro home chatting with relatives when Cousin Gerrit came in.

"I have a most important secret to tell you," he said, "which you must keep to yourselves religiously for twenty-four hours."

Intrigued, Elizabeth and the others promised. At his request, the young women followed him upstairs to the third floor. Gerrit opened the door to a large room, where a mixed-race girl, about eighteen years old, sat in silence.

"Harriet," Smith said, "I have brought all my young cousins to see you. I want you to make good abolitionists of them by telling them the history of your life."

Smith told the women that Harriet Powell was a slave from Mississippi who had recently escaped while in Syracuse with the slaveholder. "She will start [for Canada] this evening and you may never have another opportunity of seeing a slave girl face to face," he said, "so ask her all you care to know of the system of slavery."

For two hours, Harriet recounted the story of how she was torn from her family and sold "for her beauty" in the New Orleans market when she was fourteen years old. "The details of her story I need not repeat," Elizabeth wrote. "The fate of such girls is too well known to need rehearsal." Suffice it to say, Elizabeth and the others learned the truth about how young African American girls were raped and sexually molested by those who held them in slavery.

Elizabeth wept as she heard Harriet's story. "We needed no further education to make us earnest abolitionists," she wrote.

That night, Elizabeth watched as Harriet dressed in the plain gray dress and bonnet typically worn by Quaker women, then left with one of Gerrit Smith's clerks in a carriage bound for Oswego, New York, where they planned to cross the lake to freedom in Canada.

The next day, Elizabeth trembled when the slaveholder and marshals from Syracuse arrived at the Smith home. They had managed to track Harriet to the house, but they did not know if she was still there. Elizabeth admired her cousin's cleverness and courage as he welcomed the men and gave them permission to search the house and grounds.


  • “Lively . . . Defiant . . . Pulling back the curtain on 100 years of struggle . . . The women who shaped the American narrative come to life with refreshing attention to detail.”
    —The New York Times Book Review

    “Young readers will find fascinating, still-relevant lessons about power, persuasion and politics.”
    —The Washington Post
    “[Votes for Women] gives hope that, no matter how broken the system, no matter much our beliefs seem to divide us, change can happen.”
    —Chicago Tribune

     “This is an absorbing read for feminists, as well as readers who love learning about the history of women. I found it particularly fascinating how many other movements were happening at the same time as the suffrage movement — and certainly, it’s hard not to see those social movements as still relevant today.”
    Book Riot
    “This is a fascinating account of the bumpy road to women’s suffrage in the U.S. . . . Well-chosen black-and-white archival reproductions and photographs ably support the text, which makes excellent use of primary sources, including excerpts from letters and writings to bring key personalities to life.”
    —The Horn Book Magazine,starred review

    "From the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, this is a commanding and relevant account of sweeping, hard-won social reform and action."
    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

    "Spanning multiple centuries, this work may be the most comprehensive account for young readers about the founders, leaders, organizers, and opponents of the American suffragist movement . . . Conkling delivers a tour de force."
    Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

    “Looking for a comprehensive, well-written history of women’s fight for the right to vote? You’ve found it. Conkling draws readers in  . . . this is great for research as well as a good read.”

    “The intense drama of the 72-year battle for women’s suffrage springs vividly to life from the pages of this compulsively readable account.”
    —School Library Journal

    Votes for Women! details the arduous struggle for women’s suffrage in America with compelling biographical profiles of some of the movement’s key figures . . . Through letters, journals, biographies, photographs, and newspaper accounts, the efforts of the known and unknown women who took up the cause of suffrage are vividly storied.”
    —Foreword Reviews

    “With a strong storytelling voice, Winifred Conkling offers readers a captivating account of the long-fought battle for women’s suffrage in the United States . . .Votes for Women! is an important, inspiring, and timely book.”
    International Literacy Association

On Sale
Feb 13, 2018
Page Count
320 pages

Winifred Conkling

Winifred Conkling

About the Author

Winifred Conkling is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction for young readers, including Passenger on the Pearl, Radioactive!, and the middle-grade novel Sylvia & Aki. You can find her online at

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