19 Facts About the 19th Amendment

getty images
getty images

On August 18, 1920, American women finally secured the right to vote. Calling the victory hard-won would be an understatement: Denounced by many, the 19th amendment had an ugly, uphill road to ratification. 

1. In 1797, New Jersey temporarily granted voting rights to unwed women.

New Jersey's original state constitution, adopted in 1776, declared that “all inhabitants” who were “worth 50 pounds” could vote. Because some found this wording rather vague, clearer legislation was drafted, and in 1797, the State Assembly explicitly granted unwed female New Jerseyans suffrage.

For the next 10 years, single women were permitted to cast ballots. Married women weren’t given this privilege because their husbands legally controlled every piece of property they owned, so they failed the “50 pounds” requirement. In 1807, the Assembly passed a new law that forbade anyone but “free, white male citizens” who were at least 21 and paid taxes from voting. 

2. The Wyoming Territory led a nationwide charge for suffrage. 

Today, it’s called “The Equality State,” and in 1869, it really earned that nickname. During this pivotal year, a bill sponsored by Councilman William Bright was approved by the Territorial Legislature. “[Every] woman, of the age of 21 years," the document read, "residing in this Territory, may at every election to be holden under the law thereof, cast her vote.”

Though suffragists cheered this news, some feared that the celebration would be short-lived. Just two years after women were given the right to vote, Wyoming was one vote short of repealing the act. But eventually, women’s right to vote became so entrenched in Wyoming that when it applied for statehood, Congress threatened to deny it unless Bright’s bill was revoked—but the local legislature wouldn't back down: “We will remain out of the union [for] 100 years rather than come in without the women.” Congress caved, and Wyoming, with all its female voters, became 44th state in 1890.

3. The 19th Amendment was first proposed (and defeated) in 1878.  

“The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or any State on account of sex.” So read an amendment that California Senator Arlen A. Sargent put forth for discussion on January 10, 1878, at the urging of his friends Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Hearings were held by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections, but they weren’t encouraging. While advocates voiced their support, several committee members busied themselves by reading newspapers or staring off into space. The bill was rejected, though it would be re-introduced every year for the next 41 years.

4. Before 1920, voting rights differed across state lines.

In January 1919, suffrage laws varied considerably: 15 states allowed women to vote in all elections, while 21 barred them from certain contests (for instance, women in Texas could cast ballots only during primaries). The remaining 12 prohibited women voting altogether. 

5. Teddy Roosevelt's "Bull Moose" party campaigned on women's enfranchisement. 

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “I believe in women’s suffrage, but … I do not regard it as a very important matter.” But he made women's suffrage a central issue while seeking a third term. When William Howard Taft’s 1912 re-nomination dashed Roosevelt’s hopes of running again as a Republican, he launched the Progressive Party, which incorporated suffrage into its official platform

One day into the campaign, T.R. made history. At the party’s convention, social reformer Jane Addams became the first woman to ever second the nomination of a major presidential candidate. “It was a spectacular proceeding,” opined Woodrow Wilson backer Charles W. Elliot, “but in exceedingly bad taste, because a woman has no place at a political convention.”

6. William Howard Taft had mixed feelings about suffrage for women. 

As Big Bill told The Saturday Evening Post in 1915, he favored a gradual approach to granting female voting rights. Taft believed that “the immediate enfranchisement of women would increase … the hysterical element of the electorate.” However, if such a reform could be “delayed until a great majority” desired it, the change would “be a correct and useful extension of the democratic principle. The benefit will come slowly and imperceptibly.”

7. Not all suffrage opponents were men. 

Alice Hay Wadsworth was among the most prominent women to denounce what became the 19th Amendment. Wadsworth was the former president of the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage and the wife of Senator James Wolcott Wadsworth, Jr., Republican of New York. An infamous pamphlet published by the association claimed that “90 percent of women either do not want it or do not care,” and that new voting rights would mean “competition with men instead of cooperation.” 

8. Suffrage advocates threw a White House picket protest. 

Activist Alice Paul had little trouble getting under President Woodrow Wilson’s skin. She broke new, nonviolent ground by establishing a group called the Silent Sentinels, which began protesting outside the White House on January 10, 1917. Over the next 2.5 years, they spent six days a week holding up pro-enfranchisement signs with such captions as “How long must women wait for liberty?” and “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” 

9. The suffragists' hunger strikes forced Wilson to act. 

Eventually, policemen began arresting Silent Sentinels—including Paul herself—for “obstructing traffic.” While incarcerated, she organized a hunger strike, which drove guards to begin force-feeding captive activists. And it got worse: Guards denied the protestors water, one of the protestors was manacled to the bars and nearly placed in a straitjacket and gagged for talking to her fellow inmates, and three emerged from the ordeal so weak that doctors feared for their lives. Wilson’s stance on enfranchisement shifted from tepid support to total advocacy. 

10. Wilson tried to pass national suffrage in 1918, but fell short. 

With World War I still raging, Wilson officially endorsed what later became the 19th amendment. One day after he released a statement to this effect, the House passed the measure. Riding high on that victory, Wilson addressed the Senate in person, saying, “We have made partners of the women in this war. Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?” Despite these passionate words, the amendment didn’t break through, falling short just two votes. A few months later, Congress tried passing it again—and missed the mark by one vote in the Senate. 

11. One suffragette died for the cause.

On June 4, 1919, the Senate finally passed the amendment. Now, its life depended upon the states. Approvals from three-fourths of the states were needed for ratification.   

Aloysius Larch-Miller, the Oklahoma State Suffrage Ratification Committee’s secretary, was stricken with influenza during the winter of 1920 and told to remain in bed. But she went out to debate a prominent anti-suffragist at a local convention. Two days later, she passed away, and her death became a rallying cry for suffragists. Oklahoma eventually ratified the 19th Amendment.

12. One state representative guaranteed the 19th Amendment's success to please his mother. 

When Tennessee approved the bill on August 18, 1920, it became the 36th state to ratify, providing the necessary three-fourths majority. A 24-year-old state representative named Harry Burn, who previously opposed suffrage, had received a letter from his widowed mother, Febb Burn, on the day of the vote. She urged him to support the amendment. He voted yes, and led Tennessee to ratify by a margin of 49 to 47. Since the state senate had already passed it, the measure won out. “I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow,” Harry Burn noted, “and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.” 

13. Eight days after the 19th Amendment was ratified, 10 million women joined the electorate. 

On August 26, the 19th amendment officially took effect. As legal scholar Akhil Reed Amar points out, the sheer volume of brand new voters created by this legal action made it “the single biggest democratizing event in American history.” 

14. Multiple citizens have been cited as the first to vote under the new amendment. 

South St. Paul, Minnesota scheduled a special bond election at 5:30 a.m. on August 27 in which 87 women voted (but women could vote in these elections anyway; their votes just didn’t count—they were recorded for public interest). Nevertheless, it’s often reported that Mrs. Marie Ruoff Byrum of Hannibal, Missouri cast the first female ballot in post-amendment history in a local alderman race four days later. 

15. Rumors circulated that a woman might appear on the Democratic ticket in 1920. 

Prominent Republican May Jester Allen allegedly heard that the Dems were weighing a 35-year-old DNC committeewoman named Anna Dickie Olesen for their vice-presidential nomination. Instead, the nomination went to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

16. FDR became the first president whose mother was eligible to vote. 

Warren G. Harding’s mother, Calvin Coolidge’s mother, and Herbert Hoover’s mother had already died by the time their sons ran for president. Sara Roosevelt, on the other hand, lived to see her son win his third term in 1940.  

17. In 1922, some said the amendment was unconstitutional.

Because Maryland’s constitution reserved voting for men, Judge Oscar Leser and other anti-suffragists charged that the federal government had unlawfully infringed upon their state’s rights. In Leser v. Garnett, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected this and similar arguments against the 19th amendment, thus ensuring its long-term survival. Apparently Chief Justice William Howard Taft decided that the “great majority” were finally for it.

18. Mississippi didn't ratify the 19th Amendment until March 22, 1984. 

Other holdouts include Louisiana and North Carolina, which waited until June 11, 1970 and May 6, 1971, respectively. Still, Mississippi was the very last state to go through with ratification.

19. A statue celebrating Tennessee's role in the 19th Amendment's passage was unveiled in 2016. 

Sculpted by Nashville native Alan LeQuire, the monument depicts five suffragists: Abby Crawford Milton of Chattanooga, Sue Shelton White of Jackson, Frankie Pierce and Anne Dudley of Nashville, and League of Women Voters founder Carrie Chapman Catt. It stands on the Tennessee Performing Arts Center Bridge, near the state capital’s War Memorial building.

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government

Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gage Skidmore, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

By Nick Capodice and Hannah McCarthy, Quick and Dirty Tips

Today, we're bringing you our very own Big Three—the three branches of the U.S. government: the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.

But before we tackle that, let's get one important thing out of the way. The system that keeps it all spinning—checks and balances. Because as Federalist Paper #51 puts it, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

What is the separation of power in the U.S. government? Checks and balances!

The framers were very much aware that the grand ideas and philosophies they laid out in the Constitution would have to be implemented by fallible humans. And fallible humans have a tendency to get a little wild-eyed where power is concerned.

The first step in creating checks and balances was to skirt the whole king issue by splitting the governing power across three branches—something called the separation of power. But that wouldn't be enough. Those branches would need to keep a watchful eye over one another so that no one entity would get too big for its britches.

Who checks Congress?

So, let's start where the Constitution starts—Congress. The legislative branch makes laws that govern the people of the nation. Pretty straightforward, right? Of course, that's also an immense, almost staggering amount of power. You've got 535 mostly white, mostly male, mostly well-off people—that's 435 congresspeople and 100 senators—making the rules for hundreds of millions of Americans. What could possibly go wrong?

James Madison had our back on this one. So here's the catch, or in this case, the "check."

In order for a bill from Congress to actually become law, the president has to either sign it or, alternatively, do this thing where he doesn't do anything to it and the bill becomes a law on its own. But if the law says something like "Only Americans whose names end in the letter L are allowed to drive," the president could say "Hey, I don't like that. I'm vetoing it."

But then Congress has the power to veto that veto with a veto override, which requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.

That veto override can be helpful if you've got a president who's totally at odds with Congress. Andrew Johnson, for example, had 15 of his vetoes overridden. That's a lot, given the fact that we've only had 111 veto overrides in the history of the United States.

The veto override, in and of itself, is a check, both on Congress and the president. But just because Congress overrides a veto to make that the law, it doesn't mean that that law is good or right. Lucky for us, the framers thought of that one, too.

What about the judicial branch?

Is that the solemn swish of black robes we hear?

There are keepers of the Constitution—the judicial branch, specifically the Supreme Court. If Congress strong-arms a law into being, the Supreme Court can then review it and strike it down if they deem it unconstitutional.

And that power to strike down laws is not constitutional power. It's a power that the Supreme Court essentially gave to themselves in their ruling on Marbury v. Madison.

The ability to grant governmental powers is, in fact, quite an immense amount of power on its own. It's the executive branch's job to prosecute violations of federal law through the Department of Justice. And the prosecutor has the power to bring a case before the Supreme Court or not. And Congress has the power to regulate federal jurisdiction.

In other words, they can decide the kinds of cases that the courts have the power to rule on.

Impeachment and other checks

Congress has the power to impeach members of the federal judiciary. And, of course, they can also impeach the president.

The president is mainly checked by Congress. Impeachment is a big check, but a relatively rare one. More frequently, Congress holds the purse strings and can slow the president's agenda by not budgeting for the things the president wants. They can also pass laws like the 22nd Amendment, which said, yeah, no more Franklin Delano Roosevelt; we're limiting all presidents to two terms in office.

But what do we do if the executive goes all rogue and we can't wait for Congress to pass a law or an amendment?

That's where those constitutional stewards, the Supreme Court justices, come into play again. The Supreme Court has the power to declare executive actions unconstitutional. It is a rare bird, that one, but all-important in a government where men are most certainly not angels.

What are the three branches of the U.S. government?

Now that we know how we keep the government from going mad with power, what is it that we're keeping in check?

Let's start with the Constitution itself and the legislative branch.

The legislative branch—Congress

Article I, which sets up the power of the legislative branch, gets far more ink than any other branch. It's four out of the seven pages of the Constitution. But what are these two houses of Congress? Are they alike in dignity? What do they even do?

It's a poorly guarded secret that the framers were a little bit scared of democracy. Having one large legislative house that's determined by the size of the population? That was scary to them. So we have two houses in our bicameral legislature.

The House of Representatives is the large brass 435-member chamber that's up for election every two years. The more people you have in your state, the more representatives you get in the House.

And then we have the highfalutin Senate. The Senate consists of two senators from each state, and each gets a six-year term.

While the House and Senate have several separate powers, they have one big collective one—they're the ones who make the laws that govern our country.

The Schoolhouse Rock version is that the House or the Senate initiates bills, they go to committee, they get out of committee, they're voted on, and then they go to the other chamber for a similar process. And if it passes both houses, it goes to the Resolute Desk of the President of the United States to be signed into law.

We're going to tell you right now, the Schoolhouse Rock version is almost never how bills actually become law.

There are 1000 pitfalls that alter and stymie a bill at every turn. Suffice to say, it is a winding path. Indeed, the one difference between the two chambers is that only the House, not the Senate, can initiate bills to do with spending. This is called the Power of the Purse. The framers thought the people's House should be the one who decides where the money goes.

Who can be a Senator or Representative?

The actual restrictions on who can become a senator or congressperson are few. For representatives, you have to be at least 25 years old and have been a U.S. citizen for seven years to qualify. And for the Senate, you have to be 30 years old and a citizen for nine years.

The bills that get proposed in either chamber have such a litany of obstacles that only about 3 percent of proposed bills become law. And most of those are noncontroversial, like naming a courthouse or making an honorary holiday.

Some see the fact that so little legislation is actually passed as terrible. And others see it as a wonderful feature of our democracy because a congress that passes tons of legislation has way too much power.

What other powers does Congress have?

The House has some unique powers—they can break an electoral tie to determine the next president. And that hasn't happened since the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876.

The House can also initiate impeachment. But they just initiate; they don't actually remove the official from office.

Many of us know this since we recently had an impeached president. The House starts the procedure. And with a majority vote, that official is impeached. The Senate then holds a trial, and it requires a two-thirds majority of the Senate to remove that official from office.

And this leads us to the unique powers of the Senate. As we said, they try impeachments and remove officials from office. They also confirm presidential appointments for over 2000 different positions. The president picked someone for a job (like a cabinet position or a judge), and 99 percent of the time, the Senate gives the appointee the thumbs up.

The Senate also picks the vice president in case of an electoral tie, which happened one time and probably won't again, since nowadays, the VP and president run on the same ticket.

And one final thing—either house can declare war, which is something we haven't actually done since 1942. So how have we been in so much war since then?

And that's your very subtle transition to the powers of the executive.

The executive branch—the President and federal government departments

When you think of the executive branch you think of, well, the executive—the president.

But the executive branch employs over 4 million people. It is the nation's largest employer by a wide margin. The Department of Defense alone out-employs Walmart by about a million people.

And that's what we think it can be easy to forget—the executive branch comprises not only the president and everyone who works in the Executive Administrative Office, but there are also 15 departments that fall under the banner of the executive branch. Those department heads make up the president's cabinet, along with whomever else the president appoints as an advisor, and hundreds of smaller agencies.

Here are the 15 federal departments in the order of their creation.

  1. State Department. They handle relationships with foreign countries.
  2. Treasury. They make the money by collecting taxes. This includes the IRS.
  3. Defense. Our largest department, which includes the military.
  4. Justice. They enforce laws that protect public safety. This includes the FBI and U.S. Marshals.
  5. Interior. The Department of the Interior manages the conservation of our land, which includes national parks.
  6. Agriculture. That's the USDA. They oversee farming.
  7. Commerce. They promote our economy and handle international trade.
  8. Labor. That's our workforce.
  9. Health and Human Services. That includes the FDA and the CDC. They also manage Medicare and Medicaid.
  10. Housing and Urban Development (HUD). They address national housing needs.
  11. Transportation. That's the federal highways and the Federal Aviation Administration.
  12. Energy. They manage our energy and research better ways to make it.
  13. Education. They focus on national education and federal student loan programs.
  14. Veterans. Veterans Affairs programs benefit those who have served in the military.
  15. Homeland Security. It's their job to prevent and disrupt terrorist attacks within the United States.

Now, there are the president's constitutional powers, and then there are the president's political powers. Most broadly, with the aid of the many executive departments, the president is tasked with making sure laws are followed through with. And we already know the president can sign bills into law or veto them. The Constitution also empowers the president to appoint people to powerful positions in the cabinet, as well as the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and circuit courts. All told, the president appoints people to around 4000 positions, 1200 of which require Senate approval.

That's a lot of appointment power. And of course, the president is empowered to make treaties with foreign nations and is the commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.

But the president cannot declare war.

Here's where we stumble into those political powers not enumerated in the Constitution. Congress has not declared war since World War II. America's presidents have led us into many armed conflicts without congressional approval and simply called them "police actions." Police actions can look like war, act like war, talk like war. But if warlike actions are called police actions, they can be done without congressional approval.

What are executive orders and executive agreements?

So, there are also these things called executive orders where the president simply declares something. And executive orders happen. When Obama wanted immigration policy, and he couldn't get it from Congress, he just signed the DREAM Act. And a lot of undocumented teenagers got to stay in the U.S.

Executive agreements fall along a similar line in terms of skirting Congress, but they are used in place of treaties. The president can just make an agreement with a foreign nation without going through the treaty process.

We should clarify (because these executive orders and agreements sound like a big ol' way around the checks and balances our framers so thoughtfully established) that the Supreme Court can block an order or agreement, and Congress can pass a law that invalidates that action. The only underlying principle is that any executive action has some sort of legal validation process.

It's all about what Congress or the Supreme Court chooses to let fly.

The Vice President

And let's not forget the veep—the vice president.

The vice president has long gotten the short shrift in the United States. For most of the job's history, it was barely a job at all.

The vice president is president of the Senate. That means that they preside over proceedings, but they only get to vote in the event of a tiebreaker. So, usually, they just don't show up. More recently, the veep has been tapped to represent the president in matters of foreign relations. And, of course, on the rare occasion that the president dies while in office or resigns, the vice president gets the world's biggest promotion.

The judicial branch—The Supreme Court

That just leaves one branch hanging, the one that Alexander Hamilton called "the weakest branch" and "next to nothing."

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and the Supreme Court interprets it. They decide what is or is not constitutional. Article III of the Constitution, which deals with the judiciary, is short and vague. (One scholar told us it was so short and vague because the framers wanted to get the heck out of there before Rhode Island showed up and made a hash of everything.)

But while the Constitution was vague on the powers of the Supreme Court, we've cleared that up a bit since then. They have less notable powers, which is that they hear cases involving ambassadors, public officials, and states. But most of the time the Supreme Court is an appellate court, which means that it hears appeals. You don't like the outcome of a state or federal court decision? You can appeal it up to a higher court.

And this is important—you're not appealing the verdict of the jury. You're not disputing if you're guilty or not. You're appealing the way that the trial went. You're saying that the laws that you broke were unconstitutional.

This power, which is called judicial review, was granted upon the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court itself in the first landmark case, Marbury v. Madison, which is a delightful tale. We're gonna get into that in the next episode, so let's talk about how a case gets to the highest court in the land—with an immense amount of difficulty.

Appeals to state and local decisions rise slowly but surely through the American court system. But that last step is nigh on impossible. To get your case heard by the nine in D.C., you have to file for what's called a writ of certiorari, which honestly, nobody can agree on how to pronounce. That writ tells the court, you should hear my case and here's why.

Between 7000 and 8000 writs of certiorari are filed each year. And the court agrees to hear about 80. You're more likely to have your case heard if there's what's called a circuit split, where several of the circuit courts in the U.S. have ruled differently on something and you've got parts of the country interpreting the constitution differently.

The parties in a Supreme Court case aren't a plaintiff and defendant like on The People's Court or Judge Judy—they are petitioner and respondent.

The petitioner lost their last case, and they're petitioning to have it heard. And in the case name, the petitioner's name always comes first. So in a trial like Texas v. Johnson, Texas lost the last case, and they're petitioning to have it reversed.

One more word, it's not lawyers who present arguments in the Supreme Court. They're referred to as advocates.

The court hears cases starting in October. They discuss them in conferences, they vote on them, and someone who voted in the majority writes the opinion, which is read some time afterward. Other justices can add their name to that opinion if they have concurring opinions with different legal reasoning. Or if you're on the side that voted the other way, you can write a dissent.

By the way, the vast majority of Supreme Court decisions are unanimous, but like everything, it's never so cut and dry as that. Once the court rules, you have the long circuitous route to the states adopting the ruling into their laws, which can take decades.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as A User's Guide to the Branches of U.S. Government. Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the authors

Hannah McCarthy is the co-host of Civics 101 from New Hampshire Public Radio. She came to New Hampshire by way of Brooklyn where she worked as a radio producer and writer. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

Nick Capodice is the co-host of Civics 101. Before coming to NHPR, Nick worked in the Education Department at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, where he wrote and led tours, trained educators, and helped design digital exhibits. He also led beer history and tasting tours for Urban Oyster in Brooklyn.

Nick and Hannah are the authors of A User's Guide to Democracy: How America Works, with illustrations by Tom Toro.