This paper is a chapter from The Initiative & Referendum Almanac. You can purchase the book here.

By Dennis Polhill and Kim Garrett(i)

One of the first instances of the discussion of women’s suffrage was in 1776 when Abigail Adams wrote to her husband, John Adams, asking him to include women in the Declaration of Independences’ wording. John writes back with humor, stating that he understands Abigail’s views but to Abigail’s dismay, the document states, “all men are created equal.” Upset with this wording, Abigail confides in many colleagues that this lack of including women in the Declaration might be something that needed to be taken directly to the people. However, it wasn’t until the mid 1800s that women’s suffrage became a dominant issue again.

Wyoming was the pioneer equal suffrage state when its first legislative council, after its organization as a territory in 1869, passed a bill providing that women should have the same rights as men to vote and hold office. When Wyoming was granted statehood in 1890, equal suffrage was part of its constitution – before any other state had given women the right to vote. Utah followed in 1896. From 1906 to 1920, thirteen states voted on women suffrage ballot measures, both initiatives and legislative referendum; Oregon (1906 by initiative/failed), Oregon (1908 by initiative/failed), Oklahoma and Oregon (1910 by initiative/failed), California (1911 by legislative referendum/passed), Arizona and Oregon (1912 by initiative/passed), Kansas (1912 by legislative referendum/passed), Nevada and Montana (1913 by legislative referendum/passed), Ohio, Nebraska, Missouri (1914 by initiative/failed), New York (1917 by legislative referendum/passed), Michigan, South Dakota and Oklahoma (1918 by legislative referendum/passed) (ii).

In both Arizona and Oregon the battle for equal suffrage was long and strong. For nearly fifteen years Arizona women worked without success to get their territorial legislature to confer full suffrage upon them. Nor were they successful in their efforts to get a woman suffrage clause included in the constitution when Arizona was granted statehood. A bill creating a women’s suffrage amendment to the constitution was introduced in the first legislature of the new state but lost by one vote in the Senate – although it passed in the House. The women then turned to the people, and in less than two months time succeeded in collecting the signatures necessary to place an initiative on the ballot granting women suffrage. The measure went to the voters in 1912 and won by 7,240 votes.

In Oregon, equal suffrage initiatives lost in 1906 and 1908. In 1910 suffragists tried a different approach: an initiative giving only female taxpayers the right to vote, a compromise that was rejected at the ballot box by a three to one margin. Finally, in 1912, suffragists led by Abigail Scott Duniway won their long struggle. An initiative they placed on the ballot for women’s suffrage passed – 61,265 in favor to 57,104 against.

One of the reasons the battle for equal suffrage was so difficult was the link between the women’s suffrage movement and the prohibition movement. The Women’s Crusade of 1873 and the organization of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 (WCTU), which pioneered the movement for equal suffrage, strongly advocated prohibition. The Ohio WCTU, for example, circulated a speech by Anna Howard Shaw entitled “Influence versus Power,” which defined women’s suffrage as an important weapon in the fight for prohibition. Brewers and distillers, believing that all suffragists favored prohibition, opposed women’s suffrage vehemently and in 1911 created the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NAOWS). NAOWS was instrumental in delaying Congress from passing a women’s suffrage amendment (iii).

In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party adopted a women’s suffrage plank – a major breakthrough. In the summer of 1913, suffragists presented U.S. Senators with 200,000 signatures in support of a constitutional amendment establishing women’s suffrage – but they refused to act. They also began to speak out through hunger strikes, picketing the White House, and other forms of civil disobedience.

On March 2, 1914, U.S. Senator John Shafroth of Colorado introduced a constitutional amendment that would grant all states I&R to achieve suffrage. The “Shafroth Amendment” would have advanced both I&R and the women’s suffrage issue by empowering the people to decide within their own state. Although the amendment failed in Congress, it helped the initiative and referendum process gain public credibility as a method of dealing with these types of issues.

In 1914 and 1915, both houses of Congress again rejected women’s suffrage amendments. Finally, in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson changed his position and gave his support to a women’s suffrage amendment. His support helped get the amendment through the House, but not the Senate. Then in 1919, President Wilson once again urged passage of a women’s suffrage amendment and fifteen days after the House passed the amendment, the Senate passed it as well. The 19th Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution in 1920 – just 14 months after Congress sent it to the states for ratification.

Carrie Chapman Catt summarized the women’s suffrage effort when she said, “[t]o get the word ‘male’ in effect out of the Constitution cost the women of the country fifty-two years of pauseless campaign… During that time they were forced to conduct fifty-six [initiative] referenda campaigns to male voters; 480 campaigns to get legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters; 47 campaigns to get state constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get state party conventions to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms, 30 campaigns to get presidential party conventions to adopt women’s suffrage planks into party platforms, and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.”

As Catt points out, the relationship between women’s suffrage and I&R is not trivial. When momentum began to lag, I&R appeared on the horizon to instill the suffragists with new hope, inspiration, and energy. However, even though most of the women’s suffrage initiatives were defeated at the ballot box, their presence raised the awareness of the issue and helped lead the way to the 19th Amendment.

Women’s Suffrage Initiatives (I) and Legislative Referendum (LR)

State Year Description Type Pass/Fail
OR 1906 To extend suffrage to women. I Failed
OR 1908 To extend suffrage to women. I Failed
OK 1910 To authorize women to vote under the same circumstances/conditions as men. I Failed
OR 1910 To extend suffrage to female taxpayers. I Failed
CA 1911 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed
AZ 1912 To extend suffrage to women. I Passed
KS 1912 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed
OR 1912 To extend suffrage to women. I Passed
MT 1913 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed
NV 1913 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed
OH 1914 To extend suffrage to women. I Failed
NE 1914 To extend suffrage to women. I Failed
MO 1914 To provide that females shall have the same right to vote at all elections within the state as males. I Failed
NY 1917 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed
MI 1918 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed
OK 1918 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed
SD 1918 To extend suffrage to women. LR Passed

i. Dennis Polhill is the Chairman of the Initiative & Referendum Institute. Kim Garrett is a research assistant for the Institute and a student at the University of Denver.
ii. McDonagh, Eileen L. and H. Douglas Price (1984). “Woman Suffrage in the Progressive Era: Patterns of Opposition and Support in Referenda Voting, 1910-1920,” in The American Political Science Review 79 (3).
iii. McDonagh, Eileen L. and H. Douglas Price (1984). “Woman Suffrage in the Progressive Era: Patterns of Opposition and Support in Referenda Voting, 1910-1920,” in The American Political Science Review 79 (3), and Schmidt, David D. (1989). Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press; Connors, Arthur (1917). “ Direct Legislation in 1916,” in The American Political Science Review 11 (1).