Right to Vote: Suffrage for Women, African Americans and American Indians
What opportunities does the right to vote provide?
Up until the Civil War, in most places, the right to vote in the United State was restricted to white males 21 years and older. Each state, not the federal government, established its own voter qualifications, but by far, adult white males accounted for almost all of the ballots cast. In the Dred Scott decision in 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves were property of their owners, were not citizens and had no legal rights at all. A decade later, African Americans were not only free, but they were free citizens, and in Iowa, the path had been set to grant them the right to vote.
The first two constitutions adopted by the people of Iowa limited the suffrage (right to vote) to white males 21 years and older. While slavery might have been illegal in Iowa, many state laws discriminated against African-American residents. The "black codes" that required African Americans to post financial bonds to live here and denied them the right to serve on juries were designed to discourage them from migrating to Iowa. A strong majority in the state opposed intermarriage between whites and African Americans and held that African Americans were not as intelligent as whites.
The Civil War began to reshape white attitudes toward African Americans. Iowa soldiers fighting in the South saw first-hand the evils of slavery. Freeing slaves where the Union Army took control weakened the strength of the Confederate Army. Furthermore, after the southern surrender, the Republican Party was eager to grant African Americans the right to vote because they anticipated their votes would be strongly Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln and the opponents of their former masters.
At the behest of Alexander Clark, an African American and Iowan who fought in the Civil War, Iowa voters (entirely white males) went to the polls and approved a constitutional amendment striking the word "white" from voting requirements in 1868. A man, African American or white, could vote in Iowa if he was 21 years old and a resident. At the same time, the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbade any state from denying the vote to anyone on the basis of race, color or previous condition of servitude (slavery). Until the Great Depression in the 1930s, African Americans tended to adhere to the Republicans who had fought to end slavery and grant them their freedom. New Deal programs that provided direct relief to the desperately poor, which included both whites and African Americans, won over many African-American voters to the Democrats.
While African-American males were winning the right to vote, advocates for women's suffrage saw an opportunity to advance their cause. In 1848, a convention at Seneca Falls, New York, was the first to call for granting the right to vote to women, but the issue gathered little support before the Civil War. Because suffrage requirements were written into the Iowa constitution, any change required a proposal to be passed in two consecutive legislative sessions and then submitted to the voters for approval. While a women’s suffrage bill could sometimes pass the House or the Senate in one session, it could never win approval by both chambers for two sessions.
Powerful opponents lined up against granting the vote to women. Most prominent were those who opposed prohibition, a strict limitation on the manufacture and sale of liquor. It was assumed that women voters would be hostile to liquor interests and would support greater restrictions. European immigrant groups, especially Germans and Irish, had no traditions that saw drinking as evil. Conservative churches, including Catholics, opposed women's suffrage as an attack on traditional family values. They pointed to Bible instructions that the man was to be the head of the house and that the wife was to submit to his authority. Women's suffrage made the two equal, and, some argued, could lead to friction within the family. In communities along the Mississippi and in northeast Iowa with strong Irish and German communities, there was strong opposition to votes for women. In western Iowa where Protestant churches like the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians dominated, there was strong support for both prohibition and women's suffrage.
Carrie Chapman Catt, who was raised in Iowa, rose to the head of a national association promoting women's suffrage. Early victories in several western states led women's advocates that they could soon gain the right to vote across the nation, but it remained a tough battle. Around the turn of the century, women were allowed to vote on referenda like bond issues, but not in "elections" where there are candidates. This was known as the partial suffrage. In 1916, Iowa votes (still all male) narrowly defeated a women’s suffrage amendment that would have struck the word "male" from the state’s voting requirements. Nevertheless, when Congress submitted the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution to the states for ratification, the Iowa legislature approved it. In the 1920 elections, women across the United States went to the polls. Later in the decade, Iowa women won the right to serve on juries and be elected to public office.
American Indians had a long and complex legal status within the United States. The tribes were considered sovereign nations and the federal government signed treaties with them just as if they were foreign powers. In most cases, American Indians could not vote unless they left their tribes and lived in white communities. During World War I, many American Indians served with distinction in the armed forces. In recognition to their service, the U.S. Congress passed the Snyder Act, which granted full citizenship to American Indians whether they remained on tribal lands or moved into mainstream society.
The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1971. It expanded the right to vote in federal elections to citizens 18 years and older, lowering the legal voting age from 21. Each state had to approve it for state and local elections.
The number of legal voters has expanded widely since the U.S. Constitution was adopted. Voting is the most basic right of each citizen, and who gets the right to cast a ballot for elected leaders has been a contentious issue. Today, there is a debate over whether those who have committed a felony should have the vote, even after they have served their time. Other issues may still surface.
How did African Americans obtain the right to vote?
- "First Vote" Illustration, November 16, 1867 (Image)
- Alexander Clark’s Speech at the "Colored Convention" in Des Moines, Iowa, 1868 (Document)
- Portrait of Governor William M. Stone, 1868 (Image)
- 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, February 27, 1869 (Document)
- "The Fifteenth Amendment," 1870 (Image)
- Distribution of the Colored Population of the United States in 1890, 1898 (Map)
- Voter Registration Literacy Test in Alabama, 1964 (Document)
- African-American Demonstrators Outside the White House, March 12, 1965 (Image)
- Oral History Interview with African-American Politician Robert G. Clark, Jr., in Pickens, Mississippi, March 13, 2013 (Video)
- Oral History Interview with African-American Activist Charles Siler about Life in Louisiana, May 10, 2013 (Video)
How did women obtain the right to vote?
- Women's Suffrage Parade Shown Passing by Church, October 29, 1908 (Image)
- "Votes for Women! The Woman's Reason" by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1912 (Document)
- Billboard Urging Iowans to Vote "Yes" for Women's Suffrage, 1916 (Image)
- Map Abstract of June 5, 1916, Vote for Woman Suffrage Constitutional Amendment in Iowa, 1916 (Map)
- Route of Envoys Sent by the Congressional Union for Woman's Suffrage to Organize in the West, between April and May 1916 (Map)
- Anti-Suffrage Ad from The Iowa Homestead, May 25, 1916 (Document)
- Letter from Anna Lawther of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association to County Chairs, November 13, 1918 (Document)
- Activists Leaving National Woman's Party Headquarters to Take Petition to Senator Jones of New Mexico, 1918 (Image)
- Letter from President Woodrow Wilson to Carrie Chapman Catt, June 7, 1918 (Document)
- Response Letter from Iowa Secretary of State W.S. Allen to Anna Lawther, December 1918 (Document)
- 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, August 26, 1920 (Document)
- Sculpture of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, between 1921 and 1923 (Image)
How did American Indians obtain the right to vote?
- Sac and Fox Treaty, 1842 (Document)
- Iowa Law to "Allow Meskwaki to Purchase Land and Live in Tama, Iowa," July 15, 1856 (Document)
- Meskwaki Proclamation Day Brochure: "Old Indian Town," July 13, 1857 (Document)
- Sac and Fox Treaty, 1867 (Document)
- Motion Presented by Iowa Senator J.B. Grinnell, February 5, 1867 (Document)
- "Move On!" Political Cartoon, April 22, 1871 (Political Cartoon)
- Citizenship Act, June 2, 1924 (Document)
- President Calvin Coolidge Posing with American Indians at White House, February 18, 1925 (Image)
- "Political Rights from Citizenship” in The Problem of Indian Administration, February 21, 1928 (Document)
- Constitution and Bylaws of the Sac and Fox Tribes in Iowa, December 29, 1937 (Document)
- Oral History Interview with Henry Mitchell, an American Indian Canoe Maker, 1938 (Document)
- Civil Rights Act of 1957, September 9, 1957 (Document)
- Voting Rights Act, 1965 (Document)
- Meskwaki Land Purchases, 2004 (Map)
"The First Vote" Illustration, November 16, 1867
Alexander Clark’s Speech at the "Colored Convention" in Des Moines, Iowa, 1868
Portrait of Governor William M. Stone, 1868
15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, February 27, 1869
"The Fifteenth Amendment," 1870
Distribution of the Colored Population of the United States in 1890,1898
Voter Registration Literacy Test in Alabama, 1964
African-American Demonstrators Outside the White House, March 12, 1965
Oral History Interview with African-American Politician Robert G. Clark, Jr., in Pickens, Mississippi, March 13, 2013
- Embedded resource
Oral History Interview with African-American Activist Charles Siler about Life in Louisiana, May 10, 2013
- Embedded resource
Women’s Suffrage Parade Shown Passing by Church, October 29, 1908
“Votes for Women! The Woman's Reason" by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, 1912
Billboard Urging Iowans to Vote "Yes" for Women's Suffrage, 1916
Map Abstract of June 5, 1916, Vote for Woman Suffrage Constitutional Amendment in Iowa, 1916
Route of Envoys Sent by the Congressional Union for Woman's Suffrage to Organize in the West, between April and May 1916
Anti-Suffrage Ad from The Iowa Homestead, May 25, 1916
Letter from Anna Lawther of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association to County Chairman, November 13, 1918
Activists Leaving National Woman's Party Headquarters to Take Petition to Senator Jones of New Mexico, 1918
Letter from President Woodrow Wilson to Carrie Chapman Catt, June 7, 1918
Response Letter from Iowa Secretary of State W.S. Allen to Anna Lawther, December 1918
19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, August 26, 1920
Sculpture of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, between 1921 and 1923
Sac and Fox Treaty, 1842
Iowa Law to "Allow Meskwaki to Purchase Land and Live in Tama, Iowa," July 15, 1856
Meskwaki Proclamation Day Brochure: "Old Indian Town," July 13, 1857
Sac and Fox Treaty, 1867
Motion Presented by Iowa Senator J.B. Grinnell, February 5, 1867
"Move On!" Political Cartoon, April 22, 1871
Citizenship Act, June 2, 1924
President Calvin Coolidge Posing with American Indians at White House, February 18, 1925
“Political Rights from Citizenship” in The Problem of Indian Administration, February 21, 1928
Constitution and Bylaws of the Sac and Fox Tribes in Iowa, December 20, 1937
Oral History Interview with Henry Mitchell, an American Indian Canoe Maker, 1938
Civil Rights Act of 1957, September 9, 1957
Voting Rights Act, 1965
Meskwaki Land Purchases, 2004
- Jim Crow and Segregation Primary Source Set
This Library of Congress online resource contains classroom material about the use of Jim Crow laws to oppress African Americans in the south and segregation throughout the United States.
- 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
This Library of Congress web guide provides an overview of the 15th Amendment and its impact on African American men who were granted the right to vote.
- Oral History Interview with Rosie Head
In this video interview, Rosie Head describes her early life in Greenwood, Mississippi, where her family lived and worked on a plantation. She discusses how her parents faced racial discrimination in their work and how they were cheated by the plantation owner and then blacklisted. In 1964, Head joined the Civil Rights Movement in Tchula, Mississippi, and she recounts the various ways she was involved in the movement: registering voters, working with Freedom Summer volunteers, helping to establish the Child Development Group of Mississippi and campaigning for black candidates for political office.
- "The Negro Suffrage Issue" Essay from The Annals of Iowa
This essay by G. Galin Berrier in 1968 looks at the African-American suffrage movement after the Civil War between 1865 to 1868.
- Iowa Women's Suffrage Collection
To celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, the State Historical Society of Iowa has shared photographs and documents from the Iowa Women's Suffrage Collection.
- "Women's Suffrage in Iowa"
This online exhibit features women's suffrage resources from the Iowa Women’s Archives and State Historical Society of Iowa.
- Interview with Carrie Chapman Catt
This short video features prominent suffragist leader, Carrie Chapman Catt, who was born and raised in Iowa.
- Carrie Chapman Catt's Address to the U.S. Congress
This website for the Carrie Chapman Catt Museum in Charles City, Iowa, includes text of a speech Catt gave to to the U.S. Congress in 1917 on the inevitability of women's suffrage.
- "The Fight for Women’s Suffrage" from IPTV
This online webpage from Iowa Public Television's "Iowa Pathways" collection summarizes the history of women’s suffrage in Iowa.
- Trial of Susan B. Anthony
This online resource from UMKC School of Law summarizes the trial of women's suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony after she illegally voted in Rochester, New York in 1872.
- Congress Granted Citizenship to All American Indians
This website includes a three-part timeline on legislation to grant citizenship to American Indians born in the United States.
- Indian Citizenship Act
This day in history feature from the Library of Congress summarizes the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act on June 2, 1924.
- Civil Rights Act of 1957
This webpage from govtrack.us contains infographics and summaries of the record of the U.S. Senate’s vote on the Civil Rights Act of 1957.
- Voting Rights for American Indians
This Library of Congress webpage contains an article and photos that summarizes the struggle American Indians faced in the process of being granted voting rights in America.
- Toledo Indian Industrial School
These two photographs from the State Historical Society of Iowa the school building, students and staff of the Toledo Indian Industrial School near Tama, Iowa.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (5th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are high school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for fifth-grade students.
- SS.5.8. Analyze how rights and laws influence interactions between groups in society.
- SS.5.10. Describe how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution impact the decisions of government, society, and/or communities.
- SS.5.12. Describe how laws, rules and processes have changed over time in order to restrict, protect, or extend rights.
- SS.5.21. Describe the connections between historical developments that occurred within the same time period.
- SS.5.22. Explain how economic, political, and social contexts shaped people's perspectives at a given time in history.
- SS.5.23. Using information from within a primary source, infer the intended audience, purpose, and how the creator's intended audience shaped the source
- SS.5.26. Analyze Iowa's role in civil rights history.