This year marks the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave women in United States the right to vote. After seven decades of activism, American women cast their first ballots in the presidential elections of 1920.
Nancy Pelosi, the first female Speaker of the House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who almost won the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, and Sarah Palin, who was that year's Republican nominee for vice president: three women who have had an undeniable impact on American politics. Their visibility is a testament to the advancement of women's rights in America. But their achievements build on the efforts of women more than a century ago, who began pushing for a basic democratic right, the right to vote.
The movement started with a group of activists led by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who in 1848 publicly claimed that American women deserved equal rights under the law with men.
"The suffragists were middle-aged, middle class to upper class wives and mothers. They had gone to college or high school. They were somewhat in privileged positions and they understood that without access to the ballot box their lives were not in their hands," said Susan Scanlan, president of the Women's Research and Education Institute in Washington.
The suffragists' activism died down with the beginning of the Civil War. But the voting rights struggle re-emerged 50 years later with Alice Paul, a lawyer and a major figure in the suffrage movement. One day before President Woodrow Wilson's inauguration in 1913, Alice Paul organized an elaborate parade on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue to get America's attention.
"No one had ever seen so many women mobilized on the street, in various colors representing different groups: socialites, workers, educated women, women of color, some men's groups. It was absolutely spectacular and the women presented their cause for a federal amendment, as well as for a state amendment making sure that suffrage was everywhere," said Elisabeth Crum, Outreach Manager at the Sewell-Belmont Museum.
The suffragists got plenty of media attention, but little public support. So in 1917, they started picketing the White House, an unprecedented act at the time. Many women were arrested and sent to jail, but public opinion shifted. The 19th Amendment went to Congress in 1918 and was ratified by the states on August 18, 1920. American women had finally earned the right to vote.
"It was probably the most important thing to happen to women in the last 100 years because it gave them full rights as citizens. Women's responsibilities and roles behind the scenes were probably the same before suffrage as they were after but they were seen as actual voting people with real rights and a potential constituency that could be appealed to by the candidates," noted Jennifer Lawless of the American University's Women in Politics Institute.
The suffragists also pushed for marriage and divorce rights, property rights and equal pay with men, a struggle that took decades and on some issues is still going on. While a proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution failed to gain ratification in 1982, American women do vigorously exercise their right to vote. Recent elections show they vote in higher numbers than men - and vote differently.
"In the 2008 elections eight million more women voted than men in the presidential elections," added Susan Scanlan. "Women always tend to favor family issues, education issues, welfare and men are more aggressive in supporting international affairs, budgetary issues and defense issues."
Nine decades after American women gained the right to vote there is still a lot of work to be done. Women represent only 17 percent of the memberships of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. But women like Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are making their mark on American politics and sending a clear message, American women are a force to be reckoned with.