Before Universal Woman Suffrage: A “Crazy Quilt” of Towns, Counties, and States Where Women Held Partial Voting Rights and Became Candidates for Elective Office

By Jill Norgren and Wendy Chmielewski

Historians have long focused on the American woman suffrage movement (1848-1920) as the crucial movement for women’s full citizenship. The meeting at Seneca Falls is celebrated, the exclusion of women from the guarantees of the Fifteenth Amendment debated, and the long lobbying effort that led to universal female suffrage detailed. On August 18, 1920 universal woman suffrage was achieved with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. With a mere twenty-eight words, the amendment created a firestorm of woman-power. And eighty-six years later, on July 28, 2016, Democrats celebrated women’s commitment to electoral politics when Hillary Clinton, nominated two days earlier for the office of president, told the convention delegates in Philadelphia … with humility…determination…and boundless confidence in America’s promise…I accept your nomination for President of the United States!. With these words she became the first woman nominated by a major party to run for the presidency.

In fact, the story of woman suffrage and women’s participation in elective politics, in which Clinton is now participating, is even more interesting and complex than what is usually presented by historians. Some textbooks do mention that Wyoming granted women full suffrage in 1869; that Utah women won, lost, and then regained suffrage before the end of the nineteenth century, and that Colorado and Idaho also granted women full suffrage in the 1890s.

But research conducted by members of the project reveals that prior to 1920 women fought for, and won, partial voting rights in numerous towns and counties across the United States in addition to the few states that granted full suffrage. By 1880, in some towns, women, had obtained the right to vote for mayor or school board members, or to cast ballots on matters such as taxation or temperance. In Kansas, women were voting for mayor in 1887. By the mid-1880s the legislatures of fifteen states had enacted woman suffrage in school elections. The outcome created what may be called a crazy quilt of female voting opportunities in the U.S many decades before ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Even more critically, the findings of the HerHat Was in the Ring project upend the previous interpretation of U.S. political history as one in which women did not run for political office prior to 1920. Again finding a crazy quilt pattern of female candidacies, research by members of the project has uncovered the names of more than 3,300 American women who ran in 4,572 campaigns between 1853 and 1920. And project members believe there are a couple of thousand more women candidates they have not yet found. The crazy quilt pattern of election laws from state to state allowed women access to certain local or state offices, in some cases, before women could vote for those offices.

It is true that many women were content to work for civic betterment using non-partisan and non-elective methods. However, the Her Hat project has established that thousands of women took a different route and sought elective office. From the 1850s through the 1880s women sometimes won in places where only men could vote! Yes, they ran knowing that success depended entirely on votes from the men of their communities. Female candidates ran in competitive races, often with a party affiliation; they campaigned against men and won; and they competed for positions that carried salaries. These women sought to expand the nature of women’s political citizenship, before 1920, and succeeded. Well before the time that the United States added that all-important constitutional guarantee of universal woman suffrage, American women were not only voting but also participating as candidates in electoral politics.

Who were these women candidates and elected officials?

In Lincoln County, Maine, in 1853, Olive Rose successfully ran for the office of register of deeds. She won 73-4 in a town where women could not vote. In Iowa in 1869 Julia Addington won election, becoming Mitchell County Superintendent of Schools. In Boston, in 1873, women were elected to the city’s school board, but were challenged, necessitating special state legislative action to guarantee women’s right to the office. Belva Lockwood of Washington, D.C. campaigned twice for the presidency, winning 5,000 votes in her 1884 bid for the office. In 1888 Illinois attorney Catharine Waugh (McCulloch) ran as the candidate of the Prohibition Party for state attorney. She lost, but ran 200 votes ahead of the party ticket. In 1907, in a fierce campaign against a male candidate, McCulloch won election as Evanston, Illinois Justice of the Peace (re-elected in 1909). Evanston women could not vote.

Civic reformer and suffrage activist Pauline Pearlmutter Steinem (the grandmother of Gloria Steinem), was possibly the first Jewish woman elected to office in the U.S. Steinem was a coalition candidate who won election to the Toledo, Ohio school board in 1904. In 1895 Anna R. Woodbey of Nebraska may have been the first African American woman to run for office. Woodbey, president of her local Woman’s Christian Temperance Union chapter, was the Prohibition Party candidate for State University Regent. Regents decided upon the access to and direction of higher education for their entire state.

These thousands of women ran for over 60 different political offices in over 40 states or territories. They represented nearly 20 different political parties, but were most successful in gaining election as Republicans and Democrats. Before 1920 women served on local school boards, as mayors, as county officials, as members of city councils, in state legislatures, and one woman, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Thus, Hillary Clinton not only joins the women whom we already know, who, after 1920, ran for elective office, she also becomes part of a larger, exciting tableau, barely known about until now, of women who began running for office as early as the 1850s. These women ran under difficult circumstances, enduring personal attacks and, sometimes, court challenges of their victories because, certain men asserted, the law did not state that women could hold elective office. Many campaigned in places where they and their sisters could not vote. Early candidates learned to use written election materials because social custom did not permit them to campaign in bars and taverns, where much politicking occurred in the 19th century. They ran as Democrats and Republicans but many also represented third parties.

Here, then, is a new, important chapter in the history of American politics. The Her Hat Was in the Ring project data detail the grit and pluck of several thousand women who, in the decades before 1920, sought elective office. Their belief in full citizenship derived from the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution, bringing to life their bold vision of becoming a female voter and female candidate. Well before the chant, “Yes, we can,” they seized the moment in towns, counties, and states in order to obtain the complete civic rights of an American citizen.

Jill Norgren and Wendy Chmielewski, along with Kristen Gwinn-Becker, are co-founders of

One Response to Before Universal Woman Suffrage: A “Crazy Quilt” of Towns, Counties, and States Where Women Held Partial Voting Rights and Became Candidates for Elective Office

  1. Marie Brady says:

    “Historians have long focused on the American woman suffrage movement (1848-1920) as the crucial movement for women’s full citizenship.”

    Sorry, but most historians have ignored or trivialized the American women’s suffrage movement. The women’s history movement needs to be more activist and a lot more outspoken about insisting that our history gets the respect it deserves.

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