The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". The Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits any United States citizen to be denied the right to vote based on sex.
Following the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Fifteenth Amendment, the state courts which passed on the effect of the Amendment ruled that it did not confer upon women the right to vote but only the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of their sex in the setting of voting qualifications,\3\ a formalistic distinction to be sure but one which has restrained the possible applications of the Amendment.
Agitation in behalf of women's suffrage was recorded as early as the Jackson Administration but the initial results were meager. Beginning in 1838, Kentucky authorized women to vote in school elections and its action was later copied by a number of other States. Kansas in 1887 granted women unlimited rights to vote in municipal elections. Not until 1869, however, when the Wyoming Territory accorded women suffrage rights on an equal basis with men and continued the practice following admission to statehood, did these advocates register a notable victory.
On May 21, 1919, the House of Representatives passed the amendment, and 2 weeks later, the Senate followed. When Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the amendment on August 18, 1920, the amendment passed its final hurdle of obtaining the agreement of three-fourths of the states. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby certified the ratification on August 26, 1920, changing the face of the American electorate forever.
By 1916, almost all of the major suffrage organizations were united behind the goal of a constitutional amendment. When New York adopted woman suffrage in 1917 and President Wilson changed his position to support an amendment in 1918, the political balance began to shift.
Beginning in the 1800s, women organized, petitioned, and picketed to win the right to vote, but it took them decades to accomplish their purpose. Between 1878, when the amendment was first introduced in Congress, and August 18, 1920, when it was ratified, champions of voting rights for women worked tirelessly, but strategies for achieving their goal varied. Some pursued a strategy of passing suffrage acts in each state—nine western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912.
Reconstruction Acts passed after the war called for black suffrage in the Southern states, but many felt the approach unfair. The Acts did not apply to the North. And in 1868, 11 of the 21 Northern states did not allow blacks to vote in elections. Most of the border states, where one-sixth of the nation's black population resided, also refused to allow blacks to vote.
Although ratified on February 3, 1870, the promise of the 15th Amendment would not be fully realized for almost a century. Through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests and other means, Southern states were able to effectively disenfranchise African Americans. It would take the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 before the majority of African Americans in the South were registered to vote.
On January 30, 1869, the House passed a resolution, 150-42, submitted by Republican George Boutwell of Massachusetts to amend the Constitution to forbid the federal and state governments from denying the vote to citizens based on “race, or color, or previous condition of slavery.” Its language was almost identical to the final form of the Fifteenth Amendment.
Spurred also by the resurgent strength of the Democratic Party, Republicans of the outgoing 40th Congress began crafting in the winter of 1868-1869 a constitutional amendment for equal manhood suffrage. Ideally, it would enfranchise Northern black men and protect the voting rights of black men in the South from repeal by future state legislatures, thereby creating conditions for a viable two-party system in the South and help secure implementation of the Reconstruction Acts. Congressional Republicans were initially divided, however, on the language and scope of the amendment. Radicals wanted to bar the federal and state governments from disfranchising voters because of race, property, literacy, and other classifications. Moderates believed that the amendment should be limited to suffrage for black men, with states retaining authority over other voting qualifications.
In January 1869, the National Convention of the Colored Men of America met in Washington, D.C., with the aim of advocating suffrage for all black men in the United States and the education of former slaves. A committee of twelve called on President-elect Ulysses S. Grant, offering their support and best wishes and urging him to be vigilant in the fulfillment and administration of equal rights. He pledged as president to uphold equal protection under the law.