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This is “My Constitution,” a podcast from the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement at Purdue University. In this episode, we’ll discuss the right to vote.

Who counted among “We the People” when our Constitution was new? Well, not very many people. Certainly I wouldn't.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, September, 2013.

Certainly not people who were held in human bondage and not even most men, because you had to be a property owner as well.

On November 5, 1872, voters went to the polls. Ulysses S. Grant, the soldier who led Union forces to victory in the Civil War, was seeking a second term in the White House, an election he eventually won. Early on that same day, a middle-aged woman voted in Rochester, New York. Her name was Susan B. Anthony. Here’s Lorie Barnum of the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House:

She dedicated her life to get equal rights for women, in particularly the right to vote. She was a leader in the Anti-Slavery Association of New York State and worked for temperance. She worked for improvement in labor laws, educational opportunities, but best known, of course, in her work for women's right to vote.

Anthony’s attempt to register to vote in the 1872 election had been difficult. Rebuffed by the male registrars, Anthony threatened to sue them if she and the women who accompanied her were removed from the barbershop where the registration took place. She was eventually allowed to register to vote and later cast her ballot on election day.

A few weeks after the election, a federal marshal arrested Anthony and a number of other women who had voted. Charged with illegal voting, the trial which followed was a sham. Anthony was not allowed to testify, the presiding judge penned his opinion before the defense presented their arguments, and the jury was ordered to find the defendants guilty.

Ordered to pay a fine, Anthony responded, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”

It was never paid.

Let’s pause at this point in the podcast and provide some context for Anthony’s act of civil disobedience. 25 years earlier, in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, a number of individuals signed a document in favor of women’s rights. The document was called the Declaration of Sentiments. Its author was Elizabeth Cady Stanton. One of the individuals who signed it was Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist. Drawing upon Thomas Jefferson’s famous Declaration of Independence separating the colonies from Great Britain, the Declaration of Sentiments highlighted the role that men had played in oppressing women. Here’s Penn State Professor of History and Women’s Studies, Lori Ginzberg:

In her time and place, the document Stanton and her friends produced, the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments, was stunning. A foundational text in American democratic ideals, it's language, careful and deliberate, made these dangerous radicals impossible to ignore. The Declaration of Sentiments will sound familiar, I think, to everyone here. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Stanton read aloud, “that all men and women are created equal.” Like much of Stanton’s thinking, the Declaration of Sentiments was not utterly original, but also like her, it displayed spectacular breadth of thought and imagination, echoing and admiring the past even as it demanded a strikingly different future. By adopting the language of the nation's most sacred text, Stanton's simply reminded Americans that their revolution had left unfinished business and urged them to do better. It complemented the founders, as it challenged their heirs.

As you remember in the first podcast in this series, Thomas Jefferson argued in the Declaration of Independence that the genesis of government is to be found in consent. The Constitution discusses elections in Article I. The Framers of the Constitution provided a role for Congress in regulating elections. However, Article I rests the primary responsibility for organizing elections with the states. The history of elections in the United States is littered with obstacles placed in the paths of individuals attempting to vote.

In the next part of this podcast, we’ll look at some of those impediments. Let’s begin by looking at the colonial period—the period before the Revolution of 1776. There are examples of women and Blacks voting in this period. The number of women voters was very small and their presence among the electorate was a result of inheriting property. Black voting seems to have been limited to a small number in areas of the South.

Voter eligibility among White males, during this period, was shaped to a greater or lesser degree by a number of factors. These included property-ownership, age, residency requirements, and religion. Property ownership was measured in terms of the value of someone’s property, or how many acres of land someone owned.

While there was some variation in age requirement during the early colonial period, authorities eventually coalesced around 21 as the age when individuals could vote. States differed on how long you needed to live in an area in order to have the right to vote. For example, in Georgia it was two months. In Delaware, it was two years.

Finally, some potential electors were barred from voting because of their religious faith. According to Christopher Collier, of the University of Connecticut, “all the colonies restricted voting to Protestant Christians.”

Some areas limited the right to vote even further. For example, in some colonies, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers weren’t allowed to vote. In Massachusetts, only members of the Congregationalist Church were allowed to participate in elections.

In the early part of the nineteenth century, two trends are worth noting. First, property qualifications were eliminated by the middle of the 1800s. The second is the trend to keep free Black men from voting. Constitutional change was in the air in the nineteenth century. Four constitutional amendments were ratified during that time. The most famous of these were the three Civil War Amendments, ratified between 1865 and 1870.

The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery. The other two included specific language about voting. The Fourteenth Amendment included a provision penalizing jurisdictions that restricted the voting rights of adult males. The Fifteenth Amendment specifically protected the voting rights of Black males. Section 1 of the Fifteenth Amendment says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The voting rights of Black Americans were not, however, fully secured by this amendment. Some states limited voting by developing literacy tests. These tests largely targeted Black voters. Some states required registered voters to pay a tax, called a poll tax, before they could exercise their right to vote. Some states also developed “grandfather clauses.” These provisions only allowed individuals to vote if their grandfather had been able to vote. Finally, some states introduced the White primary. Given the dominance of the Democratic party in the South, excluding Blacks from voting in the Democratic primary election effectively undermined the ability of blacks to participate in the electoral process.

The twentieth century saw more changes in this area. Direct action, a Supreme Court decision, a constitutional amendment, and an important piece of federal legislation chipped away at state restrictions on Black voting. In Smith v. Allwright, decided in 1944, the Court used the Fourteenth Amendment to declare the White primary unconstitutional. Nearly twenty years later, the Twenty-fourth Amendment outlawed the use of poll taxes. And in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act.

But what of women’s suffrage? Three years after Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in Rochester, New York, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the women’s suffrage movement when it decided that the Fourteenth Amendment did not grant women the right to vote. The case was Minor v. Happersett, and it involved a challenge to Missouri’s law that only allowed men to vote.

Women formed a variety of organizations that advocated for their right to vote. They included the National Woman Suffrage Association, formed by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Other prominent organizations were the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Women’s Party, which was led by Alice Paul. The groups utilized a variety of tactics. Some supporters lobbied states to grant women the franchise. Others pressed for a federal constitutional amendment, which was first introduced in Congress in 1878.

But there were many other tactics as well. Women activists tried to gain the support of Woodrow Wilson, who was president from 1913-1921. They gathered signatures and marched in support of their cause. They took to the sky and dropped leaflets from a plane. They also campaigned in elections. On December 5, 1916, a number of women even interrupted the President’s speech to Congress.

The story is recounted by Tina Cassidy, the author of Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the Right to Vote. “After smuggling a yellow banner into the House of Representatives, a number of women lowered it over a balcony during Wilson’s speech. The words on the banner were pointed: ‘Mr. President, what will you do for women’s suffrage?’ Author Cassidy called it a “grand reveal.”

Elaine Weiss, author of The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote, takes it from here:

They picket the White House and burn the president in effigy. They keep a watchfire at the gates of the White House for months and months in rain and shine and snow. They even call Wilson “Kaiser Wilson,” which was very provocative and very controversial. Hundreds were arrested and served time in prison for their civil disobedience in the fetid Occoquan prison in Virginia. They were held in decrepit, vermin infested cells. They were physically assaulted, clubbed, tied to the wall, not allowed to read, write or even speak to one another. They communicated by singing. When they refused to eat, they were force fed with tubes rammed down their throat.

Eventually, President Wilson supported the constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote. Both houses of Congress passed it in 1919. One of only 27 amendments, it was ratified in 1920. Known as the Nineteenth Amendment, or the Susan B. Anthony Amendment, it says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

In this podcast, we have looked at the issue of the right to vote. Much of our attention has focused on the obstacles that made voting difficult for some groups of Americans, in particular, African Americans and women. In 1971, an additional voting rights amendment, the Twenty- Sixth, lowered the voting age to 18.

Susan B. Anthony did not live to see women’s suffrage added to the Constitution. She died in 1906. But another woman, Charlotte Woodward Pierce, was a teenager when she signed the Declaration of Sentiments in 1848. She was 91 in 1920 the year of the ratification. None of the other women who added their names to the Declaration of Sentiments lived to see the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.

Further information on some of the issues discussed in this program, including questions to ponder, our sources, and additional clips from the C-SPAN Archives, can be found on the website of the Center for C-SPAN Scholarship & Engagement. The address is The Center is affiliated with the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University.


To acquaint the student with the right to vote.


  1. One of the interesting discussions surrounding the right to vote in the United States is that Americans tend to vote at comparatively low rates. Why do you think this is the case? Is this something to be concerned about? If so, why? If not, why not? What other ways, in addition to the elective franchise, can Americans influence their government?
  1. As we heard in the podcast, with the passage of the Twenty-seventh Amendment the right to vote was lowered to eighteen years of age. Some have advocated lowering it even further. Would you be in favor of lowering it to, for example, sixteen? An example of a country that did indeed lower the voting age to sixteen was Scotland, which allowed sixteen and seventeen-year olds to vote in the Scottish independence referendum in 2016.
  1. While this podcast focuses on the right to vote, special attention was given to women and African Americans. Black voters have now become a reliable constituency for the Democratic Party. Why do you think that is the case? Interestingly, a “gender gap” has emerged in elections. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “The gender gap in voting refers to the difference in the percentage of women and the percentage of men voting for a given candidate.” Women, in general, tend to vote Democratic. Why do you think that’s the case? Additional information on this topic can be found by clicking on this link


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Cassidy, T. (2019). Mr. President, how long must we wait?: Alice Paul, Woodrow Wilson, and the fight for the right to vote. New York City, NY: 37 Ink/Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Charlotte Woodward. (2015). National Park Service.

Clift, E. (2003). Founding sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment. NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Cobbs, E. (2018, August 26). 19th Amendment anniversary: Evaluating Woodrow Wilson's complicated contributions to women's equality. NBC News.

Collier, C. (1992). The American people as Christian White men of property: Suffrage and elections in Colonial and early national America. In D. W. Rogers (Ed.), Voting and the spirit of American democracy: Essays on the history of voting and voting rights in America (pp. 19-29). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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Lange, A. (2015). American Woman Suffrage Association. National Women’s History Museum.

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Panetta, G., & Reaney, O. (2019, September 24). Today is National Voter Registration Day. The evolution of American voting rights in 242 years shows how far we've come - and how far we still have to go. Business Insider.

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Wilentz, S. (1992). Property and power: Suffrage reform in the United States, 1787-1860. In D. W. Rogers (Ed.), Voting and the spirit of American democracy: Essays on the history of voting and voting rights in America (pp. 31-41). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Williams, L. F. (1992). The Constitution and the civil rights movement: The quest for a more perfect union. In D. W. Rogers (Ed.), Voting and the spirit of American democracy: Essays on the history of voting and voting rights in America (pp. 97-107). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

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Minor v. Happersett (1875) -- At the heart of this case is whether the Fourteenth Amendment granted women the right to vote. The link will take you to the Court’s opinion written by Chief Justice Morrison Waite.

Shelby County v. Holder (2013) -- This program from the C-SPAN Archives features oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder. At the heart of the case is an important piece of legislation, the Voting Rights Act, passed by Congress to protect voting rights

Shelby County v. Holder (2013) -- In addition to oral argument, the Oyez website includes a brief discussion of the case, announcements from the bench, and the Court’s various opinions.

Smith v. Allwright (1944) -- In Smith, the Court struck down the white primary. This link will take you to a brief discussion of the Smith case and to the various opinions issued by the Court’s members.


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