Women’s Suffrage as a Paradigm Shift

In Politics on 21/02/2009 at 6:05 PM

One of the major paradigm shifts in American politics was the extension of suffrage to all citizens. This shift from the school of thought that only white male landowners should be afforded the right to vote, to the current school of thought that all citizens should be afforded suffrage took hundreds of years to fully develop. The paradigm morphed slowly to allow the right to vote individually to certain groups that were seen to be the most beneficial to the political underdogs. Initially the United States Constitution allowed the individual states to determine, without question, which citizens were eligible to vote. It was not until much later that the 15th, 19th and 26th amendments were ratified consequently preventing the states from denying one’s right to vote based on race, gender and age. It was with these amendments to the United States Constitution that the new paradigms were able to take over. As Kuhn states, a crisis that ends with the emergence of a new paradigm will ultimately cause a battle over its acceptance (Kuhn, 1996 pp. 84); and this paradigm shift proves this as many of the older politicians fought to keep the newly enfranchised citizens from voting though whatever means possible. Eventually these efforts were thwarted and currently there are a significantly lower amount of discriminatory policies when it comes to voter registration.

Prior to 1812 only male white landowners were able to vote. Over the next 48 years the amount of land needed was systematically lowered until all white men were able to vote. This specific paradigm stood until the abolitionists won the war and blacks were offered freedom with the 13th amendment in 1865 and received the same constitutional rights as whites with the 14thamendment in 1868. It took two additional years before blacks were granted the right to vote by means of the 15th amendment in 1870. These revolutions did not fully limit the states from denying the right to vote to any citizen due to the fact that the constitutional provision allowing states the right to set qualifications for voting remained in tact (Flanigan, & Zingale 2006 pp. 36). While the states were unable to prevent a citizen from voting because he was an African American, the state was able to prevent these citizens from voting by other means such as violence, intimidation and Jim Crow laws. It was not until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed that such discriminatory acts were outlawed.

Although the initial strategy of an American Equal Rights Association, founded in 1866, was to bind together African-American and women’s suffrage; women were denied the right to vote for fifty years after the enfranchisement of African-Americans. This was largely due to the fact that there was little Radical Republican support for the women’s cause and the Republicans made clear their thought that piggybacking these issues would endanger African-American suffrage (Buhle & Buhle 2005 pp 16-17). It was not until 1914 when a bill for women’s suffrage came to the floor of the senate, this bill failed by a vote of 34 to 35; one year later the measure was defeated in the House of Representatives by a vote of 204 to 104 (Paxton & Hughes 2007 pp. 44).

In 1941 Jennings Randolph a representative from West Virginia first introduced a constitutional amendment that would lower the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen. He like many others thought that if the country asked eighteen year olds to go to war they should be able to voice their opinions via the vote (Baumgartner & Francia. 2007 pp. 4). Much of the Nation, including the New York Times which was adamantly against the young vote, thought that young adults did not have enough maturity to judge what would best suit our country. Due to this it took an additional twenty-nine years before this thought would be taken seriously enough by politicians to be put into law.

The extension of suffrage to any previously disenfranchised group resulted mainly from political forces rather than pure morality. Though there were, for many years, citizens and politicians fighting for the equal right to vote among U.S. citizens this right would not be granted until the political elites encountered a crisis that could only be solved by providing the right to vote to a certain group of individuals. A key factor in the extension of suffrage is the political leaders’ expectations that the newly franchised will support their political preferences (Flanigan & Zingale 2006 pp. 37).

Republican’s expected that after the Civil War African-American voters would help secure votes in the southern states because they were the party of abolition. Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the intense prejudice towards African-Americans paired with the states abilities to keep them disenfranchised by employing certain tactics caused this strategy to fail. There was a dramatic drop in voter turnout across the South as these measures took effect (Flanigan & Zingale 2006 pp. 37). At this time the South was solidly white Democratic until the mid-20th century. It was not until the 1928 election when Republican Herbert Hoover rode the issues of prohibition and Anti-Catholicism to carry five Southern states. After his victory, Hoover attempted to build up the Republican Party of the South, by moving their core away from African-Americans and toward the white Protestant businessmen who made up the core of the Northern Republican Party. The gains of the Republican Party in the south were lost by the onset of the Great Depression. Though democrat Lyndon Johnson was concerned that his endorsement of Civil Rights legislation would endanger his party in the South, he recognized the political benefits he would receive from bringing African-Americans into the Democratic Party. During his administration the Voting Rights Act was passed, thus reducing the states ability to keep African-American citizens from voting.

By the early twentieth century reformers were supporting women’s suffrage because of the notion that women would be able to clean up politics. Women were seen as “the cure for corruption in government, unwavering opponents of alcohol, and as champions of virtue in the electorate” (Flanigan & Zingale 2006 pp. 37). President Woodrow Wilson announced in 1918 that women’s suffrage was urgently needed as a war measure after the members of the National American Women’s Suffrage Movement committed themselves to President Wilson’s administration in the event of war (Paxton & Hughes 2007 pp. 45). It was that year that the 19th amendment was passed in the House with exactly the two thirds majority it needed. One of the major battles that this new paradigm faced was the still overwhelming racism in the south. The notion that Black women would be provided the right to vote would be enough to inspire opposition in the south among both the politicians and citizens including women (Paxton & Hughes 2007 pp. 46). It was not until August 18, 1920 that the 19th Amendment was ratified by the thirty-six states needed to make it a law.

In the early 1960’s the politically minded youth movement started to chip away at the notion that the requirements for a good voter and a good soldier were too different to afford suffrage to the youth. Eighteen to twenty year olds in America started to assert themselves politically by taking very active roles in the Civil Rights movement as well as anti-war movements to show their overwhelming disapproval for our actions in the Vietnam War. It was at this time Politicians started to back the idea of the youth vote. In 1968 Lyndon Johnston asked Congress to pass a constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to eighteen. In 1970 Congress revised the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to provide eighteen to twenty year olds the right to vote in federal, state and local elections. Later that year this provision was challenged in the Supreme Court and it was found that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to change the voting age for state and local elections. Because of this the now senator of West Virginia, Jennings Randolph, reintroduced his constitutional amendment in 1971(Baumgartner & Francia. 2007 pp. 5). This amendment passed in the House of Representatives and in the Senate within six months and was formally certified by President Nixon on July 1, 1971, less than seven months after being introduced. This was the fastest a constitutional amendment had ever been introduced, passed and ratified in our country’s history.

When comparing Kuhn’s thoughts on paradigm shifts within the hard sciences it is easy to see that it does also apply to the social sciences. Though every detail may not fit perfectly it is easy to see that the same basic principles do apply. The shift from thinking that only rich white landowners can vote to that which all citizens can vote came along because of anomalies, citizens which would no longer stand for oppression. Politicians would fight to keep the current paradigm on track until they could benefit from the changes. After the change in the paradigm there were still those that were set in their ways but eventually they would give in or die off, leaving a paradigm that would be secure until the next crisis.


Baumgartner, J, & P. Francia. (2007). Conventional Wisdom and American Elections: Exploding Myths, Exploring Misconceptions. In The Big Year for the Big Vote: Myth and Reality (pp. 3-14) Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Buhle, M. J, & P. Buhle. (2005). The Concise History of Woman Suffrage: Selections from History of Woman Suffrage, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Flanigan, W. H, & N. H. Zingale. (2006). Political Behavior of the American Electorate. (11th Edition). In Suffrage and Turnout (pp. 32-58) Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Kuhn, T. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University Of Chicago Press.

Paxton, P, & M. Hughes. (2007). Women, Politics, and Power: A Global Perspective (Sociology for a New Century Series). In Women Gain the Vote: The Events Leading to the Passage of the 19th Amendment (pp. 44-46) Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge Press.

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