Georgetown Law
Georgetown Law Library

A Brief History of Civil Rights in the United States

This guide offers a history of various movements by citizens in the United States to gain political and social freedom and equality. It highlights resources available through the library and also offers a list of current civil rights organizations.

Women and the Vote

Prior to the passing of the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, many states within the U.S. did not allow women to vote. The national movement to gain a vote for women began in 1848 in New York, with abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. That it took 70 years for the suffragist movement to come to fruition via the 19th amendment was indicative of several issues; one, that it was very hard to get an amendment passed; two, that it was very difficult to grant rights to women as a group that had been traditionally subservient; three, that factors like the civil war and ensuring that blacks received the right to vote afterward were priorities that took precedent and slowed the process.

The suffragist movement was not without its own issues - some suffragettes were unwilling to entertain the notion of allowing black women the right to vote. There was resentment in the suffrage movement over the 15th Amendment and the fact that black men were given the right to vote before women. Suffragettes like Francis E. Willard, president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, went so far as to court Southern white women at the expense of blacks by portraying blacks as alcoholic fiends ready to assault women. Despite being friendly with many blacks, Willard was not afraid to slander them in order to gain favor with those who would help her get the vote for women. This drove a considerable wedge between her and suffragists like Ida B. Wells. Other suffragettes felt violence was the best way to get their point across, which led to some group members being arrested and serving jail time.

Notable Supreme Court Cases:

  • Lesser v. Garnett, 258 U.S. 130 (1922) - this case was brought to challenge the validity of the ratification of the 19th amendment. The court unanimously held that the ratification was valid.

Library Resources:

  • Jean H. Baker, Sisters: The Lives of America's Suffragists, JK1896 .B35 2005
  • Richard Chused & Wendy Williams, Gendered Law in American History, KF478 .C495 2016
  • Gender and Legal History in America Papers - the library has a collection of papers from a seminar taught by Richard Chused and Wendy Williams here at Georgetown Law.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Ida B. Wells