A lone woman stands above a sea of hats and faces in downtown St. Louis. Smartly dressed in a jacket and feathered hat, with her hands on her hips, she leans slightly forward, her posture and expression intense as she addresses a predominately male crowd gathered around her. More men are watching from the curb across the street. A horse-drawn carriage in the background is a clue to the time period in which this photograph was taken. This woman, Kate Richards O’Hare, is speaking to a crowd on May 2, 1916, to get support for women’s suffrage. She was a voice for change in a movement that was decades in the making.
The organized fight for women’s suffrage began in St. Louis in March 1867 when a group of women presented a petition to the Missouri state legislature that stated their belief that anyone who was subject to the law and paid taxes should have a right to participate in the elections of those who governed them. The plea was rejected, but its defeat prompted the creation of Missouri’s first suffrage organization, the Woman Suffrage Association of Missouri (WSA).
One of the most important events in the early suffrage movement began in St. Louis on October 15, 1872, when Virginia Minor decided to test the idea of women’s right to vote by attempting to register. Her registration was denied, so she took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that citizenship did not necessarily guarantee the right to vote, a devastating blow to the suffrage movement. The movement in St. Louis was reinvigorated in March 1910 when the Equal Suffrage League of St. Louis (ESL) was formed. In 1914, ESL submitted a petition with enough signatures to have an amendment for suffrage in Missouri put directly before the people for a vote. The amendment was defeated by a three-to-one margin, but the ESL continued to fight for women’s rights by providing voter education courses and going door to door in St. Louis neighborhoods to garner support. In 1919, the Missouri legislature passed a joint resolution granting women presidential suffrage, appropriately during the jubilee (fiftieth) convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
The actions of Missouri suffragists echoed those of citizens all over the United States who were fighting for women’s right to vote. Suffragists around the country brought cases to court, held conventions and marches, and distributed leaflets. Kate O’Hare was best known as a proponent of socialism, but she was also an ardent supporter of suffrage. Like many working-class and African American suffragists, she saw suffrage not as an end in itself, but as a tool to improve society. To protest U.S. involvement in World War I, O’Hare spoke of the injustice faced by women who were indirect victims of war, although they had no voice in government.
Suffragists had proposed a constitutional amendment in 1878 which stated, "The right of citizens to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." This same amendment was introduced in every session of Congress for forty-one years. After several defeats in both the House and the Senate, the bill passed in 1919 under the urging of President Wilson. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, granting nationwide suffrage to women.