With this simple question, Carrie S. Burnham began her argument, made before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on April 3 and April 4, 1873, for her right to vote. “It is not simply,” Burhnam reasoned, “whether I shall be protected in the exercise of my inalienable right and duty of self-government, but whether a government, the mere agent of the people, …can deny to any portion of its intelligent, adult citizens participation therein and still hold them amenable to its laws…”
Carrie Burnham’s protest against the exclusion of women from the electorate began, in September 1871, when she took measures to comply with local election laws in the Fourteenth Ward of the City of Philadelphia. She attempted to vote on October 10, 1871.
Have women citizens the right of suffrage under the Constitution of the United States and of this particular State of Pennsylvania?
Carrie S. Burnham, Woman Suffrage: The Argument of Carrie S. Burnham…, Philadelphia, Citizen’s Suffrage Association, 1873. Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921
When polling officials rejected her ballot, Burnham petitioned the Court of Common Pleas for the right to vote on the grounds that she met the legal definition of a “freeman” and a citizen of the United States. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania disagreed. Woman Suffrage: The Argument of Carrie S. Burnham… includes the full text of Burnham’s argument as well as a history of the case (beginning on page 88), and the text of the opinion of the Honorable George Sharswood, (beginning on page 94). Sharswood’s opinion, delivered on December 30, 1871, was upheld by the Supreme Court on April 5, 1873.
- View Votes for Women: The Struggle for Women’s Suffrage, particularly the section on the years 1851-1899, to learn about the historical context of Burnham’s legal battle. This timeline is featured in two collections. By Popular Demand: “Votes for Women” Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920 contains images related to the women’s suffrage movement. Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921 contains materials from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, donated to the Library of Congress in 1938 by Carrie Chapman Catt.
- Additional American Memory collections documenting women’s struggle to gain the vote are Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman’ Party and Miller NAWSA Suffrage Scrapbooks, 1897-1911.
- Today in History features on woman’s suffrage include: the 1854 Ohio Woman’s Rights Convention, the 1869 decision by the Wyoming Territory to grant women the right to vote, the 1884 address by Susan B. Anthony to the House Judiciary Committee, the 1885 birth of Alice Paul, and the 1917 arrest of suffragists in front of the White House. Also search the Today in History collection under the term Seneca Falls.
- Women Pioneers in American Memory, a Feature Presentation of the Teachers Page, provides an overview of resources for the study of women’s history. American Women: A Gateway to Library of Congress Resources for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States is an essential tool for exploring women’s history resources available throughout the Library.
- In Carrie S. Burnham’s day, the U.S. Supreme Court looked quite different from today’s Supreme Court. To see the Supreme Court as it looked in 1873, when it shared space with the U.S. Congress in the Capitol, see To Throw the Labor of the Artist Upon the Shoulders of the President of the United States: The House and Senate Wings, part of the online exhibition Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation.