Women tried to use the new amendment to affirm their right to vote. In 1871, Sara J. Spencer and Sarah E. Webster each brought cases before the District of Columbia court arguing that they were enfranchised by the Fourteenth Amendment. Their lawyers argued that while District law specified that “male residents” could vote, passage of the Fourteenth Amendment nullified that requirement.
the right to pursue any lawful trade or avocation, without other restraint than such as equally affects all persons, is one of the privileges of citizens of the United States which can not be abridged by state legislation.
Stephen Johnson Field, Joseph P. Bradley, and Noah Haynes Swayne, The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution Considered…, 1873. African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907
Riddle further argued on the women’s behalf that “the right to vote is a natural right,” central to the notion of citizenship. Today, the right to vote is considered a fundamental civil right of all United States citizens. But, in nineteenth-century America, political rights, including enfranchisement, were viewed as distinct from civil rights. On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” facilities were considered sufficient to satisfy the Fourteenth Amendment. This decision established a pattern in American society, until May 17, 1954, when the Court reversed the Plessy decision. In the case of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka (argued for Brown by Thurgood Marshall), the Court held that segregation of public schools is a denial of equal protection under the law.
…in the presence of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which confers the elective franchise upon “all persons,” this word “male” is as if unwritten, and, [therefore], the statute, constitutionally, reads, “That all citizens shall be entitled to vote.”
- The Web guide Primary Documents in American History: 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution compiles links to digital materials related to the 14th Amendment such as government documents, pamphlets, and newspaper articles that are available throughout the Library of Congress Web site. In addition, it provides links to external Web sites focusing on the 14th Amendment and a selected bibliography.
- Explore the online collection Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921 and the online exhibit The African American Odyssey to learn more about efforts to gain the right to vote.
- Read manuscripts including William O. Douglas to Earl Warren, 11 May 1954; Harold H. Burton to Warren, 17 May 1954; and Felix Frankfurter to Warren, 17 May 1954 all concerning Chief Justice Warren’s decision in the Brown v. the Board of Education decision, as well as Felix Frankfurter’s draft decree to enforce the Brown decision. See also a 1941 memo from Thurgood Marshall to NAACP staff on Saving the Race. These manuscripts are part of the online collection Words and Deeds in American History.
- A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 contains a wide variety of congressional information from that time period. Search this collection in the 39th Congress (1865–67) to locate debate concerning passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.