Woman Suffrage Movement

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Editors: David Bradley and Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Date: 1998
Encyclopedia of Civil Rights in America
Publisher: M.E. Sharpe, Inc.
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 8
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Woman suffrage movement

1848-1920: National movement to guarantee women the right to vote.

From 1848 until 1920 suffrage was the dominant issue in the WOMEN'S RIGHTS movement, as it was considered the key to effecting other reforms. Before the movement culminated in ratification of the NINETEENTH AMENDMENT to the U.S. CONSTITUTION in 1920, woman suffrage was not entirely unknown. In some early North American colonies women had exercised limited VOTING RIGHTS, and women had voted in New Jersey under its constitution of 1776. However, the idea of universal woman suffrage dates from the mid-nineteenth century.

Before the suffrage movement arose, American women had organized numerous reform societies, particularly within the temperance and ABOLITION movements. This was partly because women were often denied leadership roles in existing male-dominated organizations. The general attitude was that a woman's sphere was the private and domestic, a man's sphere the public. However, many male leaders supported women's reform activities. For example, Frederick DOUGLASS and William Lloyd Garrison encouraged abolitionist activities by women such as Angelina GRIMKÉ and Sarah GRIMKÉ. The Quakers even accorded religious leadership roles to women such as Lucretia MOTT.

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In 1840 a World Anti-Slavery Convention took place in London, England. American delegates included Mott and her husband, James Mott, as well as Garrison, Henry Stanton, and the latter's wife, Elizabeth Cady STANTON. A major controversy erupted over seating the American women delegates on the floor of the convention. Lucretia and other women delegates, as well as visitors like Elizabeth, were relegated to a spot behind a curtain and were not allowed to participate. Garrison objected to such discrimination and sat with the women. Mott and Stanton spent much of their time in London discussing women's position in society, agreeing that they must organize women to bring about change, just as the abolition movement had been organized to abolish SLAVERY. After their returned to the United States, they corresponded for several years, but with no opportunity for action. Stanton was busy raising children. Things changed in 1848, however. That year the organized women's movement, begat by the abolition movement, was born at the Seneca Falls Convention.

Located in upstate New York, Seneca Falls was the home of the Stanton family. There, in the summer of 1848, Mott and Stanton renewed their commitment of 1840. With three other friends they planned a convention on women's rights, announcing it through a local newspaper. Their agenda touched on all the disabilities of women that they had previously discussed, such as the property rights and legal status of married women, EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION, and the status of women in the churches. Over Mott's rather scandalized opposition, Elizabeth insisted on adding woman suffrage to the list of issues. Frederick Douglass, a prominent black abolitionist leader from nearby Rochester, had arrived on the scene and promised to speak in favor of the suffrage proposal. Thus began a tradition of mutual support between abolitionists and suffragists.

When the convention took place in late July, its attendance astounded everyone. More than three hundred people from fifty miles around attended; they were mainly women but included forty men. James Mott, a revered abolitionist leader, was asked to preside over the convention the first day because none of the women felt competent to do so. On the second day, however, Stanton came into her own as speaker and leader. She began by describing the need for new roles for women and by presenting the Seneca Falls DECLARATION OF SENTIMENTS prepared by the planning committee. Adapting the form and style of the DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE, this document affirmed that all men and women are created equal, but that men have usurped the citizenship and other rights of women. The subsequent resolutions, agreed upon by the committee, were nearly all adopted unanimously. However, the resolution that called for giving women the vote passed by only the smallest of margins. Politics was then considered a man's world of rough talk and dirty deals, through which women, as guardians of the good, should not sully themselves by voting. Woman suffrage as a cause in its own right would be many years in gaining acceptance.

After Seneca Falls women's rights soon developed into a recognized movement. From 1848 to 1860 a host of national, state, and local women's rights meetings took place, coordinated by a central committee of women leaders. The movement never took root in the South—probably because it was closely associated with the abolitionist movement. The newspapers reporting on the women's rights meetings often ridiculed them; cartoonists in particular made fun of them. Meanwhile many new leaders joined the movement; among them were Lucy STONE, Ernestine Rose, Amelia Bloomer, and Antoinette Brown. A number of early speakers and organizers were free black women, such as Harriet Purvis, Sarah Remond, and evangelist Sojourner TRUTH—who understood that emancipation would not be complete without the vote.

The most important new leader was Susan B. ANTHONY, whose name would eventually be attached to the Nineteenth Amendment. As a teacher and a temperance worker in Rochester, she had encountered discrimination in both fields. While visiting friends in Seneca Falls in 1851, she met Stanton and the two women began a lifelong friendship and partnership in the cause of women's rights. Anthony was the research person, the collector of information, the organizer; Stanton the creative orator and speech writer. However, Anthony also became a powerful speaker in her own right. Both women were indefatigable campaigners who would dominate the nineteenth century movement. The press gradually abandoned its hostile ridicule in favor of factual coverage. But public opinion changed only gradually.

Post-Civil War Militancy After the CIVIL WAR began in 1861, the Union war effort crowded out women's rights. Meanwhile, Stanton and AnthonyPage 914  |  Top of Article tried to keep abolition and women's rights before the public as twin issues, to be resolved together. In 1863 they formed the National Woman's Loyal League to campaign for abolition of slavery throughout the whole country—including the South. Their league was instrumental in getting the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT passed. However, the close cooperation of women and abolitionists shattered when the FOURTEENTH and FIFTEENTH AMENDMENTS guaranteed CITIZENSHIP rights, including the vote, to males of all races, but not to women. The league protested strenuously, but Douglass told them this was "the Negro's hour." If women demanded suffrage at the same time as recently emancipated slaves, probably no one would receive the vote. Sojourner Truth disagreed, maintaining that black women should have the vote along with black men, but to no avail. The American Equal Rights Association was formed in 1866 to promote universal suffrage for all men and women; but it soon divided into woman suffrage and black suffrage wings. By 1870 the FIFTEENTH AMENDMENT was ratified, without woman suffrage. The women felt betrayed, after their long support of abolition. The achievement of abolition left votes for women the sole issue.

Two new organizations were formed in 1869, the NATIONAL WOMAN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The NWSA, led by Stanton and Anthony, went so far as to campaign against ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment because it omitted women. Thereafter its program was eclectic, promoting not only a federal amendment for woman suffrage, but divorce right reform and church reform for women, antagonizing traditionalists who feared assaults on the sanctity of the home. The NWSA accepted the support of free love advocate Victoria Woodhull, of antiimmigrant "nativists," and of racist Democrat George Train. In the outraged eyes of Stanton and Anthony, educated white women deserved the right to vote more than "ignorant" former slaves and CHINESE AMERICANS. This would continue to be a theme of the NWSA, which accepted support from anyone who would support woman suffrage.

The AWSA, led by Lucy Stone, had the larger membership, including mainstream suffragists who eschewed other more radical women's causes and concentrated solely on the vote. It warmly welcomed African American women. It campaigned for suffrage from state to state, seeing a federal constitutional amendment as impracticle. The goal of enfranchising women in a particular state, however, seemed to be achievable within the foreseeable future.

In the later nineteenth century, various approaches to achieving woman suffrage were tried in different parts of the country. Manifold organizations were created to promote the cause, sometimes in conflict with one another.

The "New Departure" In 1869 Francis Minor and Virginia Minor, a suffragist couple from Missouri announced the so-called "New Departure" interpretation of the Constitution. The Minors maintained that women, as citizens, already had a constitutional right to vote and should exercise it. Their approach found wide support; numerous women attempted to vote, and some succeeded. Anthony, for example, registered and voted in Rochester, New York, in 1872; however, afterward she was arrested, tried, and fined. When she announced she would never pay the fine, the court took no further action in order to avoid publicity. Virginia Minor herself tried to vote in Missouri in 1872; when she was refused she took the Missouri registrar to court in MINOR V. HAPPERSETT. After she lost her case, she appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Missouri, invalidating the Minors' New Departure.

By this time two attempts in Congress had been made to introduce a woman suffrage amendment, in 1868 and 1869; however, nothing resulted from them. The year 1878 was a landmark: the so-called "Anthony Amendment," stating that the right to vote must not be abridged because of sex, was introduced into Congress by Senator A. A. Sargent, a good friend of Anthony. Afterward it was periodically reintroduced and reported out of committee; hearings were held and covered by the press, and an increasing number of Congressmen favored it. In 1886 it reached the Senate floor but was voted down. Eventually, however, it would become the Nineteenth Amendment.

Meanwhile Kansas held a referendum on woman suffrage in 1867. It lost, but the referendum method was tried again many times in numerous states, though with only a few positive results. The Rocky Mountain territories gave the suffrage movement its first successes. In efforts to attract more settlers and investors, promises of elevated political roles for women looked progressive. The Wyoming territorial legislature enfranchised women in 1869. The following year Utah's territorial legislature followed suit—motivated in part by the desire of MORMONS to counter the negative publicity their plural marriage

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States in Which Women Gained Suffrage Before Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment States in Which Women Gained Suffrage Before Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment

States in Which Women Gained Suffrage Before Ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment
*Right to vote only in presidential elections.
1890 Wyoming
1893 Colorado
1896 Idaho
1910 Washington
1911 California
1912 Kansas
1913 Arizona
1914 Montana
1917 Arkansas
New York
North Dakota*
Rhode Island
1918 Oklahoma
South Dakota
1919 Illinois*

gave their church in other parts of the country. Both territories later kept woman suffrage in their constitutions after they achieved statehood. Meanwhile, both Colorado and Idaho amended their state constitutions during the 1890's to include woman suffrage. In those mountain states racism was a factor: Many white male voters thought that giving women the vote would help counteract the presumably uncivilized voting power of Chinese and African American men.

Organized opposition to woman suffrage was strong. Southern Democrats feared that it would add more black voters to the rolls; liquor interests feared women voters because of the femaleled temperance movement. Women's reform groups seeking to improve wages and conditions of working women drew opposition from business. The traditional Protestant clergy saw giving women the vote as an attack on the Christian home and the subordinate role of women in the churches. In a growing array of women's antisuffrage societies, many women themselves claimed that they could best continue their existing reform activities by keeping aloof from politics.

By 1890 the goals and tactics of the NWSA and AWSA had largely converged: Both organizations engaged in state campaigns and both favored a federal suffrage amendment. Merger negotiations in that year resulted in the new National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which would continue as a major leader of the movement until suffrage was achieved. It gained some wealthy backers, although much of the financing came from small contributions by working women and the modestly situated. The early leadership was being superseded by newcomers such as Carrie Chapman CATT and Anna Howard Shaw.

In 1896 another new organization joined the suffrage movement: the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), with educator Mary Church TERRELL as its first president. With the motto "Lifting As We Climb," the NACW proclaimed woman suffrage as a majorgoal. Prominentamong the members were journalist Ida B. WELLS, famous for her antilynching campaign, and Margaret Murray Washington, principal of the Tuskegee Institute's secondary school. The NACW coordinated the activities of more than a thousand black women's clubs that promoted suffrage.

From Militancy to Ratification Despite the positive developments during the 1890's, the suffrage movement was almost at a standstill. New states were not being won to the cause, nor was there progress toward a federal amendment. It appeared that the cause might be lost despite all the efforts. New strategies were developed after 1900. Catt, the president of the NAWSA in 1900, put into action the "society plan." Suffrage leaders sought out society leaders, persuading them to hold suffrage meetings with prominent business and professional figures as speakers. Wealthy women of leisure became activists, held suffrage meetings in their parlors, and attracted favorable press coverage. Some old-time suffragists complained of the new elitism. Another group significant for the future was wooed by the NAWSA: students. Beginning in 1906, NAWSA conventions included "College Evenings," inviting students to become active suffragists, learn the history of the movement, and venerate its pioneers.

The NAWSA and the NACW ostensibly worked together for suffrage; however, the NAWSA discriminated against black women and the NACW both subtly and overtly. Black women rarely were welcome to participate in its events—with the exception of Adell a Hunt Logan of Tuskegee Institute, who was so light-skinned that only a few top NAWSA leaders knew she was classified as a "Negro." The larger question involved the NAWSA's strategy of attracting southern white women to the movement, which was considered a necessity forPage [916]  |  Top of Article Page 917  |  Top of Article passing a federal suffrage amendment. Southern white women were as eager as their men to maintain white supremacy. Votes for white women would help them achieve this goal, but votes for black women would not. Accordingly the NAWSA endorsed a states' rights approach at its 1903 convention in New Orleans, allowing state organizations to formulate their own approaches to woman suffrage. This policy ensured white supremacy in the southern branches of the NAWSA. As a result, black suffragists felt betrayed, much as white women had felt when the Fifteenth Amendment had extended suffrage only to men.

In the SOUTHERN STATES white suffrage organizations campaigned for state constitutional amendments that would extend the vote to white women only. They also campaigned for changing the proposed federal amendment to specify white women. However, in NORTHERN STATES black men voted—and their votes would be needed in support of woman suffrage. This fact gave the NACW and its affiliates a certain leverage in confronting the hypocrisy of the NAWSA. These issues continued through the final stages of the suffrage movement. Meanwhile, the state-by-state approach did, in fact, add several more suffrage states to the total, though not in the South: California in 1911, and Arizona, Kansas, and Oregon in 1912. They raised the national total to ten states with woman suffrage, a bare beginning.

In 1913, while the NAWSA was pursuing its discriminatory strategy, black leader Ida B. Wells and her white colleague Belle Squire established the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago. Wells had noted how little the masses of black women on the South Side, where she lived, understood about the vote and its importance in bringing about change. The club set out to raise political consciousness. It was an opportune time; that same year the Illinois legislature gave presidential suffrage to women.

The year 1907 marked the beginning of what has been termed the "new militancy" under the leadership of Harriot Stanton Blatch and Alice PAUL. Blatch, the Vassar-educated daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had married an Englishman and only returned to the United States during her mother's last illness in 1902. In England she had become associated with the militant suffrage movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst and Christabel Pankhurst. These women, who called themselves "suffragettes," used civil disobedience, public demonstrations, and even violence to convince the government that women must have the vote. (In the United States "suffragettes" later became a derogatory term for suffragists.)

Meanwhile, Anna Howard Shaw became NAWSA's president in 1904. Noted primarily as a suffrage orator, she was not an organizer for a new age. The NAWSA was about to be eclipsed by the militants. Distressed at the lack of action by American suffragists and seeing a need to draw more working-class women into the movement, Blatch organized the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women. This new organization enrolled both professional women and activists from the Women's Trade Union League, whose members understood militancy. The Blatch group began their actual militant suffrage activities in 1907 with a series of open-air meetings and parades in New York City.

These projects were mild compared to those of Alice Paul, a Quaker woman who had spent three years in England as a social caseworker and who, like Blatch, had joined the British militants. She had joined hunger strikes, had been jailed, and had been subjected to brutal forced feeding at the hands of male jailers. Upon her return to the United States in 1910, she joined the NAWSA and headed its Congressional Committee, formed to work in Washington for the federal suffrage amendment.

Borrowing from British suffragist tactics, the NAWSA and its Congressional Committee sponsored a parade of five thousand suffragists in Washington, D.C., on the day before President Woodrow WILSON's March, 1913, inauguration. With thousands of visitors in town, maximum publicity could be expected. Hostile onlookers shoved and jeered the marchers, who pushed on doggedly along Pennsylvania Avenue. Police protection was inadequate. Ida B. Wells took advantage of the disorder to slip into line beside white friends, instead of marching at the rear where the NAWSA had relegated black contingents. The parade reaped immense publicity for suffrage, and public opinion ultimately sympathized with the marchers. Suffrage petitions poured in to the Congressional Committee from all over the country.

The Congressional Committee and its militant members soon separated from the NAWSA to become the CONGRESSIONAL UNION, and, three years later, the NATIONAL WOMAN'S PARTY, still headed by Alice Paul. By then women had the vote in twelve states, so a party could actually function. January,Page 918  |  Top of Article 1917, saw a new campaign: picketing the White House. This accorded with Paul's conviction, borrowed from the British militants, that the party in power should be held responsible for the nation's policies in regard to woman suffrage. The picketers were nonviolent and even attractive, with banners proclaiming woman suffrage as essential to democracy. Such activity by the National Woman's Party helped keep the Anthony Amendment before Congress.

Improbably, the NAWSA revived. Former president Carrie Chapman Catt was drafted again for the office in 1915 and held the post until 1920. She proved herself the great organizer and strategist. Her "Winning Plan" of 1916 combined centralized control and state actions. In order to ratify a federal amendment, the NAWSA needed at least thirty-six state boards—which Catt called thirty-six "state armies"—to campaign for the Anthony Amendment under the national organization. Only this could ensure that it would pass Congress and be ratified by thirty-six states. Some southern members were unhappy at the centralization, but the plan was adopted.

The major suffrage organizations had sharply contrasting leadership styles. The NAWSA's Catt loved order and organization, and shunned conflict and confrontation. Paul of the National Women's Party thrived on confrontation and its attendant publicity. Relations between the two leaders were often rancorous, but each was devoted to the cause, and historians agree that their combined efforts were responsible for the final success. With United States entry into World War I in 1917, many suffragists threw themselves into activities such as war bond drives and Red Cross work. Although personally Catt leaned toward pacifism, she took every opportunity to publicize the NAWSA's patriotism in the well-founded belief that the reward would be passage of the suffrage amendment by a grateful nation. Paul, on the other hand, refused to participate in the war effort. Regarding war as an immoral activity of the male sex, she believed that women should concentrate on achieving suffrage. Her picketing campaign continued with slogans such as "Democracy Should Begin at Home" and references to "Kaiser Wilson." Mob violence resulted, with the suffragists being labelled traitors by onlookers and servicemen. By June, 1917, picketers were being arrested, jailed, and subjected to rough treatment, until Wilson thought it wise to release them in November. Widespread publicity once more created sympathy for the picketers and for suffrage.

In 1917 New York State instituted suffrage for women, becoming the only full suffrage state east of the Mississippi River. By then a number of states had enacted "partial suffrage," for some elections but not for all. President Wilson had for some time favored woman suffrage, but as a Democrat responsive to the South he chose to endorse individual state action on the issue. On January 9, 1918, however, he announced to Congress his support of the Anthony Amendment. The next day the amendment came to the floor of Congress. Three years earlier—the only previous time that the federal amendment had actually come to a vote in Congress—it had been defeated by a wide margin. In 1918 the amendment passed the House with exactly the two-thirds majority required. Much of the remaining opposition was from the South. Nationwide, the NAWSA "Winning Plan" and the militancy of the Woman's Party had succeeded—in the first round. However, the Senate voted the amendment down, despite Wilson's direct appeal for passage.

The NAWSA and the Woman's Party swung into high gear once again, despite fatigue, war work, and the influenza epidemic, to elect prosuffrage senators in the November, 1918, general election. The next year the process began all over again. In May the House once again approved the amendment; this time the Senate followed suit in June. By August, 1920, thirty-five states had ratified the amendment. However, getting the necessary thirty-sixth state's ratification proved difficult. Tennessee had the best chance, and suffrage leaders brought in their troops there. Success came in August, when Tennessee's Senator Harry Burn changed his vote to "aye" on the instructions of his elderly mother. The state's official ratification, on August 26, 1920, made the Nineteenth Amendment official, touching off huge victory celebrations in Washington, D.C., New York City, and elsewhere. A few months later women voted nationwide for the first time.


Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony: A Biography of a Singular Feminist. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975.

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Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

Griffin, Elizabeth. In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Lunardini, Christine A. From Equal Suffrage to Equal Rights: Alice Paul and the National Woman's Party, 1910-1928. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Van Voris, Jacqueline. Carrie Chapman Catt: A Public Life. New York: Feminist Press, 1987.

Wheeler, Marjorie S., ed. One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement. Troutdale, Ore.: New Sage Press, 1995.

——, ed. Votes for Women! The Woman Suffrage Movement in Tennessee, the South, and the Nation. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995.

—Elizabeth C. Adams

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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3459600684