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Women's suffrage in the United States, the legal right of women to vote in that country, was established over the course of several decades, first in various states and localities, sometimes on a limited basis, and then nationally in 1920.
The demand for women's suffrage began to gather strength in the 1840s, emerging from the broader movement for women's rights. In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention, passed a resolution in favor of women's suffrage despite opposition from some of its organizers, who believed the idea was too extreme. By the time of the first National Women's Rights Convention in 1850, however, suffrage was becoming an increasingly important aspect of the movement's activities.
The first national suffrage organizations were established in 1869 when two competing organizations were formed, one led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other by Lucy Stone. After years of bitter rivalry, they merged in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) with Anthony as its leading force.
Hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would rule that women had a constitutional right to vote, suffragists made several attempts to vote in the early 1870s and then filed lawsuits when they were turned away. Anthony actually succeeded in voting in 1872 but was arrested for that act and found guilty in a widely publicized trial that gave the movement fresh momentum. After the Supreme Court ruled against them in 1875, suffragists began the decades-long campaign for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would enfranchise women. Much of the movement's energy, however, went toward working for suffrage on a state-by-state basis.
In 1916 Alice Paul formed the National Woman's Party (NWP), a militant group focused on the passage of a national suffrage amendment. Over 200 NWP supporters were arrested in 1917 while picketing the White House, some of whom went on hunger strike and endured forced feeding after being sent to prison. Under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt, the two-million-member NAWSA also made a national suffrage amendment its top priority. After a hard-fought series of votes in the U.S. Congress and in state legislatures, the Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 20, 1920. It states, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
The New Jersey constitution of 1776 enfranchised all adult inhabitants who owned a specified amount of property. Laws enacted in 1790 and 1797 referred to voters as "he or she", and women regularly voted. A law passed in 1807, however, excluded women from voting in that state.
The demand for women's suffrage emerged as part of the broader movement for women's rights. In England in 1792 Mary Wollenstonecraft wrote a pioneering book called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Boston in 1838 Sarah Grimké published The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women, which was widely circulated. In 1845 Margaret Fuller published Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a key document in American feminism that first appeared in serial form in 1839 in The Dial, a transcendentalist journal that Fuller edited.
Significant barriers had to be overcome, however, before a campaign for women's suffrage could develop significant strength. One barrier was strong opposition to women's involvement in public affairs, a practice that was not fully accepted even among reform activists. Only after fierce debate were women accepted as members of the American Anti-Slavery Society at its convention of 1839, and the organization split at its next convention when women were appointed to committees.
Opposition was especially strong against the idea of women speaking to audiences of both men and women. Frances Wright, a Scottish woman, was subjected to sharp criticism for delivering public lectures in the U.S. in 1826 and 1827. When the Grimké sisters, who had been born into a slave-holding family in South Carolina, spoke against slavery throughout the northeast in the mid-1830s, the ministers of the Congregational Church, a major force in that region, published a statement condemning their actions. Despite the disapproval, in 1838 Angelina Grimké spoke against slavery before the Massachusetts legislature, the first woman in the U.S. to speak before a legislative body.
Other women began to give public speeches, especially in opposition to slavery and in support of women's rights. Early female speakers included Ernestine Rose, a Jewish immigrant from Poland; Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister and abolitionist; and Abby Kelley Foster, a Quaker abolitionist. Toward the end of the 1840s Lucy Stone launched her career as a public speaker, soon becoming the most famous female lecturer. Supporting both the abolitionist and women's rights movements, Stone played a major role in reducing the prejudice against women speaking in public.
Opposition remained strong, however. A regional women's rights convention in Ohio in 1851 was disrupted by male opponents. The National Women's Rights Convention in 1852 was similarly disrupted, and mob action at the 1853 convention came close to violence. The World's Temperance Convention in New York City in 1853 bogged down for three days in a dispute about whether women would be allowed to speak there. Susan B. Anthony, a leader of the suffrage movement, later said, "No advanced step taken by women has been so bitterly contested as that of speaking in public. For nothing which they have attempted, not even to secure the suffrage, have they been so abused, condemned and antagonized."
Laws that sharply restricted the independent activity of married women also created barriers to the campaign for women's suffrage. According to Blackstone's Commentaries, an underpinning of many state legal systems at that time, "By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage". Husbands had legal control over their wives. In 1862 the Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court denied a divorce to a woman whose husband had horsewhipped her, saying, "The law gives the husband power to use such a degree of force necessary to make the wife behave and know her place." Married women in many states could not legally sign contracts, which made it difficult for them to arrange for convention halls, printed materials and other things needed by the suffrage movement. Restrictions like these were overcome in part by the passage of married women's property laws in several states, supported in some cases by wealthy fathers who didn't want their daughters' inheritance to fall under the complete control of their husbands.
Sentiment in favor of women's rights was strong within the radical wing of the abolitionist movement. William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of the American Anti-Slavery Society, said "I doubt whether a more important movement has been launched touching the destiny of the race, than this in regard to the equality of the sexes". The abolitionist movement, however, attracted only about one per cent of the population at that time, and radical abolitionists were only one part of that movement.
Several members of the radical wing of the abolitionist movement supported suffrage. In 1846, Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister and radical abolitionist, vigorously supported women's suffrage in a sermon that was later circulated as the first in a series of women's rights tracts. In 1846, the Liberty League, an offshoot of the abolitionist Liberty Party, petitioned Congress to enfranchise women. A convention of the Liberty Party in Rochester, New York in May 1848 approved a resolution calling for "universal suffrage in its broadest sense, including women as well as men." Gerrit Smith, its candidate for president, delivered a speech shortly afterwards at the National Liberty Convention in Buffalo, New York that elaborated on his party's call for women's suffrage. Lucretia Mott was suggested as the party's vice-presidential candidate—the first time that a woman had been proposed for federal executive office in the U.S.—and she received five votes from delegates at that convention.
Women's suffrage was not a major topic within the women's rights movement at that point. Many of its activists were aligned with the Garrisonian wing of the abolitionist movement, which believed that activists should avoid political activity and focus instead on convincing others of their views with "moral suasion". Many were Quakers whose traditions barred both men and women from participation in secular political activity. A series of women's rights conventions did much to alter these attitudes.
The first women's rights convention was the Seneca Falls Convention, a regional event held on July 19 and 20, 1848, in Seneca Falls in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Five women called the convention, four of whom were Quaker social activists, including the well-known Lucretia Mott. The fifth was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had discussed the need to organize for women's rights with Mott several years earlier. Stanton, who came from a family that was deeply involved in politics, became a major force in convincing the women's movement that political pressure was crucial to its goals, and that the right to vote was a key weapon. An estimated 300 women and men attended this two-day event, which was widely noted in the press. The only resolution that was not adopted unanimously by the convention was the one demanding women's right to vote, which was introduced by Stanton. When her husband, a well-known social reformer, learned that she intended to introduce this resolution, he refused to attend the convention and accused her of acting in a way that would turn the proceedings into a farce. Lucretia Mott, the main speaker, was also disturbed by the proposal. The resolution was adopted only after Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist leader and a former slave, gave it his strong support. The convention's Declaration of Sentiments, which was written primarily by Stanton, expressed an intent to build a women's rights movement, and it included a list of grievances, the first two of which protested the lack of women's suffrage.
This convention was followed two weeks later by a similar convention in Rochester, New York, which featured many of the same speakers and likewise voted to support women's suffrage. It was the first women's rights convention to be chaired by a woman, a step that was considered to be radical at the time. Another regional women's rights convention was held in Salem, Ohio in 1850, and it also endorsed women's suffrage.
The first in a series of National Women's Rights Conventions was held in Worcester, Massachusetts on October 23–24, 1850, at the initiative of Lucy Stone and Paulina Wright Davis. National conventions were held afterwards almost every year through 1860, when the Civil War (1861–1865) interrupted the practice. Suffrage was a preeminent goal of these conventions, no longer the controversial issue it had been at Seneca Falls only two years earlier. At the first national convention Stone gave a speech that included a call to petition state legislatures for the right of suffrage.
Reports of this convention reached Britain, prompting Harriet Taylor, soon to be married to philosopher John Stuart Mill, to write an essay called "The Enfranchisement of Women," which was published in the Westminster Review. Heralding the women's movement in the U.S., Taylor's essay helped to initiate a similar movement in Britain. Her essay was reprinted as a women's rights tract in the U.S. and was sold for decades.
Wendell Phillips, a prominent abolitionist and women's rights advocate, delivered a speech at the second national convention in 1851 called "Shall Women Have the Right to Vote?" Describing women's suffrage as the cornerstone of the women's movement, it was later circulated as a women's rights tract.
Several of the women who played leading roles in the national conventions, especially Stone, Anthony and Stanton, were also leaders in establishing women's suffrage organizations after the Civil War. They also included the demand for suffrage as part of their activities during the 1850s. In 1852 Stanton advocated women's suffrage in a speech at the New York State Temperance Convention. In 1853 Stone became the first woman to appeal for women's suffrage before a body of lawmakers when she addressed the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. In 1854 Anthony organized a petition campaign in New York State that included the demand for suffrage. It culminated in a women's rights convention in the state capitol and a speech by Stanton before the state legislature. In 1857 Stone refused to pay taxes on the grounds that women were taxed without being able to vote on tax laws. The constable sold her household goods at auction until enough money had been raised to pay her tax bill.
The women's rights movement was loosely structured during this period, with few state organizations and no national organization other than a coordinating committee that arranged the annual national conventions. Much of the organizational work for these conventions was performed by Stone, the most visible leader of the movement during this period. At the national convention in 1852, a proposal was made to form a national women's rights organization, but the idea was dropped after fears were voiced that such a move would create cumbersome machinery and lead to internal divisions.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton met in 1851 and soon became close friends and co-workers. Their decades-long collaboration was pivotal for the suffrage movement and contributed significantly to the broader struggle for women's rights, which Stanton called "the greatest revolution the world has ever known or ever will know." They had complementary skills: Anthony excelled at organizing while Stanton had an aptitude for intellectual matters and writing. Stanton, who was homebound with several children during this period, wrote speeches that Anthony delivered to meetings that she herself organized. Together they developed a sophisticated movement in New York State, but their work at this time dealt with women's issues in general, not specifically suffrage. Anthony, who eventually became the person most closely associated in the public mind with women's suffrage, later said "I wasn't ready to vote, didn't want to vote, but I did want equal pay for equal work." In the period just before the Civil War, Anthony gave priority to anti-slavery work over her work for the women's movement.
Over Anthony's objections, leaders of the movement agreed to suspend women's rights activities during the Civil War in order to focus on the abolition of slavery. In 1863 Anthony and Stanton organized the Women's Loyal National League, the first national women's political organization in the U.S. It collected nearly 400,000 signatures on petitions to abolish slavery in the largest petition drive in the nation's history up to that time.
Although it was not a suffrage organization, the League made it clear that it stood for political equality for women, and it indirectly advanced that cause in several ways. Stanton reminded the public that petitioning was the only political tool available to women at a time when only men were allowed to vote. The League's impressive petition drive demonstrated the value of formal organization to the women's movement, which had traditionally resisted organizational structures, and it marked a continuation of the shift of women's activism from moral suasion to political action. Its 5000 members constituted a widespread network of women activists who gained experience that helped create a pool of talent for future forms of social activism, including suffrage.
The Eleventh National Women's Rights Convention, the first since the Civil War, was held in 1866, helping the women's rights movement regain the momentum it had lost during the war. The convention voted to transform itself into the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), whose purpose was to campaign for the equal rights of all citizens, especially the right of suffrage.
In addition to Anthony and Stanton, who organized the convention, the leadership of the new organization included such prominent abolitionist and women's rights activists as Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone and Frederick Douglass. Its drive for universal suffrage, however, was resisted by some abolitionist leaders and their allies in the Republican Party, who wanted women to postpone their campaign for suffrage until it had first been achieved for male African Americans. Horace Greeley, a prominent newspaper editor, told Anthony and Stanton, "This is a critical period for the Republican Party and the life of our Nation... I conjure you to remember that this is 'the negro's hour,' and your first duty now is to go through the State and plead his claims." They and others, including Lucy Stone, refused to postpone their demands, however, and continued to push for universal suffrage.
In April 1867 Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell opened the AERA campaign in Kansas in support of referenda in that state that would enfranchise both African Americans and women. Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist leader who opposed mixing those two causes, surprised and angered AERA workers by blocking the funding that the AERA had expected for their campaign. After an internal struggle, Kansas Republicans decided to support suffrage for black men only and formed an "Anti-Female Suffrage Committee" to oppose the AERA's efforts. By the end of summer the AERA campaign had almost collapsed, and its finances were exhausted. Anthony and Stanton were harshly criticized by Stone and other AERA members for accepting help during the last days of the campaign from George Francis Train, a wealthy businessman who supported women's rights. Train antagonized many activists by attacking the Republican Party, which had won the loyalty of many reform activists, and openly disparaging the integrity and intelligence of African Americans.
After the Kansas campaign, the AERA increasingly divided into two wings, both advocating universal suffrage but with different approaches. One wing, whose leading figure was Lucy Stone, was willing for black men to achieve suffrage first, if necessary, and wanted to maintain close ties with the Republican Party and the abolitionist movement. The other, whose leading figures were Anthony and Stanton, insisted that women and black men be enfranchised at the same time and worked toward a politically independent women's movement that would no longer be dependent on abolitionists for financial and other resources. The acrimonious annual meeting of the AERA in May 1869 signaled the effective demise of the organization, in the aftermath of which two competing woman suffrage organizations were created.
Partly as a result of the developing split in the women's movement, in 1868 the New England Woman Suffrage Association (NEWSA), the first major political organization in the U.S. with women's suffrage as its goal, was formed. The planners for the NEWSA's founding convention worked to attract Republican support and seated leading Republican politicians, including a U.S. senator, on the speaker's platform. Amid increasing confidence that the Fifteenth Amendment, which would in effect enfranchise black men, was assured of passage, Lucy Stone, a future president of the NEWSA, showed her preference for enfranchising both women and African Americans by unexpectedly introducing a resolution calling for the Republican Party to "drop its watchword of 'Manhood Suffrage'" and to support universal suffrage instead. Despite opposition by Frederick Douglass and others, Stone convinced the meeting to approve the resolution. Two months later, however, when the Fifteenth Amendment was in danger of becoming stalled in Congress, Stone backed away from that position and declared that "Woman must wait for the Negro."
In May 1869, two days after the final AERA annual meeting, Anthony, Stanton and others formed the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). In November 1869, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Blackwell and others, many of whom had helped to create the New England Woman Suffrage Association a year earlier, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The hostile rivalry between these two organizations created a partisan atmosphere that endured for decades, affecting even professional historians of the women's movement.
The immediate cause for the split was the proposed Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a reconstruction amendment that would prohibit the denial of suffrage because of race. Stanton and Anthony opposed its passage unless it was accompanied by another amendment that would prohibit the denial of suffrage because of sex. They said that by effectively enfranchising all men while excluding all women, the amendment would create an "aristocracy of sex" by giving constitutional authority to the idea that men were superior to women. Male power and privilege was at the root of society's ills, Stanton argued, and nothing should be done to strengthen it. Anthony and Stanton also warned that black men, who would gain voting power under the amendment, were overwhelmingly opposed to women's suffrage. They were not alone in being unsure of black male support for women's suffrage. Frederick Douglass, a strong supporter of women's suffrage, said, "The race to which I belong have not generally taken the right ground on this question." Douglass, however, strongly supported the amendment, saying it was a matter of life and death for former slaves. Lucy Stone, who became the AWSA's most prominent leader, supported the amendment but said she believed that suffrage for women would be more beneficial to the country than suffrage for black men. The AWSA and most AERA members also supported the amendment.
Both wings of the movement were strongly associated with opposition to slavery, but their leaders sometimes expressed views that reflected the racial attitudes of that era. Stanton, for example, believed that a long process of education would be needed before what she called the "lower orders" of former slaves and immigrant workers would be able to participate meaningfully as voters. In an article in The Revolution, Stanton wrote, "American women of wealth, education, virtue and refinement, if you do not wish the lower orders of Chinese, Africans, Germans and Irish, with their low ideas of womanhood to make laws for you and your daughters ... demand that women too shall be represented in government." In another article she made a similar statement while personifying those four ethnic groups as "Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung". Lucy Stone called a suffrage meeting in New Jersey to consider the question, "Shall women alone be omitted in the reconstruction? Shall [they] ... be ranked politically below the most ignorant and degraded men?" Henry Blackwell, Stone's husband and an AWSA officer, published an open letter to Southern legislatures assuring them that if they allowed both blacks and women to vote, "the political supremacy of your white race will remain unchanged" and "the black race would gravitate by the law of nature toward the tropics."
The AWSA aimed for close ties with the Republican Party, hoping that the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment would lead to a Republican push for women's suffrage. The NWSA, while determined to be politically independent, was critical of the Republicans. Anthony and Stanton wrote a letter to the 1868 Democratic National Convention that criticized Republican sponsorship of the Fourteenth Amendment (which granted citizenship to black men but for the first time introduced the word "male" into the Constitution), saying, "While the dominant party has with one hand lifted up two million black men and crowned them with the honor and dignity of citizenship, with the other it has dethroned fifteen million white women—their own mothers and sisters, their own wives and daughters—and cast them under the heel of the lowest orders of manhood." They urged liberal Democrats to convince their party, which did not have a clear direction at that point, to embrace universal suffrage.
The two organizations had other differences as well. Although each campaigned for suffrage at both the state and national levels, the NWSA tended to work more at the national level and the AWSA more at the state level. The NWSA initially worked on a wider range of issues than the AWSA, including divorce reform and equal pay for women. The NWSA was led by women only while the AWSA included both men and women among its leadership.
Events soon removed much of the basis for the split in the movement. In 1870 debate about the Fifteenth Amendment was made irrelevant when that amendment was officially ratified. In 1872 disgust with corruption in government led to a mass defection of abolitionists and other social reformers from the Republicans to the short-lived Liberal Republican Party. The rivalry between the two women's groups was so bitter, however, that a merger proved to be impossible until 1890.
In 1869 Francis and Virginia Minor, husband and wife suffragists from Missouri, outlined a strategy that came to be known as the New Departure, which engaged the suffrage movement for several years. Arguing that the U.S. Constitution implicitly enfranchised women, this strategy relied heavily on Section 1 of the recently adopted Fourteenth Amendment, which reads, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."
In 1871 the NWSA officially adopted the New Departure strategy, encouraging women to attempt to vote and to file lawsuits if denied that right. Soon hundreds of women tried to vote in dozens of localities. In some cases, actions like these preceded the New Departure strategy: in 1868 in Vineland, New Jersey, a center for radical spiritualists, nearly 200 women placed their ballots into a separate box and attempted to have them counted, but without success. The AWSA did not officially adopt the New Departure strategy, but Lucy Stone, its leader, attempted to vote in her home town in New Jersey. In one court case resulting from a lawsuit brought by women who had been prevented from voting, the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., ruled that women did not have an implicit right to vote, declaring that, "The fact that the practical working of the assumed right would be destructive of civilization is decisive that the right does not exist."
In 1871 Victoria Woodhull, a stockbroker, was invited to speak before a committee of Congress, the first woman to do so. Although she had little previous connection to the women's movement, she presented a modified version of the New Departure strategy. Instead of asking the courts to declare that women had the right to vote, she asked Congress itself to declare that the Constitution implicitly enfranchised women. The committee rejected her suggestion. The NWSA at first reacted enthusiastically to Woodhull's sudden appearance on the scene. Stanton in particular welcomed Woodhull's proposal to assemble a broad-based reform party that would support women's suffrage. Anthony opposed that idea, wanting the NWSA to remain politically independent. The NWSA soon had reason to regret its association with Woodhull. In 1872 she published details of a purported adulterous affair between Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, president of the AWSA, and Elizabeth Tilton, wife of a leading NWSA member. Beecher's subsequent trial was reported in newspapers across the country, resulting in what one scholar has called "political theater" that badly damaged the reputation of the suffrage movement.
The Supreme Court in 1875 put an end to the New Departure strategy by ruling in Minor v. Happersett that "the Constitution of the United States does not confer the right of suffrage upon anyone". The NWSA decided to pursue the far more difficult strategy of campaigning for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee voting rights for women.
In a case that generated national controversy, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the presidential election of 1872. The judge directed the jury to deliver a guilty verdict. When he asked Anthony, who had not been permitted to speak during the trial, if she had anything to say, she responded with what one historian has called "the most famous speech in the history of the agitation for woman suffrage". She called "this high-handed outrage upon my citizen's rights", saying, "... you have trampled under foot every vital principle of our government. My natural rights, my civil rights, my political rights, my judicial rights, are all alike ignored." The judge sentenced Anthony to pay a fine of $100, she responded, "I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty", and she never did. However the judge did not order her to be imprisoned until she paid the fine, for Anthony could have appealed her case.
In 1876 Anthony, Stanton and Matilda Joslyn Gage began working on the History of Woman Suffrage. Originally envisioned as a modest publication that would be produced quickly, the history evolved into a six-volume work of more than 5700 pages written over a period of 41 years. Its last two volumes were published in 1920, long after the deaths of the project's originators, by Ida Husted Harper, who also assisted with the fourth volume. Written by leaders of one wing of the divided women's movement (Lucy Stone, their main rival, refused to have anything to do with the project), the History of Woman Suffrage preserves an enormous amount of material that might have been lost forever, but it does not give a balanced view of events where their rivals are concerned. Because it was for years the main source of documentation about the suffrage movement, historians have had to uncover other sources to provide a more balanced view.
In 1878 Senator Aaron A. Sargent, a friend of Susan B. Anthony, introduced into Congress a women's suffrage amendment. More than forty years later it would become the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution with no changes to its wording. Its text is identical to that of the Fifteenth Amendment except that it prohibits the denial of suffrage because of sex rather than "race, color, or previous condition of servitude".
Calling attention to the irony of being legally entitled to run for office while denied the right to vote, Elizabeth Cady Stanton declared herself a candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1866, the first woman to do so. In 1872 Victoria Woodhull formed her own political party and declared herself to be its candidate for President of the U.S. even though she was ineligible because she was not yet 35 years old.
In 1884 Belva Ann Lockwood, the first female lawyer to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, became the first women to conduct a viable campaign for president. She was nominated, without her advance knowledge, by a California group called the Equal Rights Party. Lockwood advocated women's suffrage and other reforms during a coast-to-coast campaign that received respectful coverage from at least some major periodicals. She financed her campaign partly by charging admission to her speeches. Neither the AWSA nor the NWSA, both of whom had already endorsed the Republican candidate for president, supported Lockwood's candidacy.
Women were enfranchised in frontier Wyoming Territory in 1869 and polygamous Utah in 1870. The short-lived Populist Party endorsed women's suffrage, contributing to the enfranchisement of women in Colorado in 1893 and Idaho in 1896. In some localities, women gained various forms of partial suffrage, such as voting for school boards.
In the late 1870s, the suffrage movement received a major boost when the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the largest women's organization in the country, decided to campaign for suffrage and created a Franchise Department to support that effort. Frances Willard, its pro-suffrage leader, urged WCTU members to pursue the right to vote as a means of protecting their families from alcohol and other vices. In 1886 the WCTU submitted to Congress petitions with 200,000 signatures in support of a national suffrage amendment. In 1885 the Grange, a large farmers' organization, officially endorsed women's suffrage. In 1890 the American Federation of Labor, a large labor alliance, endorsed women's suffrage and subsequently collected 270,000 names on petitions supporting that goal.
The AWSA, which was especially strong in New England, was initially the larger of the two rival suffrage organizations, but it declined in strength during the 1880s. Stanton and Anthony, the leading figures in the competing NWSA, were more widely known as leaders of the women's suffrage movement during this period and were more influential in setting its direction. They sometimes used daring tactics. Anthony, for example, interrupted the official ceremonies of the 100th anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence to present the NWSA's Declaration of Rights for Women. The AWSA declined any involvement in the action.
Over time, the NWSA moved into closer alignment with the AWSA, placing less emphasis on confrontational actions and more on respectability, and no longer promoting a wide range of reforms. The NWSA's hopes for a federal suffrage amendment were frustrated when the Senate voted against it in 1887, after which the NWSA put more energy into campaigning at the state level, as the AWSA was already doing. Work at the state level, however, also had its frustrations. Between 1870 and 1910, the suffrage movement conducted 480 campaigns in 33 states just to have the issue of women's suffrage brought before the voters, and those campaigns resulted in only 17 instances of the issue actually being placed on the ballot. These efforts led to women's suffrage in two states, Colorado and Idaho.
Alice Stone Blackwell, daughter of ASWA leaders Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, was a major influence in bringing the rival suffrage leaders together, proposing a joint meeting in 1887 to discuss a merger. Anthony and Stone favored the idea, but opposition from several NWSA veterans delayed the move. In 1890 the two organizations merged as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Stanton was president of the new organization, and Stone was chair of its executive committee, but Anthony, who had the title of vice president, was its leader in practice, becoming president herself in 1892 when Stanton retired.
Although Anthony was the leading force in the newly merged organization, it did not always follow her lead. In 1893 the NAWSA voted over Anthony's objection to alternate the site of its annual conventions between Washington and various other parts of the country. Anthony's pre-merger NWSA had always held its conventions in Washington to help maintain focus on a national suffrage amendment. Arguing against this decision, she said she feared, accurately as it turned out, that the NAWSA would engage in suffrage work at the state level at the expense of national work.
Stanton, elderly but still very much a radical, did not fit comfortably into the new organization, which was becoming more conservative. In 1895 she published the The Woman's Bible, a controversial best-seller that attacked the use of the Bible to relegate women to an inferior status. The NAWSA voted to disavow any connection with the book despite Anthony's objection that such a move was unnecessary and hurtful. Stanton afterwards grew increasingly alienated from the suffrage movement.
The suffrage movement declined in vigor during the years immediately after the 1890 merger. When Carrie Chapman Catt was appointed head of the NAWSA's Organization Committee in 1895, it wasn't clear how many local clubs the organization had or who their officers were. Catt began revitalizing the organization, establishing a plan of work with clear goals for every state every year. Anthony was impressed and arranged for Catt to succeed her when she retired from the presidency of the NAWSA in 1900. In her new post Catt continued her effort to transform the unwieldy organization into one that would be better prepared to lead a major suffrage campaign. Women's clubs spread very rapidly after 1890, taking up some of the slack left by the decline of the temperance movement. Local clubs at first were mostly reading groups focused on literature, but increasingly became civic improvement organizations of middle-class women meeting in each other's homes weekly. Their national organization was the General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC)., founded in 1890. The clubs avoided controversial issues that would divide the membership, especially religion and the prohibition issue. In the South and East, suffrage was also highly divisive, while there was little resistance to it among clubwomen in the West. In the Midwest, clubwomen had first avoided the suffrage issue out of caution, but after 1900 increasingly came to support it. Catt implemented the "society plan," a successful effort to recruit wealthy members of the women's club movement whose time, money and experience could help build the suffrage movement. By in 1914 women's suffrage was endorsed by the national General Federation of Women's Clubs.
Catt resigned her position after four years, partly because of her husband's declining health and partly to help organize the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, which was created in Berlin in 1904 with Catt as president. In 1904 Anna Howard Shaw, another Anthony protégé, was elected president of the NAWSA. Shaw was an energetic worker and a talented orator but not an effective administrator. Between 1910 and 1916 the NAWSA's national board experienced a constant turmoil that endangered the existence of the organization.
Although its membership and finances were at all-time highs, the NAWSA decided to replace Shaw by bringing Catt back once again as president in 1915. Authorized by the NAWSA to name her own executive board, which previously had been elected by the organization's annual convention, Catt quickly converted the loosely structured organization into one that was highly centralized.
Brewers and distillers, typically rooted in the German American community, opposed women's suffrage, fearing that women voters would favor the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. German Lutherans and German Catholics typically opposed prohibition and woman suffrage; they favored paternalistic families with the husband deciding the family position on public affairs. Their opposition to woman suffrage but this was used as argument in favor of suffrage when German American became pariahs during World War I.
Defeat could lead to allegations of fraud. After the defeat of the referendum for women's suffrage in Michigan in 1912, the governor accused the brewers of complicity in widespread electoral fraud that resulted in its defeat. Evidence of vote stealing was also strong during referenda in Nebraska and Iowa.
Some other businesses, such as southern cotton mills, opposed suffrage because they feared that women voters would support the drive to eliminate child labor. Political machines, such as Tammany Hall in New York City, opposed it because they feared that the addition of female voters would dilute the control they had established over groups of male voters. By the time of the New York State referendum on women's suffrage in 1917, however, some wives and daughters of Tammany Hall leaders were working for suffrage, leading it to take a neutral position that was crucial to the referendum's passage. Although the Catholic Church did not take an official position on suffrage, very few of its leaders supported it, and some of its leaders, such as Cardinal Gibbons, made their opposition clear.
The New York Times after first supporting suffrage reversed itself and issued stern warnings. A 1912 editorial predicted that with suffrage women would make impossible demands, such as, "serving as soldiers and sailors, police patrolmen or firemen...and would serve on juries and elect themselves to executive offices and judgeships." It blamed a lack of masculinity for the failure of men to fight back, warning women would get the vote "if the men are not firm and wise enough and, it may as well be said, masculine enough to prevent them.".
Anti-suffrage forces, initially called the "remonstrants," organized as early as 1870 when the Woman's Anti-Suffrage Association of Washington was formed. Widely known as the "antis", they eventually created organizations in some twenty states. In 1911 the National Association Opposed to Women's Suffrage was created. It claimed 350,000 members and opposed women's suffrage, feminism, and socialism. It argued that woman suffrage "would reduce the special protections and routes of influence available to women, destroy the family, and increase the number of socialist-leaning voters."
Middle and upper class anti women were conservatives with several motivations. Society women in particular had personal access to powerful politicians, and were reluctant to surrender that advantage. Most often the antis believed that politics was dirty and that women's involvement would surrender the moral high ground that women had claimed, and that partisanship would disrupt local club work for civic betterment, as represented by the General Federation of Women's Clubs. The best organized movement was the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage (NYSAOWS). Its credo was:
The NYSAOWS New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage used grass roots mobilization techniques they had learned from watching the suffragists to defeat the 1915 referendum. They were very similar to the suffragists themselves, but used a counter-crusading style warning of the evils that suffrage would bring to women. They rejected leadership by men and stressed the importance of independent women in philanthropy and social betterment. NYSAOWS was narrowly defeated in New York in 1916 and the state voted to give women the vote. The organization moved to Washington to oppose the federal constitutional amendment for suffrage, becoming the "National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage" (NAOWS), where it was taken over by men, and assumed a much harsher rhetorical tone, especially in attacking "red radicalism." After 1919 the antis adjusted smoothly to enfranchisement and became active in party affairs especially in the Republican Party.
The Constitution required 34 states (three-fourths of the 45 states in 1900) to ratify an amendment, and unless the rest of the country was unanimous there had to be support from the 11 ex-Confederate states. Three more western territories became states by 1912, helping the suffragist cause; they now needed 36 states out of 48. In the end Tennessee provided the critical 36th state. The South was the most conservative region and always gave the least support for suffrage. There was little or no suffrage activity in the region until the late nineteenth century. Aileen S. Kraditor identifies four distinctly Southern characteristics that were in play: 1) Southern white men held to traditional values regarding women's public roles; 2) the Solid South was tightly controlled by the Democratic Party, so playing the two parties against each other was not a feasible strategy; 3) strong support for states' rights meant there was automatic opposition to a federal constitutional amendment; 4) Jim Crow attitudes meant that expansion of the black vote (to black women) was strongly opposed.
Mildred Rutherford, president of the Georgia United Daughters of the Confederacy and a leaders of the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage made clear the opposition of elite white women to suffrage in a 1914 speech to the state legislature:
Elna Green points out that, "Suffrage rhetoric claimed that enfranchised women would outlaw child labor, pass minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws for women workers, and establish health and safety standards for factory workers." The threat of these reforms united planters, textile mill owners, railroad magnates, city machine bosses, and the liquor interest in a formidable combine against suffrage.
Henry Blackwell, an officer of the AWSA before the merger and a prominent figure in the movement afterwards, urged the suffrage movement to follow a strategy of convincing southern political leaders that they could ensure white supremacy in their region without violating the Fifteenth Amendment by enfranchising educated women, who would predominantly be white. Shortly after Blackwell presented his proposal to the Mississippi delegation to the U.S. Congress, his plan was given serious consideration by the Mississippi Constitutional Convention of 1890, whose main purpose was to find legal ways of further curtailing the political power of African Americans. Although the convention adopted other measures instead, the fact that Blackwell's ideas were taken seriously drew the interest of many suffragists.
Blackwell's ally in this effort was Laura Clay, who convinced the NAWSA to launch a state-by-state campaign in the South based on Blackwell's strategy. Clay was one of several southern NAWSA members who opposed the idea of a national women's suffrage amendment on the grounds that it would impinge on states' rights. (A generation later Clay campaigned against the pending national amendment during the final battle for its ratification.) Amid predictions by some proponents of this strategy that the South would lead the way in the enfranchisement of women, suffrage organizations were established throughout the region. Anthony, Catt and Blackwell campaigned for suffrage in the South in 1895, with the latter two calling for suffrage only for educated women. With Anthony's reluctant cooperation, the NAWSA maneuvered to accommodate the politics of white supremacy in that region. Anthony asked her old friend Frederick Douglass, a former slave, not to attend the NAWSA convention in Atlanta in 1895, the first to be held in a southern city. Black NAWSA members were excluded from 1903 convention in the southern city of New Orleans, which marked the peak of this strategy's influence.
The leaders of the Southern movement were privileged upper-class belles with a strong position in high society and in church affairs. They tried to use their upscale connections to convince powerful men that suffrage was a good idea to purify society. They also argued that giving white women the vote would more than counterbalance giving the vote to the smaller number of black women. No southern state enfranchised women as a result of this strategy, however, and most southern suffrage societies that were established during this period lapsed into inactivity. The NAWSA leadership afterwards said it would not adopt policies that "advocated the exclusion of any race or class from the right of suffrage." Nonetheless NAWSA reflected its white membership's viewpoint by minimizing the role of black suffragists. At the 1913 suffrage march on Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a leader in the African American community, was asked to march in an all-black contingent to avoid upsetting white southern marchers. When the march got underway, however, she slipped into the ranks of the contingent from Illinois, her home state, and completed the march in the company of white supporters.
The concept of the New Woman emerged in the late nineteenth century to characterize the increasingly independent activity of women, especially the younger generation. The move from households to public spaces was expressed in many ways. In the late 1890s, riding bicycles was a newly popular activity that increased women's mobility even as it signaled rejection of traditional teachings about women's weakness and fragility. Susan B. Anthony said bicycles had "done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world". Elizabeth Cady Stanton said that "Woman is riding to suffrage on the bicycle.
Activists campaigned for suffrage in ways that were still considered by many to be "unladylike," such as marching in parades and giving street corner speeches on soap boxes. In New York in 1912, suffragists organized a twelve-day, 170-mile "Hike to Albany" to deliver suffrage petitions to the new governor. In 1913 the suffragist "Army of the Hudson" marched 250 miles from New York to Washington in sixteen days, gaining national publicity.
When Maud Wood Park attended the NAWSA convention in 1900, she found herself to be virtually the only young person there. After returning to Boston, she formed the College Equal Suffrage League, which affiliated with the NAWSA. Largely through Park's efforts, similar groups were organized on campuses in 30 states, leading to the formation of the National College Equal Suffrage League in 1908.
The dramatic tactics of the militant wing of the British suffrage movement began to influence the movement in the U.S. Harriet Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, returned to the U.S. after several years in England, where she had associated with suffrage groups still in the early phases of militancy. In 1907 she founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women, later called the Women's Political Union, whose membership was based on working women, both professional and industrial. The Equality League initiated the practice of holding suffrage parades and organized the first open air suffrage rallies in thirty years. As many as 25,000 people marched in these parades
Work toward a national suffrage amendment had been sharply curtailed in favor of state suffrage campaigns after the two rival suffrage organizations merged in 1890 to form the NAWSA. Interest in a national suffrage amendment was revived primarily by Alice Paul. In 1910, she returned to the U.S. from England, where she had been part of the militant wing of the suffrage movement. Paul had been jailed there and had endured forced feedings after going on a hunger strike. In January 1913 she arrived in Washington as chair of the Congressional Committee of the NAWSA, charged with reviving the drive for a constitutional amendment that would enfranchise women. She and her coworker Lucy Burns organized a suffrage parade in Washington on the day before Woodrow Wilson's inauguration as president. Opponents of the march turned the event into a near riot, which ended only when a cavalry unit of the army was brought in to restore order. Public outrage over the incident, which cost the chief of police his job, brought publicity to the movement and gave it fresh momentum.
Paul argued that because the Democrats would not act to enfranchise women even though they controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress, the suffrage movement should work for the defeat of all Democratic candidates regardless of an individual candidate's position on suffrage. She and Burns formed a separate lobbying group called the Congressional Union to act on this approach. Strongly disagreeing, the NAWSA in 1913 withdrew support from Paul's group and continued its practice of supporting any candidate who supported suffrage, regardless of political party. In 1916 Blatch merged her Women's Political Union into Paul's Congressional Union.
In 1916 Paul formed the National Woman's Party (NWP). Once again the women's movement had split, but the result this time was something like a division of labor. The NAWSA burnished its image of respectability and engaged in highly organized lobbying at both the national and state levels. The smaller NWP also engaged in lobbying but became increasingly known for activities that were dramatic and confrontational, most often in the national capital.
Stanton and Anthony launched a sixteen-page weekly newspaper called The Revolution in 1868. It focused primarily on women's rights, especially suffrage, but it also covered politics, the labor movement and other topics. Its energetic and broad-ranging style gave it a lasting influence, but its debts mounted when it did not receive the funding they had expected, and they had to transfer the paper to other hands after only twenty-nine months. Their organization, the NWSA, afterwards depended on other periodicals, such as The National Citizen and Ballot Box, edited by Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Women's Tribune, edited by Clara Bewick Colby, to represent its viewpoint.
In 1870, shortly after the formation of the AWSA, Lucy Stone launched an eight-page weekly newspaper called the Woman's Journal to advocate for women's rights, especially suffrage. Better financed and less radical than The Revolution, it had a much longer life. By the 1880s it had become an unofficial voice of the suffrage movement as a whole. In 1916 the NAWSA purchased the Woman's Journal and spent a significant amount of money to enhance it. It was renamed Woman Citizen and declared to be the official organ of the NAWSA.
New Zealand enfranchised women in 1893, the first country to do so. In the U.S. women were enfranchised in the states of Washington in 1910; California in 1911; Oregon, Kansas and Arizona in 1912; and Illinois in 1913. As women voted in an increasing number of states, Congressmen from those states swung in support of national suffrage amendment, and paid more attentions to issues such as child labor.
The reform campaigns of the Progressive Era strengthened the suffrage movement. Beginning around 1900, this broad movement began at the grassroots level with such goals as combating corruption in government, eliminating child labor, and protecting workers and consumers. Many of its participants saw women's suffrage as yet another progressive goal, and they believed that the addition of women to the electorate would help the movement achieve its other goals. In 1912 Progressive Party, formed by Theodore Roosevelt, endorsed women's suffrage. The burgeoning socialist movement also aided the drive for women's suffrage in some areas.
By 1916 suffrage for women had become a major national issue, and the NAWSA was in the process of becoming the nation's largest voluntary organization, with two million members. In 1916 the conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties endorsed women's suffrage, but only on a state-by-state basis, with the implication that the various states might implement suffrage in different ways and in some cases not at all. Having expected more, Catt called an emergency NAWSA convention and proposed what became known as the "Winning Plan." For several years the NAWSA had focused on achieving suffrage on a state-by-state basis, partly to accommodate members from southern states who opposed the idea of a national suffrage amendment, considering it an infringement on state's rights. In a strategic shift, the 1916 convention approved Catt's proposal to make a national amendment the priority for the entire organization. It authorized the executive board to specify a plan of work toward this goal for each state and to take over that work if the state organization refused to comply.
In 1917 Catt received a bequest of $900,000 from Mrs. Frank (Miriam) Leslie to be used for the women's suffrage movement. Catt formed the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission to dispense the funds, most of which supported the activities of the NAWSA at a crucial time for the suffrage movement.
The entry of the U.S. into World War I in April 1917 had a significant impact on the suffrage movement. To replace men who had gone into the military, women moved into workplaces that did not traditionally hire women, such as steel mills and oil refineries. The NAWSA cooperated with the war effort, with Catt and Shaw serving on the Women's Committee for the Council of National Defense. The NWP, by contrast, took no steps to cooperate with the war effort. Jeanette Rankin, elected in 1916 by Montana as the first woman in Congress, was one of fifty members of Congress to vote against the declaration of war.
In January 1917, the NWP stationed pickets at the White House, which had never before been picketed, with banners demanding women's suffrage. Tension escalated in June as a Russian delegation drove up to the White House and NPW members unfurled a banner that read, "We, the women of America, tell you that America is not a democracy. Twenty million American women are denied the right to vote. President Wilson is the chief opponent of their national enfranchisement". In August another banner referred to "Kaiser Wilson" and compared the plight of the German people with that of American women.
Some of the onlookers reacted violently, tearing the banners from the picketers' hands. The police, whose actions had previously been restrained, began arresting the picketers for blocking the sidewalk. Eventually over 200 were arrested, about half of whom were sent to prison. In October Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months in prison. When she and other suffragist prisoners began a hunger strike, prison authorities force fed them. The negative publicity created by this harsh practice increased the pressure on the administration, which capitulated and released all the prisoners.
In November 1917, a referendum to enfranchise women in New York, which was at that time the most populous state in the country, passed by a substantial margin. In September 1918, President Wilson spoke before the Senate, calling for approval of the suffrage amendment as a war measure, saying "We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?" By the end of 1919, women effectively could vote for president in states with 326 electoral votes out of a total of 531. Political leaders who became convinced that women's suffrage was inevitable began to pressure local and national legislators to support it so their party could claim credit for it in future elections.
The war was a catalyst for suffrage in several countries, with women gaining the vote after years of campaigning partly in recognition of their support for the war effort, which further increased the pressure for suffrage in the U.S. About half of the women in Britain were enfranchised by January 1918, as were women in most Canadian provinces, with Quebec the major exception.
World War I had a profound impact on woman suffrage across the belligerents. Women played a major role on the home fronts and many countries recognized their sacrifices with the vote during or shortly after the war, including the U.S., Britain, Canada (except Quebec), Denmark, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Ireland.
On January 12, 1915, a suffrage bill was brought before the House of Representatives but was defeated by a vote of 204 to 174, (Democrats 170-85 against, Republicans 81-34 for, Progressives 6-0 for). President Woodrow Wilson held off until he was sure the Democratic Party was supportive; the 1917 referendum in New York State in favor of suffrage proved decisive for him. When another bill was brought before the House in January, 1918. Wilson made a strong and widely published appeal to the House to pass the bill. Behn argues that:
The Amendment passed by two-thirds of the House, with only one vote to spare. The vote was then carried into the Senate. Again President Wilson made an appeal, but on September 30, 1918, the amendment fell two votes short of the two-thirds necessary for passage, 53-31 (Republicans 27-10 for, Democrats 26-21 for). On February 10, 1919, it was again voted upon, and then it was lost by only one vote, 54-30 (Republicans 30-12 for, Democrats 24-18 for).
There was considerable anxiety among politicians of both parties to have the amendment passed and made effective before the general elections of 1920, so the President called a special session of Congress, and a bill, introducing the amendment, was brought before the House again. On May 21, 1919, it was passed, 304 to 89, (Republicans 200-19 for, Democrats 102-69 for, Union Labor 1-0 for, Prohibitionist 1-0 for), 42 votes more than necessary being obtained. On June 4, 1919, it was brought the Senate, and after a long discussion it was passed, with 56 ayes and 25 nays (Republicans 36-8 for, Democrats 20-17 for). Within a few days, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan ratified the amendment, their legislatures being then in session. Other states followed suit at a regular pace, until the amendment had been ratified by 35 of the necessary 36 state legislatures. After Washington on March 22, 1920, ratification languished for months. Finally, on August 18, 1920, Tennessee narrowly ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, making it the law throughout the United States. Thus the 1920 election became the first United States presidential election in which women were permitted to vote in every state.
Nearly twenty years later Maryland ratified the amendment in 1941. After another ten years, in 1952, Virginia ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, followed by Alabama in 1953. After another 16 years Florida and South Carolina passed the necessary votes to ratify in 1969, followed two years later by Georgia and Louisiana in 1971.
Mississippi did not ratify the Nineteenth Amendment until 1984, sixty four years after the law was enacted nationally.
Politicians responded to the newly enlarged electorate by emphasizing issues of special interest to women, especially prohibition, child health, public schools, and world peace. Women did respond to these issues, but in terms of general voting they shared the same outlook and the same voting behavior as men.
The suffrage organization NAWSA became the League of Women Voters and Alice Paul's National Woman's Party began lobbying for full equality and the Equal Rights Amendment which would pass Congress during the second wave of the women's movement in 1972 (but it was not ratified and never took effect). The main surge of women voting came in 1928, when the big-city machines realized they needed the support of women to elect Al Smith, while rural dries mobilized women to support Prohibition and vote for Republican Herbert Hoover. Catholic women were reluctant to vote in the early 1920s, but they registered in very large numbers for the 1928 election—the first in which Catholicism was a major issue. A few women were elected to office, but none became especially prominent during this time period. Overall, the women's rights movement declined noticeably during the 1920s.
Although women were granted the right to vote in 1920, women did not turn out to the polls in the same numbers as men until 1980. From 1980 until the present, women have voted in elections in at least the same percentage as have men, and often more. This difference in voting turnout and preferences between men and women is known as the voting gender gap. The voting gender gap has impacted political elections and, consequently, the way candidates campaign for office.
The presence of women in Congress has gradually increased since 1920, with an especially steady increase from 1981 (23 female members) to the present (97 female members). The 113th Congress, serving from 2013-2015, includes a record 20 female senators and 77 female representatives.
Immediately following the ratification of the 19th Amendment, many legislators feared a powerful women’s bloc would emerge as a result of female enfranchisement. The Sheppard-Towner Act of 1921, which expanded maternity care during the 1920s, was one of the first laws passed appealing to the female vote.
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