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Women's Suffrage in the United States

John Simkin

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There is very little on the internet about the struggle for votes for women in the United States. For example, the campaign in the UK is covered in much more detail.

The struggle for women's suffrage in America began in the 1820s with the writings of Fanny Wright. In her book, Course of Popular Lectures (1829) and in the Free Enquirer, Wright not only advocated women being given the vote but the abolition of slavery, free secular education, birth control and more liberal divorce laws.

Wright received little support for her views and the next significant development did not take place until 1840 when two members of the Society of Friends, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, travelled to London as delegates to the World Anti-Slavery Convention. Both women were furious when they, like the British women at the convention, were refused permission to speak at the meeting. Stanton later recalled: "We resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women."

Margaret Fuller was another supporter of women's rights. In her book, Women in the Nineteenth Century (1845) she wrote: "We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down. We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man. Were this done, and a slight temporary fermentation allowed to subside, we should see crystallizations more pure and of more various beauty. We believe the divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages, and that no discordant collision, but a ravishing harmony of the spheres, would ensue."

Samuel May, a Unitarian clergyman in Massachusetts, was one of the few men who advocated equal rights for women: "But some would eagerly ask, should women be allowed to take part in the constructing and administering of our civil institutions? Allowed, do you say? The very form of the question is an assumption of the right to do them the wrong that has been done them. Allowed! Why, pray tell me, is it from us their rights have been received? Have we the authority to accord to them just such prerogatives as we see fit and withhold the rest? No! woman is not the creature, the dependent of man but of God. We may with no more propriety assume to govern women than they might assume to govern us. And never will the nations of the earth be well-governed until both sexes, as well as all parties, are fairly represented and have an influence, a voice, and, if they wish, a hand in the enactment and administration of the laws."

However, it was not until 1848 that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott organised the Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. Stanton's resolution that it was "the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves the sacred right to the elective franchise" was passed, and this became the focus of the group's campaign over the next few years. The only man who attended the meeting was Frederick Douglass. According to Ida Wells: "Frederick Douglass, the ex-slave, was the only man who came to their convention and stood up with them. He said he could not do otherwise; that we were among the friends who fought his battles when he first came among us appealing for our interest in the antislavery cause."

In 1866 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone helped establish the American Equal Rights Association. The following year, the organisation became active in Kansas where Negro suffrage and woman suffrage were to be decided by popular vote. However, both ideas were rejected at the polls.

In 1869 Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony formed a new organisation, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). The organisation condemned the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments as blatant injustices to women. The NWSA also advocated easier divorce and an end to discrimination in employment and pay.

Another group, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was formed in the same year in Boston. Leading members of the AWSA included Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe. Less militant that the National Woman Suffrage Association, the AWSA was only concerned with obtaining the vote and did not campaign on other issues. The campaign for women's suffrage had its first success in 1869 when the territory of Wyoming gave women the vote. However, an amendment to the federal Constitution concerning woman suffrage that was introduced into Congress in 1878 was overwhelmingly defeated.

In the 1880s it became clear that it was not a good idea to have two rival groups campaigning for votes for women. After several years of negotiations, the AWSA and the NWSA merged in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). The leaders of this new organisation include Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Livermore, Carrie Chapman Catt, Olympia Brown, Amelia Bloomer, Frances Willard, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Anna Howard Shaw.

Over the next twenty years a large number of women became involved in the struggle for women's rights. This included Jane Addams, Crystal Eastman, Helen Keller, Emma Goldman, Rose Schneiderman, Ida Wells-Barnett, Inez Milholland, Nina Alexender, Cornelia Barnes, Blanche Ames, Edwina Dumm, Rose O'Neill, Fredrikke Palmer, Ida Proper, Lou Rogers, Mary Wilson Preston, Mary Sigsbee, Ellen Gates Starr, Mary McDowell, Edith Abbott, Grace Abbott, Alzina Stevens, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, Alice Hamilton, Rheta Childe Dorr, Alice Beach Winter, Margaret Robins, Margaret Haley, Helen Marot, Agnes Nestor, Madeline Breckinridge, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Nell Brinkley.

Mary Church Terrell was another important figure in the suffrage movement. She argued: "The elective franchise is withheld from one half of its citizens, many of whom are intelligent, cultured, and virtuous, while it is unstintingly bestowed upon the other, some of whom are illiterate, debauched and vicious, because the word people, by an unparalleled exhibition of lexicographical acrobatics, has been turned and twisted to mean all who were shrewd and wise enough to have themselves born boys instead of girls, or who took the trouble to be born white instead of black."

Rheta Childe Dorr pointed out that this was a worldwide movement: "Not only in the United States, but in every constitutional country in the world the movement towards admitting women to full political equality with men is gathering strength. In half a dozen countries women are already completely enfranchised. In England the opposition is seeking terms of surrender. In the United States the stoutest enemy of the movement acknowledges that woman suffrage is ultimately inevitable. The voting strength of the world is about to be doubled, and the new element is absolutely an unknown quantity. Does anyone question that this is the most important political fact the modern world has ever faced?"

Working with journals such as the Women Voter, The Women's Journal, Woman Citizen and The Masses, the suffragists mounted vigorous campaigns to gain the vote. They tended to concentrate their energies in trying to persuade state legislatures to submit to their voters amendments to state constitutions conferring full suffrage to women. Individual states gradually yielded to these demands. In 1893 women got the vote in Colorado, followed by Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Arizona (1912), Kansas (1912), Oregon (1912), Illinois (1913), Nevada (1914) and Montana (1914).

While studying at the School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in London, Alice Paul, joined the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) and her activities resulted in her being arrested and imprisoned three times. Like other suffragettes she went on hunger strike and was forced-fed.

Paul returned home to the United States and in 1913 she joined with Lucy Burns and Olympia Brown to form the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS) and attempted to introduce the militant methods used by the Women's Social and Political Union in Britain. This included organizing huge demonstrations and the daily picketing of the White House. Over the next couple of years the police arrested nearly 500 women for loitering and 168 were jailed for "obstructing traffic". Alice Paul was sentenced to seven months imprisonment but after going on hunger strike she was released.

In January, 1918, Woodrow Wilson announced that women's suffrage was urgently needed as a "war measure". The House of Representatives passed the federal woman suffrage amendment 274 to 136 but it was opposed in the Senate and was defeated in September 1918. Another attempt in February 1919 also ended in failure.

In May 1919 the House of Representatives again passed the amendment (304 to 89) and on 4th June 1919 the Senate finally gave in and passed it by 66 to 30. On 26th August 1920 the Nineteenth Amendment was certified by the Secretary of State, when Tennessee, the thirty-sixth and final state needed, signed for ratification.

One of the campaigners, Crystal Eastman, argued: "The problem of women's freedom is how to arrange the world so that women can be human beings, with a chance to exercise their infinitely varied gifts in infinitely ways, instead of being destined by the accident of their sex to one field of activity - housework and child-raising. And second, if and when they choose housework and child-raising to have that occupation recognized by the world as work, requiring a definite economic reward and not merely entitling the performer to be dependent on some man. I can agree that women will never be great until they achieve a certain emotional freedom, a strong healthy egotism, and some unpersonal source of joy - that is this inner sense we cannot make women free by changing her economic status."


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