13: The Women's Suffrage Movement
one of the most powerful tools for effecting change in the United States is the vote. Lawmakers who don't reflect the will of the people who support them can be voted out of office. Numerous social reform movements throughout history have made use of the vote to enact changes in the law. But when the group seeking change does not possess the right to vote, the obstacles can seem insurmountable. The women's rights activists working to achieve voting rights for women during the 1800s and early 1900s sought a path to political power from a position of almost complete powerlessness. Many of them abandoned lives of comfort and stability to engage in a long-running, controversial battle for equality and respect.
To many Americans during the 1800s, the idea of women having the right to vote seemed absurd. A number of people, including many women, believed that only men possessed the intelligence and reason to have a voice in political matters. Particularly among the upper classes, female involvement in politics was considered unladylike and inappropriate. Among all classes, a woman's role revolved around the home, caring for her husband and children and running the household. Participation in other types of activities was limited, and involvement in any kind of political or social reform organization was rare, and often frowned upon.
As the century progressed, however, more and more women became frustrated by their lack of rights and began actively working to change their circumstances. Many women's rights activists viewed the right to vote as the necessary first step in achieving broader rights for women. Throughout the latter half of the 1800s and into the 1900s, women's rights activists fought for women's suffrage, or the right to vote. In 1920, about 150 years after the nation was founded, the goal of women's suffrage was finally realized. With the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, women nationwide earned the right to cast their ballots and gained entry into the American political process.
Legal rights in colonial times
In colonial America, women had very few legal rights. The only women who had any rights were unmarried adults. Once a woman married, her rights were eliminated. The law viewed her husband as her master and her legal rights as unimportant. Married women could not vote and could not own property, even property they had inherited from their own family. Any money earned by a woman could be completely controlled by her husband. Women could not divorce their husbands, except in cases of extreme abuse or neglect. In the case of divorce, women could not obtain custody of their children. Women could not decide for themselves if they wanted to pursue an education or find a job outside the home. Many girls and young women were denied any education beyond the skills necessary for raising children and running a household. Only those women with fathers who supported a girl's right to learn received any formal schooling.
Most states had laws that explicitly denied women the right to vote, though in some states it was simply understood that voting was for men. For a brief time in New Jersey in the late 1700s, some women did vote in local elections, but many citizens strongly objected. By 1807 a law had been passed in New Jersey denying women all voting rights.
A wave of social reform
During the early 1800s, fueled in part by a religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening, increasing numbers of women became involved in charitable societies and social reform movements. They joined groups designed to aid widows and orphans, to reform prisons, to improve education, to abolish slavery, and to encourage temperance, meaning moderation in or complete avoidance of alcoholic beverages. For many women, their participation in these organizations represented their first taste of activity independent of their husbands or fathers. They were attracted by the opportunity to form bonds with other women and by the notion that they could make a difference in society. They learned skills they otherwise would never have learned, including fund-raising, public speaking, and organization of groups.
These activist women soon realized, however, that their roles in these groups were limited by the commonly held attitude that women should not be involved in political or social reform. Some of the social reform organizations of the 1800s had exclusively female membership, but many of the more powerful groups were run by men. In such groups, women were denied positions of real authority, left instead to perform secretarial functions. They were not allowed to speak or vote at meetings and were assigned behind-the scenes jobs. These women believed passionately in the causes they promoted, and yet they felt restricted in their efforts to bring about social change.
One notable example of women being prevented from having a voice in a social reform movement led directly to the event that launched the women's rights movement. In 1840 the World Anti-Slavery Convention met in London, England. A number of American and British abolitionist groups (groups formed for the purpose of abolishing, or ending, slavery) sent delegates, including a few women, to the convention. Once the convention began, however, most of the male delegates strongly objected to the female delegates taking part in the meeting. They suggested that women did not belong in such a role and that their presence would be so controversial that it would harm the abolitionist cause.
One of the rejected delegates was Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), a Quaker and prominent social reformer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Quaker religion, also known as the Religious Society of Friends, advocates peacefulness and rejects sexism, racism, and religious intolerance. A number of the leading reformers in the nineteenth century came from the Quaker faith. Mott and the other female delegates were denied the right to express their views and to vote at the meeting. They had Page 411 | Top of Articleto observe the activities in silence, from behind a curtain. The women were shocked and furious that these men fighting to free the slaves refused to grant basic freedoms to other abolitionists because of their sex.
While in London for the convention, Mott met the wife of one of the delegates, a young abolitionist named Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), who shared Mott's frustration over the treatment of the female delegates. Stanton and Mott became fast friends and agreed to someday hold their own convention, this one in support of women's rights, upon their return to the United States. If they were not allowed to express themselves within the abolitionist movement, women would have to focus their energies on broadening their own rights. Numerous women, involved in such movements as abolition, temperance, and others, encountered the same restrictions that Mott faced in London. They came to the same conclusion that Mott did: in order for them to accomplish meaningful change in American society, they would first have to acquire legal rights of their own.
The beginning: The Seneca Falls Convention
As with any social reform movement, the conditions that led to the nineteenth-century women's rights movement cannot be narrowed down to a single event. Many historians, however, trace the origin of the movement as a social and political force to a groundbreaking meeting in Seneca Falls, New York, during the summer of 1848. At an afternoon gathering in July of that year, Mott and Stanton met with three other women and, eight years after initially conceiving of it in London, proposed that the group organize a women's rights convention. It would be the first in American history.
The women placed an advertisement in a local newspaper and, less than one week later, held a two-day meeting that would come to be known as the Seneca Falls Convention. The convention, which took place on July 19 and 20, 1848, attracted hundreds of women and some men as well. One of the first obstacles the women had to overcome for this event was their own fear of public speaking. Few had experience speaking in front of crowds or conducting meetings, so they requested that James Mott, husband of Lucretia, preside over the convention.
At the convention, the organizers presented a document, patterned after the Declaration of Independence, called the Declaration of Sentiments. The declaration was a list of complaints about women's restricted lives and a demand for reforms that would give women greater Page 412
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equality. The declaration pointed out inequalities in the areas of divorce, property ownership, religion, and education. Stanton added the document's most controversial point: a demand for the right of women to vote. Even among the meeting's organizers, this resolution was shocking. Mott urged Stanton to remove it from the declaration, fearing that it would be so controversial as to undermine their other resolutions.
During the meeting, the attendees discussed each of the resolutions, spending the most time on Stanton's demand for voting rights. Many opposed the resolution, while Stanton and the renowned black abolitionist Frederick Douglass (c.1817–1895) argued in favor of it. Eventually Stanton's resolution was voted on, and it passed by a slim majority. The Page 413 | Top of Articleother resolutions in the declaration passed unanimously. One hundred participants, including thirty-two men, signed the Declaration of Sentiments at the end of the convention.
Most news accounts of the Seneca Falls Convention disapproved of and even ridiculed the event, declaring it immoral, improper, and undignified for women to be organizing and participating in such a meeting. Many of the declaration's one hundred signers withdrew their names amid the controversy that followed the convention. Nonetheless, the convention proved extremely important and had a lasting impact. According to Ann Bausum in With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman's Right to Vote: "Seneca Falls was the equivalent of the Boston Tea Party or the battle of Lexington and Concord in what became an extended campaign for women's voting rights. Just as those events had done during the Revolutionary War, Seneca Falls got people's attention." Few of the organizers of that convention could have guessed the intensity and duration of the battle they had begun. It would be seventy-two years before women gained the right to vote. Of the one hundred signers of the Declaration of Sentiments, only one, a nineteen-year-old woman named Charlotte Woodward, would still be alive in 1920 to exercise that hard-won right.
Establishing the women's movement
After the Seneca Falls Convention, a number of women began to realize that they could also raise their voices in protest. A similar convention was held in Rochester, New York, two weeks later. Again the resolution to demand the right to vote was hotly debated, and again the participants voted in favor of it. Also adopted at the Rochester convention were pledges to increase the pay of women in the working class and a call for equality for all women, regardless of race. News articles about the Rochester convention, just like those that followed the Seneca Falls Convention, treated the meeting as an object of ridicule and scorn. Nonetheless, these articles, which appeared in newspapers across the country, spurred women in several states to organize their own women's rights meetings.
A women's rights convention in Salem, Ohio, in April 1850 took the unprecedented step of restricting male participation in all proceedings. Just as men had denied women a voice at other conventions, the women informed the male attendees that they could observe the meeting in silence but could not vote or speak. Later that year, the first national Page 414 | Top of Articlewomen's rights convention met in Worcester, Massachusetts. Several of the people attending that convention went on to become prominent leaders of the movement, including Lucy Stone (1818–1893) and Antoinette Brown (1825–1921). Stone was a longtime activist for women's rights and the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree. She became famous in part for continuing to use her maiden name after marrying her husband, Henry Blackwell, in 1855. This practice, highly unusual at the time, gave rise to the nineteenth-century term "stoner," referring to a woman who kept her maiden name after marriage.
In 1851 women's rights activists planned another convention in Ohio, this time in the city of Akron. Led by Frances Dana Gage (1808–1884), a writer and reformer, the meeting attracted not only a number of women activists but also some men, many of them religious leaders, who came to voice their opposition. The meeting was also attended by Sojourner Truth (c.1797–1883), a tall, stately African American woman who had begun life as a slave and later forged a career as a preacher. Many participants begged Gage not to let Sojourner Truth speak at the meeting. They feared that a black woman's involvement would give the impression that women's rights and abolition were linked. They worried that connecting the women's movement to the controversial issue of slavery would make women's rights less acceptable.
Despite such protests, Gage called on Sojourner Truth to speak. The former slave delivered what became known as the "Ain't I a Woman?" address. In her speech, Sojourner Truth addressed the men who had, in earlier speeches, dismissed women's rights. One minister had suggested that men possessed more rights than women because Jesus Christ was male. As quoted in Doris Weatherford's A History of the American Suffragist Movement, Sojourner Truth replied, "Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Men had nothing to do with Him." Sojourner Truth went on to become one of a few prominent African American women fighting for women's rights.
During the early 1850s, as the women's rights movement spread, a critical friendship was formed between two women who devoted much of their lives to the cause. In 1850 Elizabeth Cady Stanton met Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), a Quaker active in the temperance movement. After her male peers denied Anthony and other women the right to speak at temperance meetings, Anthony began to focus her considerable energy on securing equal rights for women. The two women developed an Page 415
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effective partnership that capitalized on their unique strengths. Anthony was an outstanding organizer and field-worker, while Stanton was a powerful and persuasive writer who prepared many speeches and other documents important to the movement. These roles suited not only their abilities but their stations in life as well. Anthony's status as a single woman without children allowed her to travel to meetings and Page 416 | Top of Articleconventions, while Stanton, the mother of seven, often was limited to tasks that she could perform at home.
Over the years, Stanton and Anthony worked closely. Sometimes they disagreed with other leaders of the women's rights movement, particularly Lucy Stone and Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–1898; no relation to Frances Dana Gage). Stanton, Anthony, and Gage together wrote the first three volumes of the monumentalHistory of Woman Suffrage, published in the 1880s. The work contained history and commentary as well as speeches and letters. Differences in philosophy led to a dispute between Matilda Joslyn Gage and her less radical peers, Stanton and Anthony. As a result, Stanton and Anthony deleted a number of references to Gage in later volumes of the History of Woman Suffrage.
As the 1850s progressed, the women's movement became stronger and better organized. Although they hadn't secured the vote for women yet, activists had achieved victories in some states regarding property rights. Under the guidance of Stanton and other leaders, the women's movement secured passage of a sweeping Married Women's Property Act in New York in 1860. That law gave women the right to own property as well as to buy and sell it. Women could also, for the first time, sign contracts and file lawsuits. They could share guardianship of their children in case of divorce, and they could possess any money they earned outside the household. Gradually, over the next four decades, other states passed similar laws.
Gains made by the women's movement during the 1850s and early 1860s were overshadowed by the issue of slavery. During that period the nation became increasingly divided over slavery, and many reformers set aside the women's movement to devote themselves fully to the abolitionist cause. Slavery played a decisive role in the American Civil War (1861–65), which began when several southern states seceded, or withdrew, from the rest of the nation. Shortly after the southern states declared themselves the Confederate States of America, a new nation with its own constitution and its own leader, war broke out between the Union (the North) and the Confederacy (the South). The women's rights movement faded into the background as the nation was consumed by war.
Women's rights on hold: The Civil War and aftermath
When the American Civil War broke out, the leaders of the women's rights movement faced a difficult decision. Should they throw their support into
the war effort or continue fighting for women's rights? With the exception of Susan B. Anthony, the movement's leaders agreed that they should devote themselves to supporting the soldiers. They could therefore prove themselves worthy citizens, and they hoped they would be repaid with full citizens' rights after the war's end. When she saw that no one else wished to press forward during wartime with demands for women's rights, Anthony decided to go along with her colleagues for the time being.
Women in the North and South fulfilled critical roles during the long, devastating years of the Civil War. Many women found themselves the heads of households when husbands, brothers, or fathers went off to war. Some women tended to the family farm, while others entered the workforce in great numbers. Many volunteered countless hours of their time to make uniforms and other supplies and to help soldiers and their families. A number of women worked tirelessly for an organization called the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was dedicated to preventing disease among the soldiers by promoting cleanliness, improving soldiers' diets, and offering medical attention to those wounded. Health workers took great personal risks, often treating soldiers on or near battlefields and enduring difficult, terrifying conditions.
Members of the commission also sponsored events to raise money to bring relief to soldiers in camps and hospitals. Women such as Mary Livermore (1820–1905) organized grand "Sanitary Fairs," which were similar to a world's fair, raising millions of dollars in relief funds. Fairs were held throughout the North in cities such as Chicago, New York, and Cincinnati. Still other women worked for local soldiers' aid societies, while others worked independently. Among the independent workers was nurse Clara Barton (1821–1912), who provided vital assistance to soldiers during the war and was later instrumental in founding the American Red Cross.
During the Civil War, women also devoted their time to the abolition movement. Advocates for women's rights believed that freedom for the slaves would result in voting rights for African Americans. They hoped that voting rights would then be extended to women at the same time, particularly in light of their extraordinary wartime contributions to society. Those men (and some women, too) who had earlier declared that women did not possess the intellect, the reasoning, or the physical soundness to vote had been proven wrong by the impressive efforts of women during the war.
After the Civil War ended in April 1865, the institution of slavery crumbled, and the slaves were formally liberated with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As expected by many, the freeing of the slaves was followed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which granted African Americans legal rights, including the right to vote. The hopes of women's rights activists were dashed, however. The language of the Fourteenth Amendment, rather than
extending voting rights to women, specifically excluded them, mentioning the voting privileges only of male citizens.
After the passage of these post-Civil War amendments, a new and decidedly racist argument for suffrage arose in the South and among some in the North as well. Some suggested that if women could go to the polls, the votes of white women would help to cancel out the political strength of the African American vote. While this approach was rejected by numerous suffragists, some people did persist with the racially motivated line of reasoning for many years.
A split and a reconciliation
The passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments gave rise to a major disagreement among women's rights activists. Some more radical reformers, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, objected strongly to the amendments. They felt that voting rights should not be granted to African Americans without also being extended to women. Other activists, notably Lucy Stone, rejoiced at the new rights obtained by black citizens and continued to work for women's voting rights as well. Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association, known as NWSA or "the National." Some members wanted to exclude men (though they were eventually allowed to join) and the membership was primarily white. Stone formed the rival American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA, or "the American"), a larger group that welcomed men and African Americans. The women's suffrage movement was split in two.
Both groups felt that women would be able to vote only if the laws changed, but they disagreed on the best method of achieving such change. The NWSA focused on the goal of passing a federal amendment granting women suffrage. The chances of success were slim. An amendment would have to pass both houses of Congress by a two-thirds Page 422
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Page 423 | Top of Articlemajority and then be ratified, or approved, by three-fourths of the state legislatures. However, the rewards would be great. Passage of a women's suffrage amendment would guarantee every woman in the United States the right to vote, whether her state was one of those that had voted in favor of the amendment or not. Beginning in the late 1870s, a proposal for a women's suffrage amendment was submitted to the U.S. Senate every year, to no avail.
The AWSA, meanwhile, attempted to change state laws, one at a time, to give women voting rights. AWSA members in numerous states worked tirelessly to persuade men to help them get the issue of women's suffrage on state and local ballots. Local volunteers fanned out in neighborhoods, obtaining signatures for petitions. They distributed pamphlets. They raised money for the cause. They delivered speeches and begged lawmakers. For many women, the struggle began at home, with husbands who were opposed to voting rights for women. As quoted by Bausum in With Courage and Cloth, Lucy Stone offered the following advice for women whose husbands failed to support their efforts: "When he says good morning, tell him you want to vote; when he asks what you are going to have for dinner, tell him you want to vote; and whatever he asks from the time you rise up in the morning until you lie down at night, tell him you want to vote."
The AWSA, after dozens of campaigns and years of effort, met with minimal success in the late 1800s. Some western territories, including Wyoming and Utah, passed laws giving women the right to vote. When Wyoming became a state in 1890, women's suffrage was guaranteed in its state constitution. Women earned voting rights in the states of Colorado and Idaho in the 1890s. A few local and state governments elsewhere allowed women partial suffrage, letting them vote in certain elections. In 1875, for example, Michigan and Minnesota passed laws allowing widows with school-age children to vote, but only in school elections. Lawmakers in the southern and eastern states showed the greatest reluctance to adopt any form of women's suffrage.
Many opponents of women's suffrage, including some women, expressed fears that allowing women to vote would strip them of their femininity and make them forget their "proper" role in society. According to Elizabeth Frost and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont in their Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History, U.S. Representative William C. Oates, a Civil War veteran from Alabama, testified in Congress as to his views of what voting might do to women: "I like a woman who is a woman and Page 424
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appreciates the sphere to which God and the Bible have assigned her. I do not like a man-woman."
Although the issue of voting rights for women remained largely stalled, women achieved gradual progress in other areas during the late 1800s. In the beginning of the 1800s, few girls were allowed to obtain Page 425 | Top of Articlea formal education of any kind. By 1900 girls made up more than half of the nation's high school population. More and more universities began to admit women, or to open up separate colleges just for female students. A number of prominent women's colleges were founded during that period, including Wellesley College, Smith College, and Bryn Mawr College. Tens of thousands of women had enrolled in college by 1900.
As more and more women were able to obtain an education, they could enter fields, such as medicine and law, that had been formerly closed to them. Increasing numbers of women entered the workforce in general, earning wages and a degree of independence. As nearly every state had passed women's property rights laws by the end of the nineteenth century, women could own property and therefore control what they had earned or inherited. Married women in the late 1800s enjoyed a number of significant rights that had been denied to their mothers and grandmothers.
As the drive for women's suffrage gained ever more support among American women, more and more supporters expressed concern that the movement continued to be divided. In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Stanton and Anthony of NWSA planned to launch an organization called the International Council of Women. For its initial meeting, they extended invitations to women's rights leaders from all over the world and to members of AWSA as well. People from across the globe attended the meeting, as did Lucy Stone and others from the AWSA. The ice had been broken, and two years later, in 1890, the two organizations merged, forming the National American Woman Suffrage Association, or NAWSA. Leadership of the new organization included Stanton, Anthony, and Stone, as well as a representative of the new generation of activists: Stone's daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell (1857–1950).
A new century, a new era
Alice Stone Blackwell's role in NAWSA signaled a changing of the guard in the women's movement. As the longtime leaders of the movement aged, responsibilities were handed on to the next generation, which in some cases included the daughters of earlier leaders. In addition to Blackwell, Harriot Stanton Blatch (1856–1940), daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, infused the movement with new life at the start of the twentieth century. The elders of the movement began to realize that it would be their daughters, and not themselves, who would finally exercise the right to vote.
Lucy Stone, ill for much of the last few years of her life, died in 1893. Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose liberal ideas had set her apart from the mainstream movement, died in 1898. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as radical in her old age as when she was a young woman, aroused controversy during her final years with the 1895 publication of The Woman's Bible. Stanton believed that biblical interpretations had provided much of the reasoning behind society's restrictions of women. Her book examined the depiction of women in the Bible from a new perspective, outraging her younger, and more conservative, peers in the movement. Fearing that the controversy surrounding Stanton's book would damage the cause of women's suffrage, the members of NAWSA voted to publicly denounce The Woman's Bible. Stanton did not back down, however, and continued to work for wide-ranging women's rights until her death in 1902. Susan B. Anthony also continued to work toward women's suffrage well into her eighties, serving as a mentor for the younger leaders. In 1906, four years after the death of her dear friend Stanton, Anthony died.
A different approach
With the change in leadership of the women's movement came a shift in philosophy. The original leaders like Stanton and Anthony had demanded suffrage because it was a woman's natural right, her birthright. The younger generation emphasized that women needed voting rights as a practical matter. They said that if granted voting rights, they would make their own lives better. For working-class women, this argument was very persuasive. Women employed in factories faced terrible and dangerous working conditions. They worked long hours using unsafe machinery for low wages.
Harriot Stanton Blatch, believing that NAWSA was too conservative to achieve real change, founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (which later became the Women's Political Union). Her style of activism appealed to working women, who joined Blatch's organization in large numbers. Blatch had lived for many years in Great Britain. Upon returning to the United States, she introduced many activists to the more confrontational style of protest popular across the Atlantic, including public demonstrations and marches. Blatch organized a large suffrage parade in New York City. Participation was so great that the suffrage parade became an annual event. Other emerging leaders of the suffrage movement had also spent time protesting in Great Britain, including Alice Paul (1885–1977) and Lucy Burns (1879–1966).
The new methods and new generation of activists began to achieve some breakthroughs with suffrage on the state level. Women earned the right to vote in the state of Washington in 1910; California in 1911; and Oregon, Arizona, and Kansas in 1912. These victories brought the total number of states where women could vote to nine. This meant that some four million American women had voting rights. Even in states where women could not vote, many suffrage activists had become effective, powerful campaigners for candidates who pledged support for women's voting rights. More than ever before in U.S. history, during the presidential election of 1912 women were a political force, a significant group of voters that commanded the attention of politicians. Two of the candidates for president, Democrat Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) and former president Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919; served 1901–09) of the Progressive party, made a point of involving women in their campaigns. Wilson won the presidency, serving from 1913 to 1921, and he acknowledged the assistance of several women by appointing them to positions in the government. A Californian named Annette Adams, for example, became the first woman to hold the position of assistant attorney general.
Soon after the election, Harriot Stanton Blatch led her followers on a thirteen-day march from New York City to Albany, the capital of New York. The women marched for long hours in wintry weather, impressing many observers with their dedication to the cause. When Alice Paul began to organize a massive parade in Washington, D.C., to precede the inauguration of President Wilson, Blatch and many other young activists decided to publicize the fight for suffrage through a 250—mile march from New York City to Washington, D.C. The marathon march was covered Page 429
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by numerous newspapers, and the determined marchers drew the admiration even of some opponents. These women, and some eight thousand others, gathered in the capital for a historic parade on March 3, 1913.
Alice Paul and the other parade planners intended to capture the attention of the nation, and particularly of the incoming president, with a large-scale march for women's rights. The organizers hoped that the thousands of women marching through the streets would impress upon the government the women's determination to achieve voting rights and their strength as a movement. The spectacle of so many women marching together was indeed impressive, and to many of the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered to watch, a bit unsettling. A number of men in the crowd disapproved strongly of women engaging in political Page 430 | Top of Articleprotest, and they began to harass the women in the parade. They shouted insults at the women, blocked their path, and even resorted to grabbing, pinching, and spitting on the marchers.
The police overlooked this harassment, doing little to protect the women. Scores of newspaper reporters witnessed the harassment and wrote about it afterward. Journalists later covered the congressional investigation into the lack of police protection and the subsequent firing of the Washington, D.C., chief of police. Although the parade did not go exactly as the organizers had planned, the publicity it attracted, and the sympathy it generated among the American public, placed women's voting rights squarely on the national agenda.
The movement divides—again
After the parade, Paul led an expansion of NAWSA's Congressional Committee, a group dedicated to lobbying lawmakers to pass federal legislation for women's suffrage. Paul's group, known initially as the Congressional Union, or CU, raised money, petitioned Congress, and distributed a weekly newspaper, The Suffragist. The organization grew in size and became more and more effective. At the same time NAWSA, widely considered by Paul and other CU activists to be too conservative and old-fashioned, became increasingly concerned about Paul's more confrontational approach to social reform.
The congressional elections of 1914 highlighted the tension between the two groups. Following the British model of suffrage activism, the CU staunchly opposed all candidates who were of the same political party as the president because he had failed to give his full support to the suffragists' efforts. Regardless of the fact that many Democrats supported suffrage, the CU campaigned against all members of that party, helping to defeat numerous politicians who had supported their cause. In the view of the CU, they had been tremendously successful in that they had demonstrated women's voting power. The leaders of NAWSA were outraged, however; they failed to see the sense in defeating candidates who supported suffrage. In 1916 the two groups officially split off into separate organizations. NAWSA focused on acquiring suffrage state by state and Paul's group, which came to be known as the National Woman's Party, emphasized passage of a constitutional amendment for national women's suffrage.
At the same time that Paul's CU was attracting notice, another group broke off from NAWSA. Kate Gordon, a suffrage advocate from Page 431 | Top of ArticleLouisiana, organized the Southern States Woman Suffrage Conference in 1913. Gordon's organization sought suffrage on the state level, understanding that southern lawmakers, who had harbored considerable bitterness toward the federal government since the American Civil War, would be unlikely to support a federal suffrage amendment. In addition, most southern politicians particularly opposed granting the right to vote to black women, wishing to prevent African Americans from gaining any additional political strength. So Gordon's group worked on writing state laws that would allow white women to vote while barring black women.
Meanwhile, the movement for women's suffrage made little progress. A 1914 vote in the Senate on the issue showed significant support for suffrage, but not enough to achieve the two-thirds majority needed for a constitutional amendment. A vote in the House of Representatives in early 1915 revealed even less support. The battle for state suffrage did result in victory in a few states, but the goal of suffrage in every state was far from being achieved. In addition, opponents of suffrage had increased in number and strength. The "Antis," so named because they were anti-suffrage, had formed a national organization of their own, the National Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage. By 1915 this organization had 200,000 members in chapters all across the country.
Many members of NAWSA had become increasingly frustrated with the organization's leader, Anna Howard Shaw (1847–1919). Shaw was a devoted suffragist and a persuasive speaker, but during her eleven years as president of NAWSA she had displayed insufficient political knowledge to advance the cause of women's suffrage. Her replacement, Carrie Chapman Catt (1859–1947), was known as a clever strategist who had spearheaded successful campaigns in the past, including the 1896 referendum in Idaho that had given women voting rights there.
The Winning Plan
Catt's effective leadership of NAWSA, which began in 1916, gave the organization an immediate lift. Donations poured in, national publicity of NAWSA events increased, and membership rose. At a private meeting with NAWSA's leaders at the organization's annual convention in September 1916, Catt quietly unveiled her proposal for achieving national suffrage. Rather than focusing either on state suffrage or a federal amendment, Catt's proposal, which was referred to as the Winning Plan, proposed achieving state suffrage as a way to guarantee passage of the federal amendment. Catt pointed out that if women had voting rights in Page 432 | Top of Articlethirty-six states, the number needed to ratify a constitutional amendment, then passage of a women's suffrage amendment would be assured. Women voters in those states could first pressure federal lawmakers to support a national amendment. Once that amendment had passed in Congress, then women could persuade state lawmakers to vote for ratification of that amendment.
Proposing the Winning Plan in secret in order to surprise the opposition, Catt asked the leaders of at least thirty-six state chapters of NAWSA to commit to her plan. She warned them that it would require tremendous dedication and resources, but she promised victory within six years. As quoted in Bausum's With Courage and Cloth, Catt announced that "those who enter on this task should go prepared to give their lives and fortunes for success." More than thirty-six state chapter leaders signed on for Catt's Winning Plan, and NAWSA leaders felt a new sense of hope. The movement received an additional boost with the historic election of Montana representative Jeannette Rankin (1880–1973), the first woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress.
World War I
In January 1917 Alice Paul's group began protesting at the White House on an almost daily basis. Sometimes the group of protesters was quite small, while other times large crowds turned out to carry banners and silently march in front of the president's home. To coincide with President Wilson's second inauguration, the National Woman's Party planned a "grand picket" on March 4. Hundreds of protesters endured a chilly rain in an attempt to demonstrate their commitment to women's suffrage. President Wilson, however, had other matters on his mind. Much of Europe had been caught in the Great War, which would later be known as World War I (1914–18), and the United States entered the war in April of 1917.
Just as they had done at the start of the American Civil War, suffragists had to decide whether to press on with their campaign for voting rights or to set that work aside to help in the war effort. Many women chose the latter path, spending their time volunteering for aid agencies such as the Red Cross, and filling factory and office jobs that had been held by men who were now soldiers overseas. Thousands of women also joined the effort in Europe, working in dangerous conditions as nurses and in other jobs.
Some suffragists, including Carrie Chapman Catt and other members of NAWSA, devoted themselves to the war effort while quietly continuing with behind-the-scenes suffrage campaigns. Others, including Alice Paul and members of the National Woman's Party, made women's voting rights their first priority. They recalled that activists during the Civil War had paused in their suffrage work to aid the nation in the hopes that their good citizenship would be rewarded with the right to vote. That generation of suffragists had been disappointed, and the activists of the early twentieth century did not want history to repeat itself.
Paul and other determined suffragists continued to picket in front of the White House and at the U.S. Capitol. They had been mostly ignored before the war, but many citizens now regarded the suffrage protesters as unpatriotic. Some supporters of the war were furious that the suffragists dared to criticize the president during wartime. However, the women activists felt they had to express their outrage. In their opinion, the United States was taking up arms to fight for democratic ideals in Europe while denying half of the American population the right to participate in democracy at home. Resentment toward the marchers increased, and by late June 1917, angry mobs began lashing out at the picketing women, tearing their banners and shouting insults. Police officers, in agreement with the mobs, stood by and watched. When arrests were made, it was the silent, nonviolent suffragists who were taken away rather than the crowds lashing out at them.
Throughout the summer of 1917, dozens of suffragists were arrested. Given the choice of paying fines or going to jail, most opted for jail. Some were sentenced to a few days, others several months. The prisoners endured miserable conditions and rough treatment by the guards. Paul and many others protested their imprisonment by going on hunger strikes. Rather than deal with the negative publicity of women dying of hunger in jail, prison officials ordered the strikers to be force-fed, shoving feeding tubes down their throats or up their noses. A protest on August 14 brought on a particularly angry response, sparking several days of violence and unrest that resulted in the arrest of numerous suffragists.
By the fall of 1917, as more and more suffragists were physically attacked by mobs and spent weeks and even months in jail for peaceful protests, public opinion began to shift in the women's favor. Accounts of the suffragists' brutal treatment in jail began to surface, and many people strongly objected. By the end of November, President Wilson pardoned Page 434
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Page 435 | Top of Articlethe women of their alleged crime (obstructing sidewalk traffic with their protests). The women sued the federal government to have their records cleared, claiming that they were arrested not for breaking any laws but because the government wanted to silence their protests. The courts sided with the suffragists, declaring every arrest and conviction invalid.
While Alice Paul and her colleagues were on the front lines of the suffrage battle, Carrie Chapman Catt and NAWSA members continued their state-by-state quest for women's voting rights. They made gradual progress, winning full suffrage in the state of New York and partial suffrage in a number of other states. In the South, however, the rights of African American women were sometimes sacrificed to make gains in the suffrage effort. Catt was a realistic leader who believed that such sacrifices were necessary to reach the ultimate goal of national suffrage for all women. She allowed southern chapters of NAWSA to deny membership to black women, and she asked a large group of black suffragists to withdraw a request for membership to avoid stirring up trouble among white southern members. Catt remained focused on her Winning Plan, accepting that black women might be shut out of the process in the short term in order to gain voting rights for all in the long term.
Throughout his first term and into his second, President Wilson had made many statements in support of women's voting rights. Many activists felt that he had not done enough, however. He had not, for instance, appealed to Congress to vote in favor of a suffrage amendment. Wilson could have no direct role in the passage of a constitutional amendment, but his open declaration of support for the voting rights amendment, and his request that Congress support it as well, would have had significant weight. On January 9, 1918, Wilson offered his formal support of a national voting rights amendment. This was a shift from his former policy of preferring state suffrage. The different factions of the women's movement, represented by Catt of NAWSA and Paul of the National Woman's Party, each felt that their actions had been responsible for Wilson's new level of support. Many historians have speculated that both approaches, Catt's conservative diplomacy and Paul's confrontational activism, played crucial roles.
The day after Wilson's January 9 announcement, the House of Representatives began debate on the suffrage amendment, which had come to be known as the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. After heated Page 436
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arguments on both sides, the issue came to a vote, and the amendment passed by almost exactly the two-thirds majority required by law. Suffragists rejoiced, hopeful that the Senate would also approve the amendment and send it to the states for ratification. The Senate debate in August revealed that the amendment did not have enough support for a two-thirds majority. At the request of the suffragists, President Wilson paid a visit to the Senate, urging the senators to vote in favor of the Anthony Amendment. The Senate voted on October 1, 1918, falling two votes short of passage.
The following month, November 1918, brought the end of World War I as well as a new round of American congressional elections. This time NAWSA members and Alice Paul's National Woman's Party united Page 437 | Top of Articlein their efforts to defeat anti-suffrage candidates. Throughout early 1919, Catt continued with her Winning Plan, seeking full or partial suffrage in the states. Paul and her supporters continued staging provocative protests, again facing arrest and jail for their actions. A demonstration in New York on March 4 drew a particularly violent response from the police and angry onlookers. Marchers were beaten back by the police while mobs attacked the suffragists' headquarters. Meanwhile, as he shuttled back and forth to Europe negotiating the postwar peace treaties, President Wilson urged key senators to change their positions and vote in favor of the suffrage amendment.
After securing the pledge of a key senator to vote for the suffrage amendment, President Wilson convened a special session of Congress on May 19, 1919. The House of Representatives voted first, passing the amendment with well over the required two-thirds majority. On June 4, 1919, the Senate voted on the Nineteenth Amendment, and approved it with two votes to spare.
The battlefield then shifted from Capitol Hill to the states as the amendment was sent for ratification. The suffragists needed the lawmakers of thirty-six states, three-fourths of what was then the total of forty-eight states, to approve the amendment. Suffragists mobilized quickly, fearful that a delay would weaken support for the amendment and hopeful that the amendment would be ratified in time for women to vote in the 1920 presidential election. The anti-suffragists, including representatives from the liquor industry, also came out in full force. They applied intense pressure to state lawmakers to vote against suffrage. In many parts of the country, the suffrage movement was linked to the temperance movement because a number of women dedicated themselves to both causes. The Eighteenth Amendment, which would launch the period known as Prohibition and entail a national ban on alcohol, was set to take effect in January 1920, and the liquor industry had already begun attempts to repeal the amendment. With prospective women voters seen as supporters of Prohibition, alcohol producers were intent on denying women the right to vote.
On June 10, 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to vote for ratification. Several others quickly followed, despite the fact that, in several states; the governors had to call special meeting of their legislatures, which were not in session at the time. By the end of 1919, twenty-two Page 438
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states had ratified the amendment. Many of the votes were extremely close, particularly that of West Virginia in March 1920. That state's House of Representatives approved the measure, but the Senate was tied. Word came from state senator Jesse Bloch, who was vacationing in California, that he was racing home to vote in favor of ratification. In the meantime, the anti-suffragists produced a West Virginia senator who had resigned several months earlier. The former senator wanted to withdraw his resignation so he could rejoin the senate and vote against ratification. Senator Bloch soon arrived in West Virginia. The senate debated the issue, denied the resigned senator his place in the legislature, and narrowly approved the amendment. West Virginia became the thirty-fourth state to ratify.
Later that month, on March 22, 1920, the state of Washington unanimously ratified the amendment. Ratification from one more state would make the amendment law. Suffrage activists tried without success to obtain the necessary support in conservative New England states such as Connecticut, but the final battle was waged in the southern state of Tennessee. Throughout the month of August 1920, anti-suffragists used every device they could think of to sway the vote, including lawsuits, endless debates, delaying tactics, and threats to ruin legislators politically and financially. The Tennessee senate overwhelmingly approved the amendment. A tally of votes in the Tennessee House of Representatives revealed a tie, which would mean defeat for the suffragists. In the end, a twenty-four-year-old representative named Harry Burn, though elected by an anti-suffrage district, voted to ratify the amendment. He later revealed that his decision was made in part because his mother had urged him to vote in favor of suffrage. Despite last-minute attempts by the opposition to invalidate the vote, Tennessee became the thirty-sixth and final state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Ratification became official on August 26, 1920. After seventy-two years of activism, women had finally achieved the right to vote nationally.
After the amendment
Even after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granted all women the right to vote, African American women in the South faced decades of obstacles when trying to cast ballots. Just as they had done after black men had earned the right to vote in the 1860s, southern lawmakers passed measures that effectively prevented black women from voting. It wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that many of these inequalities were addressed.
In the aftermath of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, the suffragists who had devoted their lives to women's suffrage continued their activism, shifting their focus to other causes. Carrie Chapman Catt established the League of Women Voters, an organization dedicated to encouraging voting and educating voters. She advised women to become as involved as they could in the political system, working their way as far as possible into the inner circles of the Republican and Democratic parties. Catt later left the League of Women Voters and, along with Harriot Stanton Blatch, spent the rest of her life working toward world peace.
Alice Paul advocated a different approach than Catt. Paul urged the activists in her group to apply their energies to the passage of a new federal amendment: an equal rights amendment. Paul's goal was to change laws and customs that presumed women to be weaker, less capable, or less intelligent than men. She felt that gaining the right to vote had only been one part of achieving equality, and she urged women to exercise their newfound political power to further broaden their rights. Paul's proposed equal rights amendment became the focus of the remainder of her life, though it failed to gain congressional support until it became the centerpiece of the women's movement during the 1970s.
A number of suffrage activists expected the American political landscape to change radically once women had the right to vote. They believed that women would use the vote to promote dramatic social change. However, for the most part, the women who voted did not depart from the voting patterns of men. Millions of women, for the first several years after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, did not vote at all, perhaps believing the warnings of the anti-suffragists that women would lose their femininity if they meddled in politics. Not until the 1950s did women vote in numbers equal to that of men. For a great number of women, though, earning the right to vote made a great difference in their lives. They were full-fledged citizens and active participants in democracy. They could make their voices heard independent of their husbands or fathers. Many women believed that such values were of the utmost importance, well worth the decades of struggle they had endured to secure the right to vote. In A History of the American Suffragist Movement, Weatherford summed up the heroic and tireless efforts of the suffragists: "No peaceful political change ever has required so much from so many for so long. None but a mighty army could have won."
For More Information
Bausum, Ann. With Courage and Cloth: Winning the Fight for a Woman's Right to Vote. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2004.
Clift, Eleanor. Founding Sisters and the Nineteenth Amendment. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.
Dumbeck, Kristina. Leaders of Women's Suffrage. San Diego, CA: Lucent, 2001.
Frost, Elizabeth, and Kathryn Cullen-DuPont. Women's Suffrage in America: An Eyewitness History. New York: Facts on File, 1992.
Ward, Geoffrey C. Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Weatherford, Doris. A History of the American Suffragist Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.
Pizzi, Richard A. "Apostles of Cleanliness." Modern Drug Discovery (May 2002): pp. 51-55. This article can also be found online at http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/mdd/v05/i05/html/05ttl.html .
"History of Women's Suffrage." Anthony Center for Women's Leadership. http://www.rochester.edu/SBA/history.html (accessed on September 20, 2005).
"An Introduction to the Woman's Suffrage Movement." National Women's History Museum. http://www.nmwh.org/exhibits/tour_1.html (accessed on May 29, 2006).
Kovarik, Bill. "Ellen Swallow Richards and the Progressive Women's Reform Movement." Environmental History Timeline. http://www.radford.edu/∼wkovarik/envhist/richards.html (accessed on May 29, 2006).
"Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848–1921." The Library of Congress. http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/naw/nawshome.html (accessed on May 29, 2006).