The Womans Suffrage Movement in the 1800s
Suffrage is the right or exercise of the right to vote in public affairs. The freedom of an individual to express a desire for a change in government by choosing between competing people or ideas without fear of reprisal is basic to self-government. Any exclusion from the right to suffrage, or as it is also called, the franchise, excludes that person from a basic means for participation in the political decision-making process1.
In the United States at the time the Constitution was written, it is estimated that only six percent of the adult male population was entitled to vote2. Under the influence of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy, religious and property qualifications were eliminated. Racial barriers to voting existed legally until the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified after the civil war. Although the struggle to achieve equal rights for women to vote did not include a declared national war, it was nevertheless, a fierce battle fought primarily by determined female soldiers. Even though the womens suffrage movement started long before the civil war, it was the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment that set a precedence for human equality. This precedence was the antecedent that women needed to become more aggressive and increasingly vociferous, which ultimately led to their right to vote.
Like other suffrage movements, it was the strong leaders that ensured that the battle for womens rights would in their favor. Some of these leaders are familiar names in American history. Susan B. Anthony is probably the most well known pioneer of womens rights. Susan B. Anthony was educated in New York, and became a teacher. She soon became unsatisfied with this career and became an advocate for civil rights. Her initial efforts in this area, however, as an agent for the Daughters of Temperance and for the American Anti-Slavery Society, were disappointing, for she encountered discrimination as a woman3. Her strong friendship with feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton proved both crucial for herself and for the feminist crusade. Influenced by Stantons vigorous defense of womens rights, Anthony helped found the American Equal Rights Association in 1866. For the remainder of her life she was dedicated to this cause. She helped establish the National Suffrage Association in 1869 and in 1872 she was arrested for attempting to vote, claiming that the provisions of the fourteenth and fifteenth Amendments applied to all citizens, male and female4. Elizabeth Cady Stanton became the muscle behind this powerful duo. Stanton, a wife and mother, and Anthony brought attention to the issue of womens rights to the national level. Stanton was a advocate of more liberal divorce laws, less restrictive clothing for women, coeducation, and the right of married women to control their property. Stanton was the first president of both the National Womans suffrage Association and the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association. Along with Anthony, Stanton wrote many books on womens suffrage5. Many other people were responsible for the success of the Womens Suffrage movement as well. Less known activists include Matilda Jocelyn Gage, Ida Husted Harper, and Lucretia Coffin Mott. Mott was an American Quaker preacher, abolitionist, and leading womens rights advocate. She became the third piece to Anthonys and Stantons team. Mott became a symbol of the moral force of feminism and other kinds of reform in the nineteenth century. Mott, along with Stanton, organized one of the most important events of the womens suffrage movement in the 1800s6.
The demand for the enfranchisement of American women was first seriously formulated at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 . The first womens rights assembly in the United States, was organized by Lucretia Coffin Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and met at Seneca Falls, N.Y., on July 19-20. Attending were 68 women and 32 men7. These leaders of womens rights passed a Declaration of Sentiments, which paralleled the language of the Declaration of Independence and listed 16 forms of discrimination against women, including denial of suffrage and of control of their wages, their own persons, and their children8. Twelve resolutions calling for various rights were passed. Eleven received unanimous approval, whereas one, advocating the vote for women, was adopted over Motts opposition9. The convention was moved to Rochester, N.Y., two weeks later to win broader support for its goals. The Seneca Falls gathering established the womens rights cause as an organized movement.
Although it started strong, the womens suffrage movement had to take a back seat to the Civil Rights Movement which granted Blacks the right to vote. As stated before, many of the activists in the womens movement were also quite active in the abolitionists movement. Before the Civil War, the womens rights movement became intertwined with the struggle to abolish slavery. Having two separate struggles for freedom of repressed groups being fought simultaneously was to much political activity for the public as well as the federal leaders to acknowledge10. As history proves, the Civil Rights movement, basically the Civil War, was given first priority. The Fifteenth Amendment, which grants the right to all citizens of the United States to vote without discrimination of race or color, was not only a victory for the Blacks, but to the womens rights movement as well. The feminist leaders, along with many followers, believed that if this country granted the right to vote to former slaves, the fight for women at the ballots would not be as difficult to win11. This inspired women to demand attention. Organizations previously mentioned, led by Stanton, Anthony, and others, toured the country gaining support. They marched, held hunger strikes, and petitioned Congress. Women used the public circulation of Newspapers to voice their opinions.Many activists were arrested much like Susan B. Anthony, by attempting to vote and using the words of the Fifteenth Amendment as support. It was at this time that the Federal and State levels of government stepped in. The government backed up their reasoning by stating that women wouldnt have enough time to get involved with elections and still take care of their families. Another reason for not allowing women to vote was that the polls were unfit places for them to go12. At that time, there might be some drinking, gambling and fighting at polling places. Feminists did not accept these reasons at all. They simply answered that if men could find time to get involved in elections while they were working and supporting their families, then so could women. As for the fact that the polling places were reckless, women stated that they could easily make the polls a fit place for people to go to13. By the time women walked into the polling places, most of the initial leaders in the womens rights movement that were mentioned before had died, without personally experiencing the act of voting. However, other powerful women of the newer generation stepped into their places and made sure that the equality that so many fought for was indeed attained and maintained. It wasnt until the year 1920, that women were finally granted the right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment states that the right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. This amendment was introduced to Congress in 1878. This proposed amendment remained a controversial issue in Congress for over 40 years14.
The battle over womens rights was a long and labored fight. Powerful and intelligent women led the way, providing every woman with political options. Women such as Anthony, Stanton, Mott, and others, held the greatest advantage. Each of them held the passion and determination necessary to win the battle for womens rights. With this superior force, women battled for their rights step by step, addressing one issue and then another. The Seneca Falls Convention was an important corner stone for all women. Congress, along with state government heard for the first time the discriminations and solutions to unjust chauvinism15. However, Congress believed there were more important issues to govern. At first the Civil Rights movement seemed to be a hindrance to the womans suffrage movement by taking priority over it. Looking back into history, the outlaw of slavery and the right for Blacks to vote proved to be used by women as a great advantage. It was the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment which brought motivation and credence into the womens suffrage movement. Without the Fifteenth Amendment, the right to vote may had been missed by more generations of women.
1. Arlington, K.M. Voting Rights in America. The Oxford University Press; Oxford, New York. 1992.
2. Banner, L. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Random House, New York. 1987.
3. Barry, K. Susan B. Anthony. Harper and Row, New York. 1988.
4. Faber, Doris. Petticoat Politics: How Women Won the Right to Vote. Bantom Inc., New York. 1967.
5. Hewitt, Nancy. Womens Activism and Social Change. Fawcett Publications, Inc. Conn. 1984.
6. Immerman, Rita J. Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1995.
7. Zimmerman, Loretta Ellen. Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc. 1995.