Woman's Rights Movement

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In mid-July, 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Jane Hunt, and Martha Coffin Wright sat around a mahogany table in Mary Ann McClintock's parlor in Waterloo, New York, writing a Declaration of Sentiments calling for changes in American law and custom that would grant women rights that were equal to those of free, white men, rights denied to women for centuries.

early reform efforts

Sensitized to gender discrimination partly as a result of their participation in the abolitionist movement, they had a wide variety of complaints. They pointed out that being denied the right to vote, women had no voice in the passage of the laws they were expected to obey. They charged that married women had no right to control either their inherited property or their wages and that a mother's right to custody of her children was tenuous. They pointed out that women's access to employment was limited and that when they did work, they were frequently poorly paid (and certainly paid less than men).

Higher education and the ministry were closed to women, they complained. Women were held to a higher moral standard than men. Men, they charged, had attempted to destroy women's self-confidence and self-respect. For these reasons, they explained, women were "aggrieved" and "oppressed." Having been "deprived of their most sacred rights," they, like the founding fathers, demanded redress of their grievances.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton presented the Declaration of Sentiments to the first woman's rights convention, held in the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19 and 20, 1848. More than one hundred men and women signed the document, although the demand for woman's right to vote caused the greatest dissension. Similar conventions, petition campaigns, and public speaking tours during 1850s allowed woman's rights supporters to solicit popular support for their cause.

When the Civil War began in 1861, woman's rights advocates agreed to temporarily shift the focus of their reform efforts to winning the war and freeing the slaves. Toward that end, Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who had joined the woman's rights movement in early 1850s, established the Woman's National Loyal League. Its members helped to collect over 400,000 signatures on anti-slavery petitions sent to Congress.

The war ended in 1865, and abolitionists were determined to secure the rights of emancipated slaves by guaranteeing their claim to citizenship and their right to vote through the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments. Woman's rights advocates supported those efforts but objected to the fact that the amendments said nothing about the rights of women. Some agreed with their abolitionist allies that it was the "Negro's hour" and were willing to wait to secure women's rights. Others like Stanton and Anthony were not willing to do so. In May 1866 Stanton and Anthony formed the American Equal Rights Association. Through that organization they campaigned to abolish both sex and race restrictions on rights from state constitutions.

conservatives and radicals

During the next three years, personal differences, combined with disagreements over priorities and strategy, further divided the leaders of the woman's rights movement. In 1869, Anthony and Stanton formed the National Woman's Suffrage Association (NWSA). Lucy Stone, Henry Blackwell, and Julia Ward Howe formed the American Woman's Suffrage Association (AWSA). The NWSA was the more radical of the two. While the AWSA focused on getting the vote, the NWSA supported a broad reform agenda.

In order to promote that agenda, Stanton and Anthony collaborated with individuals who compromised the high moral tone of the original woman's rights movement. They accepted financial support from Francis Train, a man opposed to black suffrage, in order to pay for the publication of their newspaper, The Revolution. The NWSA also became associated with Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president of the United States in the election of 1872 on the platform of free love. The connection between Woodhull and the NWSA undermined whatever interest respectable, middle-class women might have had in the movement. The result was that while interest in woman's rights remained, neither the NWSA nor the AWSA flourished during the late 1870s and early 1880s.

By the late 1880s, memory of the Woodhull affair had diminished, grass roots support for woman's rights was growing, black women were organizing, and a new generation of woman's rights advocates was emerging. Individual states had passed laws expanding woman's rights to their own property and easier access to divorce. In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA buried their differences and joined together to form the National American Woman's Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt and Anna Howard Shaw, the NAWSA conducted the campaign that led, finally in 1920, to the passage of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution granting women the right to vote. Their success attested to the dedication of generations of women and to the inspiration gained from the liberation of slaves and the struggle for equal rights.


DuBois, Ellen Carol. Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848–1869. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. New York: Antheneum, 1972.

Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African-American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Sylvia D. Hoffert

See also:Abolition; Anthony, Susan B.; Constitutional Changes and Amendments; Douglass, Frederick; Stanton, Elizabeth Cady; Women on the Homefront.