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The Suffrage Movement

The Suffrage Movement


Fighting for Voting Rights . Among womens rights activists, the most hotly debated topic of the day was suffragethe right to vote. The suffrage movement was a quarter of a century old by the end of Reconstruction, and women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were having a difficult time understanding how African American men could be extended the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1870) and yet women could be regarded as unfit to vote. The increase in college programs to educate women and their success in such social and political efforts as the settlement-house movement only exaggerated the outrage of activist women that they lacked the basic rights of an American citizen. In 1869 two national organizations were formed to attack the problem: Stanton and Anthony formed the National Woman Suffrage Association to work for a constitutional amendment to give women the vote. Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone, both of whom favored the Fifteenth Amendment, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association to focus on state referenda.

Forging a Single Association . The two national associations combined into the National-American Woman Suffrage Association in 1890, but many issues, especially Prohibition, continued to make unity difficult. The eastern wing of the new association associated immigration with alcoholism, and they felt that by opposing the sale of alcohol they could garner the support of conservative men. Many women in the western states, on the other hand, argued that they could never get the support of men in their region if they advocated closing bars. Despite such tensions, suffragists agreed that women needed the ballot to clean up corrupt governments, to protect their own interests, and to enhance their capacity to carry out their traditional roles. Only a mother who exercised her right to vote, they argued, could truly teach her children how to be an upstanding citizen.

Female Reformers . Calling for city housekeeping, women active in temperance, the settlement-house movement, and suffrage created a new kind of womens reform movement. All these movements argued that they were protecting and enhancing home life and contributing a valuable new perspective to justify womens involvement in public life. The WCTU campaigned on the promise that prohibition of alcohol would protect home life. Suffragists argued that women voters would bring compassion and charity to politics and end the pervasive corruption in local, state, and national governments. Settlement-house workers argued that city and state authorities must assume a maternal responsibility for the most vulnerable members of society. By politicizing such feminine characteristics as nurturing, domesticity, and purity late-nineteenth-century female reformers offered a new view of women and a new vision of government.


Like many female reformers of the 1890s, Frances Willard, president of the Womans Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), believed in healthy diet and exercise. In fall 1893 Willard, who was in her fifties, took up the popular new sport of bicycle riding, attracting the attention of the New York Worldy which described her cycling costume as a navy blue blazer, a shirt waist and a skirt, 5 1/2 inches from the floor, alpine hat and bicycle boots/ Willard later described how she learned to ride her bicycle, which she named Gladys, in a popular book, A Wheel within a Wheel (1895):

The bicycle is like the world. When it had thrown me painfully once, and more especially when it threw one of my dearest friends, then for a time Gladys had gladsome ways for me no longer, but seemed the embodiment of misfortune and dread,... I finally concluded that all failure was from a wobbling will rather than a wobbling wheel... January 20 will always be a red-letter bicycle day because, summoning all my force, Ï mounted and started off alone. Gladys was no more a mystery. Amid the delightful surroundings of the great outdoors. ...1 had made myself master of the most remarkable, ingenious, and inspiring motor ever yet devised upon this planet. Moral: Go thou and do likewise

Racism. Racism continued to haunt the woman suffrage movement until the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. As more white southern women joined the movement at the end of the century, they voiced deep reluctance to be a part of any organization I which had African American members. Remaining allied with their husbands, brothers, and fathers, white women upheld the racist policies of the Jim Crow laws in the South. As the push for ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment strengthened after the turn of the century, the national suffrage movement accepted the views of its southern members in an effort to win the support of southern states.


Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Womens Movement in America, 1848-1869 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978);

Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Womans Rights Movement in America, revised edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975);

Paula Giddings, Where and When I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (New York: Morrow, 1984).

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