Woman Suffrage Movement

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The first formal demand for equal political rights for women was made by elizabeth cady stanton at the 1848 seneca falls convention. Among the radical pioneers of the early women's rights movement, woman suffrage was at first controversial, because electoral politics was considered disreputable and partisanship fundamentally male. However, after the civil war and the abolition of slavery, questions of citizenship and enfranchisement had moved to the top of the national political agenda, and woman suffrage was widely accepted by women's rights activists as their foremost demand. At this point we can properly begin to speak about an American woman suffrage movement.

At war's end, woman suffrage leaders expected that white women would win the franchise along with freedmen and freedwomen via the establishment of universal suffrage. However, the Republican authors of the fifteenth amendment refused to include "sex" alongside "race, color and previous condition of servitude" as federally prohibited disfranchisements. The woman suffrage forces disagreed over how to deal with this setback, as a result of which two rival organizations were formed. In one last effort to secure woman suffrage as part of reconstruction, one of these societies, the National Woman Suffrage Association, developed an innovative constitutional argument. They contended that women as well as men had been made national citizens by the first clause of the fourteenth amendment; inasmuch as the franchise must be regarded as the defining right of citizenship, women thus already possessed the ballot and had merely to exercise it. In 1875, in minor v. happersett the Supreme Court ruled against this construction and held that while women were indeed citizens, voting was not a right but a privilege, which could be constitutionally denied to women.

Over the next decades, the woman suffrage movement gained adherents. Of greatest importance was the endorsement of woman suffrage, as the best means to control liquor and protect the home, by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union under the leadership of Frances Willard. By 1890, woman suffrage, which had begun as a radical demand among a handful of antebellum ultraist reformers, was gaining ground among respectable, politically mainstream middle-class American women. That year, the two suffrage societies buried their differences and combined to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As woman suffrage became more acceptable, the movement, which had been forged in the fires of abolition and emancipation, became increasingly racist in its arguments and organizations. Nonetheless, in these same years African American women, who well knew the power of the vote, actively pursued votes for women through their own pro-suffrage societies, such as the National Association of Colored Women.

The constitutional upheavals of the Reconstruction era had left unresolved the question of where sovereignty over the electorate lay, with the several states or with the federal government. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while the progress to federal woman suffrage was stalled, advocates of votes for women concentrated on securing their goal by amending the constitutions of particular states. In 1869 and 1870, respectively, the territorial legislatures of Wyoming and Utah enacted woman suffrage provisions, which were retained when they became states in the 1890s. In 1893, Colorado became the first state in which the male electorate voted to amend the state constitution so as to grant women full voting rights. Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), and California (1911) followed. By 1912, there were ten "woman suffrage states," all west of the Mississippi. In the East, however, the "state method" could not prevail. In 1915, voters in four major eastern states—New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts—decisively defeated woman suffrage referenda. At this point, woman suffragists turned their attention back to winning a federal amendment.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, the suffrage movement itself was also changing. Steady growth in the female labor force and massive immigration altered both the composition and approaches of suffragism. New suffrage organizations oriented toward wage-earning women were founded in New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Female college graduates, whose numbers were growing, also flooded into the movement. The suffragist tactical arsenal was reinvented as well, as advocates moved their demands into public spaces, organized mass parades, conducted automobile caravans, and became adept at street-corner speaking.

As an expression of these changes, a second national organization, the Congressional Union (subsequently known as the Woman's Party) was formed in 1913. Its goal was to pursue more aggressively a woman suffrage amendment to the federal Constitution. Known as the "militants," this new wing turned to the voting women of the ten "suffrage states," urging women to vote against the reelection of President woodrow wilson in 1916 to punish the Democrats for refusing to support a federal suffrage amendment. Once the United States entered world war i, however, the militants switched from electoral methods to civil disobedience, picketing the White House, for which many were arrested and jailed. Meanwhile, the majority of American suffragists, who were associated with the moderate National American Woman Suffrage Association, continued to rely on congressional lobbying.

By 1920, the combination of these approaches, plus the political transformations following the war, finally led to the passage and ratification of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the states from disfranchising its citizens on the grounds of sex.

Ellen Carol Du Bois


Du Bois, Ellen Carol 1978 Feminism and Suffrage. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

——1998 Woman Suffrage and Women's Rights. New York: New York University Press.

Flexner, Eleanor and Fitzpatrick, Ellen 1996 Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Kraditor, Aileen 1965 Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890–1920. New York: Columbia University Press.

Wheeler, Marjorie Spruill, ed. 1995 One Woman, One Vote:Rediscovering the Suffrage Movement. Troutdale, Oregon: New Sage Press.

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Woman Suffrage Movement

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