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United States Suffrage Movement in the 19th Century: Introduction

UNITED STATES SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT IN THE 19TH CENTURY: INTRODUCTION

For two days in July 1848, a convention of women and a number of male supporters met in Seneca Falls, New York, to publicly address a number of grievances related to the subjugation of women. The culmination of this gathering was the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, modeled directly on the language of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and it called for gender equality in relation to marriage, property rights, legal status, contract law, child custody matters, and, most radically, voting rights. Undeterred by the chorus of criticism they received from the press and the public at large, women leaders from the Seneca Falls Convention, among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Julia Ward Howe, and Lucy Stone, began a lifetime crusade to win voting rights for American women. Most of these early suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, would not live long enough to enjoy the right for which they fought so long. Only in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, were women given federal access to the polling booth.

The most common explanation for why the Seneca Falls convention took place has to do with the outrage that American women abolitionists felt when they were denied positions as delegates at the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840. They were forced to sit behind a curtain during the official proceedings, silently listening to the arguments of men. Spurred by this event, as well as countless jeers from an audience that overwhelmingly believed it unseemly for a woman to speak in public, nineteenth-century abolitionists vented their anger about their imposed inferiority in their declarations of woman's rights at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. There, in the hometown of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women demanded that they be given rights traditionally enjoyed only by property-owning, white men—especially the right to vote, which Stanton argued was the most important obstacle in the path of true gender equality. The following year, in 1849, the National Woman's Rights Association was formed, its membership firmly committed to winning voting rights for American women.

For the remainder of the century, women's suffrage gradually gained support from an ever-skeptical public that often argued that American social and national stability would be undermined if women were allowed to vote. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, momentum for women's suffrage increased as questions related to whether former slaves should be allowed to vote consumed the nation's attention. While nearly all suffragists had supported the extension of citizenship, civil rights, and liberties to freed blacks in the Fourteenth Amendment, their leadership split over whether to support the Fifteenth Amendment as it was proposed—guaranteeing citizens the right to vote, regardless of their race—or to campaign for the inclusion of gender in the equal protection clause. In 1869 suffragists divided into two organizations over this debate: the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Howe and Stone, which supported ratification, and the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Anthony and Stanton, which argued that although black men should be allowed to vote, any constitutional amendment which excluded women could not in good conscience be supported. After passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the rival suffrage organizations continued their work. In 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association held its first convention in what would become an annual event for the next fifty years to build grassroots support for a federal amendment to the constitution, granting women voting rights. The American Woman Association increasingly turned its attention to state congresses in hopes of winning female enfranchisement state by state. Their first victory came quickly in 1869 when the Territory of Wyoming became the first place where women were allowed to vote; in 1870 Utah followed suit. Other western states and territories would continue this trend over the next two decades, probably due to social conditions in frontier regions where women often assumed roles that were not available to them in eastern states.

After 1870, women suffragists also became increasingly militant in their tactics to win voting rights. Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872 despite the fact that she and the women she hoped to represent could not vote. Also in 1872, Anthony tested voting rights in New York by placing her ballot in a local election. She was promptly arrested for illegal voting, and the following year she was pronounced guilty in a trial in which she was not allowed to testify in her own defense because she was a woman. Anthony's eloquent and forceful denunciation of that verdict after the judge asked her if she had anything to say about her sentence and fine became a lightning rod for fellow suffragists. Over the next decades, numerous women intentionally challenged the law against voting, using their acts of civil disobedience and the guilty verdicts they invariably received to showcase the injustice of unequal voting rights. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, suffragists continued to work for voting rights. In 1890 the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As many scholars have noted, their tactics in the last decade of the century were often aimed at gaining popular support for their movement by making the cause seem less radical than it was commonly perceived. This was done in a variety of ways, some women stressing that woman's supposed moral superiority would prove itself a boon for social reform and regeneration through the ballot box. Others argued that women needed the vote to gain power in relationships too often dominated by drunken, abusive husbands.

Scholars continue to study the language, strategies, and influence of the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement, examining in particular the outspoken articulations of women's increasing demand to be given rights traditionally denied them. These studies have also begun in the past three decades to focus on lesser-known voices for gender equality and woman suffrage, especially from black women who suffered the prejudices of both gender and race, even from white women who often excluded black women from their delegations and conventions either as a result of their own or the perceived prejudices of their audiences.

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