Jessica O’Brien Pursell. Women’s Rights: People and Perspectives. Editor: Crista DeLuzio. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2010.
The Nineteenth—or Susan B. Anthony—Amendment was officially added to the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920. The text of the amendment is straightforward: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” This marked the culmination of 72 years of organized struggle. Women fought and even gave their lives for these 40 words. The passage of the Nineteenth Amendment was an undisputed victory for women’s rights and was essential for forging the United States into a more democratic nation. Unfortunately, the fight for full gender and social equality was far from over.
Inspiring national activists such as Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Alice Paul led the struggle for the vote, but focusing solely on these women leaves much of the story untold. Many women worked for suffrage on the local level, and the women of several western states won the vote with little help from the foremost national suffrage group, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Women in many communities also lobbied successfully for partial voting rights that allowed them to vote in certain types of elections, such as school-board selection, before the Nineteenth Amendment enfranchised all women. African American women also formed local suffrage groups and built coalitions within their communities. Despite the racism that was endemic in turn-of-the-century American society and prevalent in the suffrage movement, some African American women played important roles in the national suffrage organizations. Working-class women also supported the suffrage movement, sometimes risking their livelihoods to do so. Although the visible leadership of the national movement was predominantly white and middle class, by 1920 women from every walk of life were working for the vote. Women argued for the vote on the basis of their common humanity with men, asserting that they had an equal right to suffrage as adult citizens in a democracy; they also argued for the vote on the basis of their gender difference, claiming that as morally superior beings they would use the vote to improve society. Whatever their arguments and backgrounds, all suffrage advocates saw the vote as a vital tool for bettering their own lives and ensuring the progress of the American nation.
The Organized Struggle Begins: Seneca Falls and the Birth of a Women’s Rights Movement
Women of the early and mid-19th century were bound by the legal principle of coverture. In most states, they could not sign contracts or hold property after marriage. Single women who were independent and worked made only a fraction of what men earned in the industrial economy. In 1807, New Jersey, the only state in which women could vote, passed a law revoking that right, and all women in the United States were excluded from the elective franchise. Many people believed that women were morally superior to men, but were biologically ill suited to participate in the activities of public life. Some women, however, drew on assumptions about their moral superiority and became involved in various reform efforts in the antebellum period (1820-1860), including moral reform, temperance, and the abolitionist movement.
As more women became active in social reform, they began thwarting customs by speaking in public, holding executive offices, and even managing the affairs of large organizations. Women’s participation in the reform movements of the antebellum period not only helped women hone their leadership and organizational skills, it brought their subordinate position in society into sharp focus. An example of this was the 1840 World’s Anti-Slavery Convention held in London. Some American abolitionist societies sent women as their delegates to the London convention. One such delegate was Lucretia Mott, a Quaker activist. Although these women were elected by their home societies and traveled across the Atlantic, they were not allowed to participate or vote in the affairs of the convention. Outraged, Mott and fellow abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton discussed the need for a convention that would focus solely on women’s issues.
The first women’s rights convention convened eight years later in Seneca Falls, New York. This marked the birth of an organized women’s rights movement in the United States. Stanton drafted the convention’s Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, which, like the Declaration of Independence, called for a repressed people to rise up against an oppressive government and demand their “inalienable” rights. In the first part of the Declaration, Stanton specified the many ways in which men oppressed women by both law and custom. Women were denied voting rights, legal and property rights in marriage, rights to child custody in cases of divorce, and educational and economic opportunity. They were subjected to a sexual double standard, which punished them for “moral delinquencies” that men were allowed to commit with impunity. Women who did own property were taxed by a government in which they had no voice and no representation. By subjecting woman to all of these travesties, man relegated her to a separate and narrow “sphere of action,” and worked hard “to destroy her confidence in her own powers” so as to convince her that her subordination was ordained by God and nature. In the Declaration, Stanton stated that some women were no longer willing to accept the inferior position to which men had assigned them. “[B]ecause women do feel themselves aggrieved, oppressed, and fraudulently deprived of their most sacred rights,” she declared, “we insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.” Stanton then went on to enumerate a list of resolutions that proclaimed woman to be identical to man in “capabilities and responsibilities” and that claimed for her the equal right to determine the course of her own life and to participate fully in the public life of the nation, including in the realm of electoral politics (Stanton, Anthony, and Gage 1887, 70-72).
Although many of the participants at Seneca Falls agreed that women should have more rights in society, Stanton’s resolution calling for the vote was too radical for some. Of all of her demands, this was the one that posed the greatest threat to women’s dependence on and subordination to men. Following debate on the suffrage issue, it was ratified and included in the Declaration. At the close of the convention, 68 women and 32 men signed the Declaration of Sentiments, with all of its resolutions approved, including the controversial one demanding the right to vote.
The Seneca Falls Convention inspired many local conventions and a yearly national convention. These became the main vehicle for women’s rights activism until the Civil War. Two women quickly rose to respected positions within the fledgling movement, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Susan B. Anthony began her career as a speaker and leader in the temperance movement, but like Mott and Stanton, she soon felt the need to address women’s causes. Stanton, a mother of seven, remained active in the women’s movement by sending letters and written statements to various conventions and officials, but like many women, she would be unable to attend most events due to her familial responsibilities. Anthony and Stanton met in 1851 and developed a close and productive friendship devoted to one another and to the cause of women’s rights. When Stanton was unable to attend conventions, it was Anthony who delivered her inspiring speeches. Anthony’s own skills were strongest in organizing and planning, although she also became a popular speaker on suffrage and women’s issues.
Throughout the 1850s, women’s rights activists wrote and spoke about the range of grievances and demands articulated in the Declaration of Sentiments. They advocated for equal legal rights in marriage, educational opportunity, equal wages, and access to jobs and the professions. Some, most notably Stanton, boldly pushed for more radical reforms, such as married women’s control over their own reproduction, dress reform, and divorce reform. Stanton also repeatedly emphasized that the most essential tool for realizing any fundamental and lasting improvements in women’s status and condition was the elective franchise. “ Think you, if woman had a vote in this government, that all those laws affecting her interests would so entirely violate every principle of right and justice?” she pointedly asked at Seneca Falls. “Had woman a vote to give, might not the office-holders and seekers propose some change in her condition?” (DuBois 1992, 32) Other women’s rights activists quickly embraced Stanton’s reasoning. Following the nation’s terrible Civil War, the vote would decisively come to dominate the women’s rights agenda for more than 50 years.
Mobilizing for and against Suffrage after the Civil War
During the upheaval of the Civil War (1861-1865), the conventions and agitation for women’s rights were put aside. The destruction and chaos caused by the war necessitated the full attention of the nation. In the North and South, women and men suffered from the terrible loss of life and the destruction of homes and communities. Women also played active roles in the war effort, by running homes, farms, plantations, and businesses when men were called away to fight, and by serving the Union and Confederate armies as cooks, laundresses, nurses, and spies. Some women disguised themselves as men and served as soldiers. Northern women drew on their decades of experience in social reform movements and formed the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which proved to be highly successful in improving sanitary conditions in hospitals, raising money, organizing relief supplies, and coordinating nursing efforts for the Union army. Women volunteers won high praise for their work with the Sanitary Commission; they also honed the organizational skills and sense of self-confidence that helped to prepare them for involvement in a new round of social reform efforts in the years following the Civil War. Led by Anthony and Stanton, some northern women also participated in the Woman’s National Loyal League, which organized a petition campaign to pressure members of Congress to pass an amendment to the constitution abolishing slavery. In part due to these efforts, the Thirteenth Amendment was passed and ratified in 1865. For many women’s rights activists, it seemed that their ardent work in the abolitionist movement was finally paying off.
The Civil War was followed by a period of Reconstruction (1865-1877), during which Americans engaged in crucial struggles over the terms of national reunification and the meaning of U.S. citizenship. At war’s end, women’s rights advocates resumed their activities, hopeful that this was the moment when full citizenship rights for African Americans and women would at last be achieved. In 1866, Anthony and Stanton, along with other women’s rights activists, founded the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) to fight for universal suffrage, or voting rights for both African Americans and women. That same year, Radical Republicans in Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, with the intent to grant former slaves citizenship. The wording of the first paragraph gave women hope as well. The amendment began with the guarantee that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” The second section of the Fourteenth Amendment, however, encouraged states to grant voting rights exclusively to their adult male citizens. This marked the first mention of gender in the federal constitution. Some women’s rights activists were dismayed by the wording and petitioned members of Congress to change it. In response, they were told by their former abolitionist male allies that this was the “negro’s hour” and that black male suffrage was to take priority over woman suffrage (Dubois 1978, 61). Following the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, Congress more vigorously sought to secure black male voting rights when it passed the Fifteenth Amendment, which declared that the right of U.S. citizens to vote could not be denied on the basis of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Ratified in 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment explicitly excluded voting rights protections on the basis of gender.
Women’s rights activists disagreed over the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Some, such as Anthony, Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, opposed the amendments, and once they were ratified, called for the passage of a sixteenth amendment, one that would clearly grant women the right to vote. Others, such as Fredrick Douglass, Lucy Stone, and her husband Henry Blackwell, supported the amendments. They thought that the rights of black men had to be secured before rejoining the struggle for woman suffrage. The American Equal Rights Association disintegrated over the controversy. In its wake, two rival organizations emerged: The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). Both founded in 1869, these organizations pursued different visions of gender equality and utilized different tactics for achieving their goals. Together, they marked the establishment of an independent movement on behalf of woman suffrage in the United States.
The National Woman Suffrage Association was formed by Anthony and Stanton. Anthony and Stanton continued to agitate for the wide range of women’s issues mapped out in the Declaration of Sentiments, and leaned toward more-radical strategies in working toward their goals. The NWSA’s main publication, The Revolution, addressed such controversial issues as abortion, marriage reform, divorce, and prostitution. Anthony and Stanton also sought to win working-class women’s support by advocating for equal pay for equal work and access to male-dominated jobs. Women needed political power, they argued, in order to achieve opportunity, justice, and equality in all areas of their lives.
Even as it reached out to working women, the NWSA turned its back on the issue of racial equality and came to associate women’s rights exclusively with white women. Stanton’s “Address to the New York Legislature on Women’s Rights” in 1854 foreshadowed the racist arguments that would surface during the post-Civil War debates over universal suffrage. “We [white educated women] are moral, virtuous, and intelligent, and in all respects quite equal to the proud white man himself,” she declared, “and yet by your laws we are classed with idiots, lunatics, and Negroes” (DuBois 1992, 45). This argument, that the vote should be limited to educated persons regardless of sex, was a chilling forerunner of the language used in the laws passed in southern states in the aftermath of Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from voting. Some such laws required a man to prove that his grandfather had voted before he himself could vote, or required a potential African American voter to take a literacy test that was impossible to pass. African Americans were also required to pay poll taxes to register to vote, which most could not afford. Sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court, these laws effectively ignored the intent of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and kept many African Americans, both men and women, from voting until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Several months after the founding of the NWSA, Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell organized the American Woman Suffrage Association. Stone and Blackwell, who were married to each other, were ardent suffrage workers. Stone even retained her maiden name after their marriage. Maintaining ties with former abolitionists and the Republican Party, the AWSA supported the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but also worked for the passage of woman suffrage on the local and state levels. Unlike the radical NWSA, the more conservative AWSA focused almost completely on the vote and avoided controversial issues such as divorce and women’s reproductive rights. Stone served as the chief editor of the AWSA’s newspaper, The Woman’s Journal, which exclusively reported on suffrage news. While its rival The Revolution survived for only two years, The Woman’s Journal would be published continually for the next half-century, and became the primary organ of the suffrage movement.
While the AWSA devoted its energies to local and state campaigns, the NWSA pursued a strategy that entailed a creative interpretation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments known as the “New Departure.” This argument asserted that women were persons, and therefore entitled to the full rights of national citizenship, as provided by the Fourteenth Amendment. Furthermore, voting was one of the privileges and immunities guaranteed to citizens under that same amendment. Among the women arriving at polling places armed with this constitutional argument was Susan B. Anthony, who cast her vote for the Republican ticket in Rochester, New York in 1872. “No barriers whatever stand today between women and the exercise of their right to vote,” Anthony contended, “save those of precedent and prejudice, which refuse to expunge the word ‘male’ from the constitution” (DuBois, 1992, 155-56). For her act, Anthony was arrested, tried, and found guilty by order of the judge. She was fined $100 plus court costs, which she adamantly refused to pay. The New Departure ended when the Supreme Court ruled in Minor v. Happersett (1875) that suffrage was not an inherent right of citizenship. “ It is clear,” Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote in the unanimous opinion of the Court, “that the Constitution has not added the right of suffrage to the privileges and immunities of citizenship as they existed at the time it was adopted” (Waite 1875). The Supreme Court affirmed that women were undoubtedly citizens, but being a citizen did not automatically guarantee suffrage. NWSA leaders now knew they would need to work for a separate constitutional amendment in order to secure woman suffrage as a right of national citizenship.
As the NWSA and the AWSA pursued their various strategies for winning women the vote, they encountered opponents trying to thwart their efforts. In the same year that these organizations were founded, another group related to woman suffrage was born: the Woman’s Anti-Suffrage Association of Washington City. There were many reasons why a woman might not wish to see women enfranchised. Some believed that politics was too corrupt and would taint and degrade women. Others firmly believed that a woman’s main duty was to her family and that involvement in politics would hinder her in that duty. When a pro-suffrage proposal was introduced in the Massachusetts State Legislature in 1869, close to 200 women signed a petition arguing that suffrage would “diminish the purity, the dignity and the moral influence of woman, and bring into the family circle a dangerous element of discord” (Robinson 1881, 101). The members of the Legislature agreed with the petitioners, and no action was taken on the matter of suffrage during that session. Cartoonists of the era never grew tired of imagining the disarray of homes where women were too busy with politics to fulfill their domestic duties. Still others argued that although some women were entirely capable of undertaking civic duties, the majority of women were not. This argument often included concerns about lower-class, immigrant, Native American, and African American women voting.
Despite the discouraging influence of the anti-suffragists, in 1869, Wyoming became the first territory to grant women the right to vote. When the decidedly anti-suffragist United States Congress balked at conferring statehood on the territory in 1890, Wyoming did not even consider denying women the vote in order to appease those in Washington. Nevertheless, in 1890, “The Equality State” was admitted to the union. The second territory where women could vote equally with men was the Utah territory, where women began voting in 1870. In addition to these victories in the West, the suffrage movement received a great boost in the 1880s, when leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), Frances Willard, endorsed the suffrage cause. Founded in 1874, the WCTU was one of a growing number of women’s clubs during the Gilded Age (1870-1900) devoted to women’s self-improvement and to social reform. Under Willard’s leadership, the WCTU became the largest and most important women’s organization in the late 19th century. Willard reasserted a link between temperance and women’s rights. She argued that because women were morally superior beings, God called on them to advocate for the right to vote so that they could one day use their political power to protect the Christian home. “Women will bless and brighten every place she enters,” Willard asserted, “and she will enter every place” (Gifford 1995, 119). Willard’s appeal for what she called the “Home Protection Ballot” won over many evangelical women to the suffrage cause. It also advanced what would become the most prominent argument for suffrage during the Progressive Era (1900-1920). Whereas the Declaration of Sentiments asserted that the vote was a natural right that belonged to every individual citizen in a democracy, regardless of gender, Willard and other women reformers at the turn of the century would proclaim that women needed the vote so that they could bring their unique female moral and emotional qualities to bear on efforts to improve public life.
The argument by WCTU members and other women reformers that women would use the vote to clean up society generated determined opposition from several business interests. Most notable was the liquor industry.
Saloonkeepers, brewers, and distillers all feared that women would use the vote to support national prohibition. They also predicted that even without the passage of anti-liquor laws, the industry would lose business because men would avoid their customary pre-voting saloon trip if they expected to encounter women at the polls. Other industries joined liquor proponents in organizing against woman suffrage, especially those, such as the textile industry,
that employed large numbers of women and children to work in deplorable conditions for low wages. They, too, feared that women would use the vote to force industry regulations that would undermine their autonomy and threaten their profits.
In the 25 years following the Civil War, suffragists faced formidable obstacles from federal and state governments and big business, as well as from ordinary men and women. Suffrage victories in these years were few. Nonetheless, suffragists mobilized two national organizations on behalf of their cause, whose varying goals and approaches generated some interest and participation in the movement at the grassroots level. In the broader terrain of women’s rights, women made important strides in these years in gaining access to higher education. They also increasingly found their way into the public sphere by becoming involved in organizations dedicated to social reform, by taking jobs in the burgeoning postwar industrial workforce, and by entering into some professions. All of these developments would have important consequences as women persisted in their struggle for the vote and the suffrage movement entered a new phase as the 19th century drew to a close.
Building a Mass Movement: Unity and Diversity in the Suffrage Movement after 1890
During the first two decades of the 20th century, millions of American women from a range of social backgrounds were drawn into support for the suffrage cause. The development of suffrage into a mass movement was no easy achievement. Suffragists continued to face resistance from external opponents. They also wrestled with divisions within the movement over issues related to race, ethnicity, and class, as well as over strategies and tactics. The turn-of-the-century suffrage movement was thus characterized by unity and diversity, cooperation and disagreement. The mix proved to be both volatile and vitalizing as suffragists continued with the hard work of securing women’s political equality.
The first step toward the development of suffrage as a mass movement occurred in 1890, when the American Woman Suffrage Association merged with the National Woman Suffrage Association to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association . During the previous 20 years, women had become more comfortable in asserting themselves in the public sphere as they took part in the expanding and increasingly civic-minded women’s club movement. Clubwomen justified their activities outside the home on the basis of their maternal qualities and responsibilities, and as a result, received growing public acceptance for their efforts. Many women concluded that they needed the vote in order to achieve the social reforms they desired, and were eager to join an organization that would help them achieve this goal. Susan B. Anthony saw this as a great opportunity for the suffrage movement and envisioned the NAWSA as a broad-based organization focused exclusively on the issue of the vote.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton served as the NAWSA’s first president. Now that Stanton’s children were older, she had more time and energy to devote to the causes dearest to her. Stanton disagreed with Anthony’s focus on the vote, and still had broad reform in mind. Stanton’s radical views, including her assertion that Christianity was misogynistic, caused so much turmoil that she left the NAWSA in 1892. Anthony then presided over the organization until her resignation in 1900. The NAWSA’s strategy was to work for suffrage on the state level. Despite the newfound interest by clubwomen in the vote as a tool for social reform, the organization was slow to grow, claiming only 17,000 members in 1905. In the early 1890s, three western states—Colorado, Utah, and Idaho —awarded women full voting rights, and some Midwestern states granted them the right to vote in local elections. Between 1896 and 1910, however, the NAWSA’s state campaigns met only with discouraging defeat.
The earliest histories of the suffrage movement, including the monumental six-volume History of Woman Suffrage (1881-1922), edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and Ida Husted Harper, told the story of the white middle-class leaders of the movement. Most of the women in local suffrage organizations had no one to write their histories, and the stories of working-class and minority suffragists went largely untold. In recent years, historians have begun to piece together the many other facets of the suffrage effort. They have discovered a complex suffrage movement that was at times compromised by struggles over issues related to race, class, and ethnicity, but that was also energized by the many contributions of diverse groups of women devoted to the cause.
Women across the country, from Florida to Washington, organized local suffrage clubs in order to work for the vote. The NAWSA courted local southern women to join the movement by holding conventions in Atlanta, New Orleans, and Baltimore. By 1903, every southern state had at least one NAWSA affiliate, and strong state leaders such as Laura Clay and Kate Gordon were advocating southern issues to the NAWSA leadership. In the North, where suffrage groups had a longer history, Ida B. Wells-Barnett organized a Chicago suffrage club for African American women, called the Alpha Suffrage Club. Local organizations elected officers, held meetings, and even lobbied local governments for increased voting rights in local, state, and national elections.
After 1890, these local suffrage groups could chose to affiliate themselves with the NAWSA. This relationship worked both ways. The NAWSA benefited from the increased membership, from the efforts of local suffragists working on its behalf, and from additional funds that were raised by local groups. Local and state groups, in turn, received training materials and news of the national suffrage movement from the NAWSA. The NAWSA also sent its lecturers and organizers to its affiliates to help in local and state struggles, as it did for Colorado.
Colorado was the first state to approve woman suffrage in a general election. The liquor industry, fearing women’s votes would hurt their business, campaigned against the suffrage measure. Their opposition, however, did not daunt local and national suffrage workers. Future NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt represented the NAWSA in Colorado and organized tirelessly. Catt, however, was not the only woman working for suffrage in Colorado. The local Colorado Non-Partisan Equal Suffrage Association united women’s organizations, churches, political parties, charity groups, unions, and farmers’ alliances in the battle for suffrage. Elizabeth Ensley was one such local leader, who helped to mobilize the African American community. Ensley and her peers were convinced that women voters could help bring about much needed reforms in Colorado. The concentrated efforts of both local and national organizers in Colorado paid off when the measure passed by a healthy margin in 1893.
Ensley was far from alone as an African American woman fighting for the vote. In the beginning of the 20th century, racism was rampant in the United States. In the South, African Americans were legally denied their civil and political rights. This system of racial apartheid was endorsed by the federal government and maintained by brutal racial violence. In the North, African Americans faced discrimination in employment, housing, and education. Despite the hostile atmosphere, many African American women organized to gain the vote. While white women hoped that their votes would counterbalance white men, African American women hoped that their votes might work in tandem with African American men in order to combat racism. Unlike their white counterparts, African American men never organized formally against woman suffrage. Clubs for African American women grew and thrived during the last decade of the 19th century and in the first decade of the 20th. In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was formed as an umbrella organization for the many local organizations, representing a multitude of causes, including suffrage. By 1900, there were approximately 400 local clubs, with somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 members, aligned with the NACW. The NACW’s first president, Mary Church Terrell, wrote and spoke widely about woman suffrage.
Terrell and other African American women faced pronounced racism within the suffrage movement. Southern delegates to the NAWSA, in particular, refused to participate on an equal footing with African American women. The NAWSA accepted segregated affiliates and held many segregated events, fearing that if they supported full integration they would lose support in the South. Some southern leaders, such as Kate Gordon and Laura Clay, insisted that a whites-only clause be added to any suffrage proposal, but the NAWSA continued to advocate suffrage for all women. Despite this position, the leadership of the NAWSA, and later the National Woman’s Party (NWP), alienated and discriminated against African American women. In a 1918 letter to a congressman, Carrie Chapman Catt used a racist argument to solicit the congressman’s support for woman suffrage. “ The women of New York are now the political equals of the men of New York, but the white women of the South are the political inferiors of the negroes” (Terborg-Penn 1998, 127). In 1919, the NAACP attempted to get Alice Paul, leader of the NWP, to repudiate her statement that she was only organizing white women, and “that all this talk of Negro women voting in South Carolina was nonsense” (130).
Despite the racism in the suffrage movement and the country at large, African American women played a vital role in the fight for woman suffrage. Mary Church Terrell worked for suffrage and equality among the races her whole life, both in the NACW and in the NAWSA. In her address to a 1900 NAWSA convention, Terrell attacked the injustices of sex and race:
The elective franchise is withheld from one half of its citizens, many of whom are intelligent, cultured, and virtuous, while it is unstintingly bestowed upon the other, some of whom are illiterate, debauched and vicious, because the word “people,” by an unparalleled exhibition of lexicographical acrobatics, has been turned and twisted to mean all who were shrewd and wise enough to have themselves born boys instead of girls, or who took the trouble to be born white instead of black. (Terborg-Penn 1998, 66)
Like Terrell, Ida B. Wells-Barnett fought against both racism and sexism throughout her life. Wells not only organized the Alpha Suffrage Club, but helped to integrate the famous Washington D.C. suffrage parade of 1913. When she was asked to march at the back of the parade, Wells told her critics, “If the Illinois women do not take a stand now in this great democratic parade then the colored women are lost” (122). African American women formed local organizations, sometimes allying themselves with national organizations that cared little for their problems. Throughout the struggle for woman suffrage, African American women were on the front lines, whether white women wanted them there or not.
Women from diverse backgrounds shared the common goal of winning the vote, but there were class as well as racial tensions in the movement. Although Anthony courted working-class women when she and Stanton formed the NWSA, she ignored the plight of working women, many of them immigrants, during her tenure as the NAWSA’s president. Anthony had come to believe that the struggle for suffrage had no room for other concerns, either race-or labor-related. Other middle-class suffragists, however, actively sought to bring working women into the movement. In 1907, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, founded the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women, later called the Women’s Political Union (WPU). Blatch strove to make ties between college-educated professional women and working women. Professional and working-class women both desired the vote to improve their conditions. Members of the Equality League spoke to the New York State Legislature on suffrage in 1907. “To be left out by the State just sets up a prejudice against us,” argued Clara Silver. “Bosses think and women come to think themselves that they don’t count for so much as men” (DuBois 1998, 194).
Working-class women saw the vote as an essential tool for achieving higher wages and better working and living conditions, and eagerly embraced the suffrage cause. Following the models of the labor movement and the British Suffrage movement, which Blatch admired, working-class women brought a new enthusiasm to the cause. Although working-class women participated in all aspects of the suffrage movement, they did not always feel that their interests were represented within the NAWSA. Not only was the typical NAWSA member wealthy and white, the NAWSA leadership focused solely on the vote. Neither the NAWSA nor the WPU were concerned about equal work for equal pay, the eight-hour day, or factory safety.
Along with working-class women, wealthy women also joined the suffrage movement in the early 20th century. Women such as Alva Belmont, wife first of millionaire William Vanderbilt and then of millionaire August Belmont, committed their money and respectability to the cause. However, elite women also sometimes brought with them class prejudices and a sense of entitlement that undermined prospects for cross-class sisterhood, especially with working women.
After the deaths of Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1902 and Susan B. Anthony in 1906, new leaders emerged who also helped to facilitate the development of suffrage into a mass movement. Carrie Chapman Catt, who had been involved in the Colorado campaign, followed Anthony as president of the NAWSA. This signified a new era in the character of the organization. The NAWSA began to use strategies imported from the younger English movement, as well as from the labor movement. NAWSA members spoke in street meetings, held parades, and courted the media heavily. In 1904, Catt was succeeded as NAWSA president by the Reverend Anna Howard Shaw, who served until 1915. During her presidency, the NAWSA grew from 17,000 members to 200,000 members. Although they pursued a broad constituency for their cause and experimented with some more-modern methods of advocating and advertising, Catt and Shaw clung to the NAWSA’s state-by-state approach. Some suffragists, however, were coming to the conclusion that the NAWSA’s strategy would never be able to achieve suffrage for all women, and revived ideas about working for a federal amendment to the constitution.
Alice Paul and Lucy Burns led the renewed battle for a federal amendment. Paul and Burns were leaders of a younger and more radical faction in the suffrage movement. These young women benefited from the work of the old guard: they had had increased opportunity for advanced education and greater freedom to move into the public sphere, and some had even grown up around women voters in the West. They were eager to try new methods, and sought out new sources of inspiration for their activism. Paul and Burns met in England during a 1909 prison stay, resulting from their work in the English suffrage movement. British “suffragettes,” as they proudly called themselves, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabelle, began to seek media attention with their increasingly militant tactics. Many of the British suffrage activists were jailed for their actions, which included parades, demonstrations, and even vandalism and destruction of property. Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were influenced greatly by their work in England with the Pankhursts, which included jail time, hunger strikes, and forced feedings.
Paul returned to the United States and joined the NAWSA in 1912. She and Burns convinced NAWSA leaders to let them direct a drive for a new federal amendment. In 1913, Paul became the chair of NAWSA’s Congressional Committee and subsequently formed the Congressional Union. Paul was eager to apply her experiences in England to suffrage efforts in the United States. One of her earliest suggestions was a suffrage parade that would coincide with President-elect Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913. The timing of the parade would guarantee publicity for the suffrage cause. The NAWSA leadership accepted her proposal on the condition that Paul would raise the funds for the parade herself. Accompanied by Burns, she organized the first national American suffrage parade.
The parade showcased a wide variety of women who worked for suffrage. The final product was an elaborate production costing almost $15,000. A female lawyer, Inez Milholland Boissevain, led the parade from a white horse. The parade included sections for women from enfranchised countries, suffrage pioneers, working women in professional dress, college women in academic gowns, state delegations, and male supporters, as well as floats and bands. African American women were originally excluded from the parade, but after protests by Mary Church Terrell and others, African American women were allotted a place in the rear of the parade. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, however, took it upon herself to fully integrate the affair by refusing to march at the rear. Although the parade started without incident, military intervention was needed in order to quell riots of protest by the conclusion. Despite the violence, the marchers completed their parade and formed a dramatic tableau at the Treasury Building.
The parade and subsequent mob violence produced all the publicity Paul could have wanted. A few weeks later, the suffrage amendment was reintroduced in Congress. It was not long, however, before Paul began to argue with the NAWSA’s leadership over money and, more importantly, tactics. Paul and Burns adopted the British method of holding the political party in power responsible for its failure to pass measures ensuring women’s suffrage. Therefore, they campaigned against any Democratic candidate, even if that specific candidate had supported suffrage. Their strategy was to punish the Democrats because they had failed to pass the federal amendment. The NAWSA, on the other hand, remained nonpartisan, and courted any politician who would support woman suffrage.
A split between the two groups seemed inevitable. Paul left the NAWSA in 1914 and founded the National Woman’s Party in 1916 to pursue a federal constitutional amendment, using her own methods. Far from defeated, Paul founded the National Woman’s Party (NWP) in 1916 to pursue a federal constitutional amendment, using her own methods. It would take the energy and vision of both the NAWSA and the NWP, exercised over the course of several more years of determined effort, before these organizations’ shared goal of woman suffrage would at last be achieved.
National Woman’s Party
From the beginning, the National Woman’s Party had a single goal: the passage of a federal constitutional amendment. In the 1916 elections, the NWP urged western women voters to use their votes to oust any Democrats, because the Democrats had refused to use their majority in the federal government to pass the amendment. Although in 1916 no major political party endorsed the suffrage amendment and Wilson won reelection, the NWP succeeded in winning national publicity for its cause.
In January of 1917, the NWP began a new strategy: they would picket the White House until the amendment passed. At the gates to the White House, women dressed in the NWP colors of purple, white, and gold, and carried signs with slogans such as “Mr. President, how long must women wait for liberty?” or “Mr. President, what will you do for woman suffrage?” (Library of Congress, American Memory Web site, “Women of Protest”). President Wilson nodded to the women and treated the picketers cordially at first. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, however, the picketers became more of a nuisance. The NWP made banners bearing quotes from Wilson’s war messages, hoping to embarrass the administration with the contradictions. One such banner read, “We shall fight for the things which we have always held nearest our hearts —for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own governments.—President Wilson’s War Message, April 2, 1917” (Lunardini 1986, 114). The president wished to present a united American front to the world, and increasingly the banners of the NWP pointed out the hypocrisies of the administration. No matter how embarrassed the president may have been privately, he still took no action against the NWP publicly. Paul and other NWP leaders decided to challenge the President in a more direct way.
After an embarrassing banner drew the attention of a visiting Russian delegation, Paul was warned that any further picketers would be arrested, despite the complete legality of the picketing of the White House. NWP members informed Paul that they were willing to take that risk. In June, picketers began to be arrested and charged with obstructing traffic. At first, NWP picketers were released, or received very light sentences. When these light sentences also failed to stop the NWP, harsher penalties were administered. Picketers were soon sentenced to from 30 to 60 days at the Occoquan Workhouse. The arrested women maintained that the traffic violation charges were nothing more than a pretext, and tried to claim rights as political prisoners. In her first person narrative of her involvement with the NWP, Jailed for Freedom, Doris Stevens recounted the experiences of the NWP women who were arrested. The conditions at the workhouse were harsh. After agitation by the NWP and its allies, the District Commissioners held an investigation of conditions at Occoquan. An affidavit made by prison matron Mrs. Bovee addressed the substandard food as well as the violence of Superintendent Whittaker. “ The beans, hominy, rice, cornmeal, and cereal have all had worms in them … I know of one girl who has been kept seventeen days on only water this month … I know of one girl beaten until the blood had to be scrubbed from her clothing and from the floor (Stevens 1995, 96).
Despite the conditions in the workhouse, the pickets and arrests continued. According to Stevens, 500 women picketed, 200 were arrested, and 168 spent time in jail. Both Paul and Burns served time. Many of the imprisoned suffragists went on hunger strikes. Rose Winslow of New York was able to smuggle letters out to her husband and friends during her hunger strike in Occoquan. The following excerpt is from the letter Winslow wrote after being force fed by prison officials:
I had a nervous time of it, gasping a long time afterward, and my stomach rejecting during the process … I heard myself making the most hideous sounds … One feels so forsaken when one lies prone and people shove a pipe down one’s stomach … I am waiting to see what happens when the President realizes that brutal bullying isn’t quite a statesmanlike method for settling a demand for justice at home. (118-19)
While its members were being jailed, the rest of the NWP used the arrests, prison conditions, and hunger strikes to drum up more publicity and support for their cause. Although the NWP continued to picket until January 1919, the extent of the arrests and punishments dramatically decreased in November 1917, apparently due to the publicity the NWP had created. One of the most significant effects of the NWP’s activism in 1916 and 1917 was to push the NAWSA to revise its suffrage strategy, which included emphasis on securing a federal amendment.
The Winning Plan
Although Carrie Chapman Catt’s first presidency of the NAWSA was cut short by other obligations, she returned to the NAWSA’s highest office in 1915. By 1915, there were 11 states where women had full suffrage rights, all in the West: Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896), Idaho (1896), Washington (1910), California (1911), Oregon(1912), Kansas (1912), Arizona(1912), Montana (1914), and Nevada (1914). In 1913, Illinois granted women the right to vote in presidential elections. In 1914, the conservative General Federation of Women’s Clubs at last endorsed woman suffrage, indicating that the movement had reached far into the mainstream of American life. In 1915, however, campaigns for the vote in the eastern states of Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all failed. Motivated by the recent victories in the western states, sobered but undaunted by the eastern defeats, and prodded by the militant activism of the NWP, Catt developed a new plan to bring about woman suffrage nationwide, dubbed the “Winning Plan.” Unveiled in 1916, Catt’s plan had five distinct parts: a leader who would inspire as well as organize the massive suffrage movement, a strict hierarchy within the organization, effective and extensive publicity, attention to practical matters, and the unshakable belief that woman suffrage would win and would be an asset to America. Under Catt’s plan, the NAWSA would continue to conduct state campaigns at the same time that it would pressure Congress to pass the federal amendment.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Catt urged women to support the war, even though she was a member of the Woman’s Peace Party. Catt served on the Woman’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, but throughout the war, her active support of woman suffrage never faltered. She carefully brought attention to women’s war work, and fervently suggested that women’s role in the war should be recognized with the passage of the federal amendment.
Although Congress declared that they would vote only on war-related measures during 1917, many states had suffrage on the ballots. At least partial suffrage was granted in North Dakota, Ohio, Indiana, Arkansas, Nebraska, Michigan, Nebraska, Rhode Island, and New York. The NAWSA campaigned heavily in New York, committing huge amounts of money and resources to the cause. Following a crucial 1917 victory in New York, the NAWSA and Catt committed all of their resources to securing the federal amendment. Catt also developed a relationship between Wilson and the NAWSA. Despite the picketing by the NWP, Wilson personally supported a national amendment. He wrote letters of support and encouragement to Catt and other leaders of the NAWSA, although he did little publicly at first.
In the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the combatants declared an armistice ending World War I. In the mid-term congressional elections of 1918, so many suffrage supporters were elected that the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment at last seemed certain, even though the amendment had failed to pass the Senate the previous year. Before Congress even convened in 1919, the NAWSA began to reconstitute itself into the League of Women Voters. The House of Representatives passed the amendment again as their first piece of business in the new session. The Senate passed the amendment in the first week of June. Thirty-six states now needed to ratify the amendment to add it to the constitution. The NAWSA and the NWP again mobilized their forces to lobby for support at the state level, especially where the vote was expected to be close.
Within four months, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Nebraska, Montana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Utah voted for ratification. One by one, subsequent ratifications trickled in. With time running out and 35 states secured, Tennessee prepared to vote on the Susan B. Anthony Amendment in August 1920. Suffrage activists organized for the last fight of their long struggle. Suffrage workers poured into Nashville to secure the state, against heavy opposition. On August 18, the Tennessee state legislators filed in to vote on the amendment. The vote was tied 48 to 48 when Harry T. Burn shocked the audience by switching his vote. At the last minute, the young senator had received a telegram from his mother requesting that he vote to support woman suffrage. Burn’s dramatic reversal broke the tie, and the Susan B. Anthony Amendment became the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Historians have debated whether it was Catt’s winning plan or the NWP’s protests that finally pushed lawmakers to pass the Susan B. Anthony Amendment. Most agree that it was a combination of the two. As the NAWSA secured more support on the state level, the federal government could not help but notice that public opinion favored votes for women. On the other hand, the international attention and pressure the NWP’s tactics provoked were also influential in persuading the federal government to act. Although Wilson never communicated directly with the NWP, he was able to respond to their tactics by supporting women’s suffrage though the more respectable NAWSA. In the end, it was the combined efforts of diverse women who ensured that women would have a voice in the government.
In 1920, only one signer of the 1848 Declaration of Sentiments, Charlotte Woodward, was still alive to vote. Many history books state simply that after World War I women were given the vote because of their participation in the war effort. This ignores the years of strategic planning and organizing by suffragists to win the right for women to participate fully as United States citizens by voting. Although enfranchisement was a major victory, it did not affect all women equally. In the South, African Americans of both sexes were prevented from voting by poll taxes, outrageous literacy tests, and grandparent clauses. Some immigrants found their access to the vote similarly barred, and many Native American women and men were denied both citizenship and the vote. Furthermore, gaining the right to vote was only one of many women’s rights goals outlined in the Declaration of Sentiments. Suffragists from many backgrounds rejoiced in the passage of the Susan B. Anthony Amendment because of the increased rights and responsibilities it promised, but for many women those promises remained unfilled. The Nineteenth Amendment did not institute full gender equality in the United States. Nonetheless, through the long struggle for the vote, women demonstrated and cultivated their capacity to organize to achieve their goals. The suffragists’ achievement in 1920 enabled women individually and collectively to claim an expanded voice in their government. Women have used that voice to continue the struggle to realize the fullness of their nation’s promises for liberty, equality, and justice—for themselves and for others—up to the present day.