The American Suffrage Movement: The Good, The Bad, and the Lessons That can be Learned Part I:

As we mark the anniversary of our nation’s independence, it is important to remember that our founding fathers’ imagined their nation as a domain ruled by equally independent male agents. Until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in August 1920, the status of being a rights-bearing citizen excluded all women. Now it is also true that since the amendment only affirmed women’s right to vote, it ultimately failed to fully dislodge the masculine model of rights-bearing citizenship. Consequently, restrictions on women’s citizenship have persisted in our country’s laws and customs. Even so, we should not dismiss the immense historical importance of the amendment. Why? Because it constitutionally recognized women’s right to represent themselves in the polity and directly participate in the governance of the country.

Further still, there is a lot that can be learned from the tremendous social movement that brought about the passage of federal woman suffrage. For the most part, there are plenty of heroic moments within the history of the woman’s rights campaign. But, there are quite shameful instants too. We should not cast aside these negative parts, but rather recount them with the good, so that we remember there are cautionary elements even when one is on the “right side of history.” On this point, I will discuss in two installments the good, the bad, and what we can learn from the suffrage movement in America.

The woman’s rights campaign grew out of the evangelical energy of the early nineteenth century, most notably from the abolitionist movement. As the abolitionist movement grew, however, its male leaders increasingly excluded women from fully participating in the reform efforts. Because of these limitations, women reformers began to consider their own disenfranchised position within the American political system. In an effort to denounce the restrictions on their civic autonomy, a group of abolitionists convened at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 to demand the reform of the laws and customs that had kept women in a secondary position.[1] In particular, these early woman’s rights advocates appealed to contemporary republican political discourse to challenge the gender-hierarchical organization of family and state. They argued, for example, that women should be incorporated into the egalitarian principles that already ordered relations among male heads of the household in the republic. As such, they modeled their demands for reform in the Seneca Falls’ Declaration of Sentiments explicitly on the Declaration of Independence.[2]

But, the early woman’s rights advocates mistakenly hoped that constitutional reform during the Reconstruction Era would also institutionalize principles of universal suffrage. After the Republican Party refused to include woman suffrage in the Fifteenth Amendment, which protected voting rights for newly freed black males, the former anti-slavery allies split into two rival woman suffrage associations: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Suffrage Association (AWSA). Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony assumed leadership of NWSA while Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell headed AWSA. Unlike NWSA, the members of AWSA actively supported the link between securing rights for black Americans and rights for women. Stanton and Anthony’s NWSA, on the other hand, broke with male reformers and became a women’s only association. While this was a period of intense internal anguish for the movement, it also witnessed the birth of the first national organizations directly dedicated to the woman suffrage cause.[3]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Even with this organizational split, the suffragists of the mid-nineteenth century continued to follow the same basic tenets in their arguments for women’s right to vote. These suffragists typically argued that women were the equals of men in their natural entitlement to exercise the franchise. In essence, their position challenged the traditional conception of the state as a collection of male-headed households. For example, suffragist Mary Putnam Jacobi wrote that the state should be based on “individual cells,” not households, arguing that women should be “brought into direct relations with the sate, independent of their ‘mate’ or brood.”[4] Likewise, Elizabeth Cady Stanton famously stressed one’s natural right to individual liberty when she defended woman suffrage, explaining: “In discussing the sphere of man we do not decide his rights as an individual, as a citizen, as a man [by] his duties as a father, a husband, a brother, or a son…Just so with woman. The education that will fit her to discharge the duties on the largest sphere of human usefulness, will best fit her for whatever special work she may be compelled to do.”[5] In sum, then, members of the early suffrage movement emphasized egalitarian conceptions of the family and the state, which called for women’s participation in the governance of the nation.[6]

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony

The winter of 1890 marked a major turning point in the woman suffrage campaign as the two main national suffrage associations (NWSA and AWSA) reunited to form one organization: the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Its membership elected Elizabeth Cady Stanton as president and Lucy Stone as head of the executive committee. But, it was the indomitable Susan B. Anthony, vice president, who effectively ran the organization during its early years. Anthony became president in 1892 and remained in office until 1900. While Stanton continued to address a range of issues, many of which were quite radical, such as an indictment of Christianity, most of NAWSA’s leadership, including Anthony, insisted that the movement focus almost exclusively on the vote.[7]

Because of the new insistence to avoid association with more radical causes, the language of the suffrage movement shifted around the turn of the century. During this time, many suffragists began to argue that women needed the vote for purposes of social housekeeping. Hence, later suffragists increasingly appealed to what was commonly understood to be women’s special status as caregivers. They contended that if enfranchised, women could secure a range of reforms that would improve the health and welfare of America’s families.[8] Historian Aileen Kraditor notably described this move as a strategic shift toward “expediency,” or, in other words, the decision to appeal to traditional images of womanliness in order to expand women’s influence in the public realm.[9]

Florence Kelley

Following this trend, a considerable number of the later suffragists argued that as women brought their interest with them into the public domain, they would purify politics. By way of illustration, Florence Kelley, a notable social activist and suffrage supporter, asserted that woman suffrage would reinforce the “moral power” that society “sorely need[ed] to counterbalance the excessive pressure of business interests.” Echoing Kelly’s position, one speaker at the 1916 NAWSA convention even declared that “If I were asked to give one reason above all others for advocating the enfranchisement of women I should unhesitatingly reply, ‘The necessity for the complete development of woman as a prerequisite for the highest development of the race.” While early woman’s rights advocates, like Stanton, had emphasized the natural right of all individuals to participate in the governance of the country, many later suffragists, like Kelley, began to call attention to what they viewed as woman’s unique predisposition for virtue.[10]

As the suffrage campaign became a more mainstream component of women’s organized activities, a considerable number of later suffragists started to express the racial and ethnocentric prejudices of the white middle class.[11] For starters, NAWSA members frequently employed racially charged claims in their arguments for woman suffrage. A fair number of its membership, for instance, maintained that white women were more qualified to vote than immigrant and black men. Many members also insinuated that the adoption of woman suffrage would help restore white supremacy in the South, as it would increase the numbers of white voters. Thus, later suffragists tended to argue that the vote would help white-middle-class women utilize their supposedly superior moral sensibilities, which would then benefit American society as a whole. [12]

We can hold NAWSA’s leadership partially accountable for the racial and ethnocentric attitudes of the later suffragists. Due to its desire to build support in the South, some of the organization’s leaders ignored the flames of racism while others fed the fire. In pursuit of its “southern strategy,” NAWSA’s members spent considerable time and resources on the region, which involved sending eminent suffrage advocates Carrie Chapman Catt and Susan B. Anthony on speaking tours throughout the South and holding the 1895 NAWSA convention in Atlanta. Its leaders even asked Frederick Douglas—who was a revered participant in women’s rights conventions elsewhere in the country—to stay away from Atlanta during the convention. [13]

In all, the racially charged approach of the predominantly white-middle-class NAWSA created a hostile environment for black female activists. Even so, non-white female activists still contributed to the suffrage movement. As historian Sara Evans explains, black women in particular looked to the vote as a defense against “sexual exploitation as well as a guarantor of their economic rights.” To further the suffrage cause, and avoid the harsh attitudes of their white-middle-class counterparts, black female activists formed their own local suffrage groups. By 1900, for instance, they had formed groups in numerous cities including Tuskegee, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Boston, Charleston, and New Orleans. [14]

In the next post, I will look at the factors that contributed to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and its historical significance. Most importantly, I will discuss the lessons that present-day social movements can draw from the history of the suffrage movement.

~Rebecca DeWolf, PhD


[1]. See Eleanor Flexner, Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States (Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1959), especially 41-52, 181-86.

[2]. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, eds., History of Woman Suffrage, Volume I (New York: Fowler & Wells, Publishers, 1881), 170-73; Linda Kerber, “From the Declaration of Independence to the Declaration of Sentiments: The Legal Status of Women in the Early Republic, 1776-1848” Human Rights 6 (1977): 115.

[3]. See Ellen Carol DuBois, Feminism and Suffrage (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978), 53, 58-78.

[4]. Mary Putnam Jacobi, “Common Sense” Applied to Woman Suffrage A Statement of the Reasons which Justify the demand To Extend the Suffrage to Women, with Consideration of the Arguments Against Such Enfranchisement, and with Special Reference to the Issue Presented to the New York State Convention of 1894 (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 138.

[5]. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “The Solitude of Self” (1892) reprinted in The Search for Self-Sovereignty: The Oratory of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, by Beth M. Waggenspack, (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989), 159-160.

[6]. Reva Siegel, “She the People: The Nineteenth Amendment, Sex, Equality, Federalism, and the Family,” Harvard Law Review 115, no. 4 (February 2002): 151.

[7] See Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, ed., One Woman, One Vote: Rediscovering the Woman Suffrage Movement (Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995), 11-13.

[8]. Wheeler, One Woman, One Vote, 9-20.

[9]. Aileen Kraditor, The Ideas of the Woman Suffrage Movement, 1890-1920 (New York: W.W. Norton Press, 1981), 44-46.

[10]. Florence Kelley, Some Ethical Gains through Legislation (New York: Macmillan Company, 1905), 172, 184; Joan Zimmerman, “The Jurisprudence of Equality: The Woman’s Minimum Wage, the First Equal Rights Amendment, and Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, 1905-1923,” Journal of American History 78, no. 1 (June: 1991): 219; and Ida Husted Harper, ed., History of Woman Suffrage, Volume V (New York: J.J. Little and Ives, 1922,) 492.

[11]. Sara Evans, Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1997), 155.

[12] Wheeler, One Woman, One Vote, 11-13.

[13] Wheeler, One Woman, One Vote, 12-13.

[14]. Evans, Born for Liberty, 154-156.

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