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Women's Suffrage Centennial: The Movement Begins

The long history of the Suffrage movement.

Abigail Adams Raises the Issue

Image: Abigail Adams portrait by Gilbert Stuart; public domain (National Gallery of Art)

Abigail Adams played a hugely significant but often overlooked role in American politics. In addition to being the spouse of and lifelong confidant and advisor to John Adams, she served as First Lady, and was the first woman to have also been mother to a U.S. president. A highly intelligent and self-educated person, Abigail was a staunch abolitionist and feminist who was well aware both of the horrors of slavery in the American colonies and of women's complete lack of autonomy in colonial society. Adams corresponded regularly with her husband during the Continental Congress/Revolutionary War and paid close attention to the debates on the Declaration of Independence, which she discussed with her husband in a series of letters. Her March 1776 letter to John serves as a stark reminder of some of those whom the U.S. Constitution later excluded: 

...remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.

It would be nearly 100 years before women's rights began to be seriously addressed at the national level, and still longer until all women were guaranteed the right to vote. There is still no constitutional guarantee of equality under the law for women; conceived of and originally authored by Alice Paul, the Equal Rights Amendment, which guarantees equality of rights regardless of gender, has yet to be ratified. 

Sources: Encyclopedia of Women and American Politics; A to Z of Women: American Women Leaders & Activists; Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas & Weather Guide; Great American History Fact-Finder

Women’s League Officers, Newport, RI, c. 1899

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Source: The Women's Suffrage Centennial Commission

Who Started It?

While Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton are generally considered the founders of the Women's Suffrage Movement, the reality is more complex. Civil rights in general and women's rights in particular had been topics of discussion since pre-Revolutionary days, and both white and Black women had gained the right to vote in some of the western states. However, the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 (planned and executed by Mott and Stanton) was the first major public political meeting in the United States that advocated for women's rights, and Susan B. Anthony did significantly raise the profile of the movement with a coordinated strategy of conventions and speeches. Stanton and Anthony also garnered significant attention by publishing the massive History of Woman Suffrage which, while it contained a wealth of significant documents and speeches, did not cover suffragists of color in any great detail. For more information, visit the National Women's History Museum and National Park Service sites. .

Sources: "6 Surprising Facts about the 19th Amendment" (PBS); Encyclopedia of Women & American Politics

Background - the U.S. Constitution & Voting Rights

The history of the vote in the United States is complicated. Most constitutional scholars agree that while there is no explicit right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, there is language within the document establishing the franchise for property owners -- a demographic that mostly excluded women, young adult men and formerly enslaved individuals, and completely excluded Native Americans and men not wealthy enough to own property. Over time, the right to vote has been expanded to include formerly enslaved people (an advance that was essentially erased by Jim Crow laws), Native Americans, women, African Americans and young adults age 18 and up. Below are a few suggestions for further reading on the long and winding road to universal enfranchisement and the right to vote in the United States.

 

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"Adding the Right to Vote to the Constitution" -  Benen, Steve (2014) The MaddowBlog

"Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2008" - King, Ryan S. (2008) The Sentencing Project

The Politics of Disenfranchisement: Why is it So Hard to Vote in America? Scher, Richard K. (2015)

"The Right to Vote: A Constitutional History" - National Constitution Center (video) (2020)

"U.S. Voting Rights Timeline" - KQED/Northern California Citizenship Project (2004)

"Voting: Right or Privilege?"- Epps, Garrett (2012) The Atlantic.

"What Does the Constitution Actually Say About Voting Rights?" - Epps, Garrett (2013) The Atlantic.

Suffrage & the Abolition Movement

The cause of abolition in the United States was both complex and fraught. Abolition was a minority position even among Americans living in the North, and most white abolitionists did not consider Black Americans to be their equals. However, the movement was closely tied to advocacy for women's rights in America, particularly the Suffrage Movement; indeed, nearly all of the key figures in the fight for women's suffrage born prior to the Civil War were abolitionists. 

               

Photos: Public domain 

The causes were closely intertwined, as a significant number of abolitionists recognized that both their cause and that of women's suffrage concerned fundamental civil rights in America. White suffragists in particular were typically drawn to their cause via the abolition movement, but abolition became a divisive issue after the Civil War, when the 14th & 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution initially granted citizenship to the formerly enslaved and voting rights to Black men.* Suffragists Frederick Douglass, Frances Harper and Lucy Stone split with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in the push for the 15th Amendment. They all agreed that the voting rights guaranteed to Black men by the proposed amendment had broad support, but they parted ways over how to take advantage of that support. Stanton and Anthony wanted to use that leverage to include voting rights for women in the amendment as well, while Douglass, Harper and others felt that the Women's Suffrage issue was too divisive, and that priority should be given to granting Black men the right to vote, as linking the causes together would cause both to fail. They argued that granting Black men the right to vote helped the cause of Black women and children, and that Women's Suffrage could be put on hold until the Amendment was ratified, while.Stanton and Anthony several times made statements to the effect that the rights of (white) women ought not to be subjugated to those of Black men.

In the end, the 15th Amendment did not grant voting rights for women, and the rift that arose during debate on the subject both significantly impeded passage of the amendment and harmed the suffrage and women's rights movements; as it does in America at large, the issue of racial justice for Black Americans and other people of color continues to impede the growth and strength of the women's movement.

.*Civil rights granted by the 14th & 15th Amendments were effectively nullified scant years later by a tangled web of exclusionary laws and policies, including Jim Crow laws.

Sources: Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas & Weather Guide; Defining Moments: Reconstruction; Reader's Companion to American History