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In July 1848, the first calls for women’s suffrage were made from a convention in Seneca Falls, New York. This convention kicked off more than seventy years of organizing, parading, fundraising, advertising, and petitioning before the 19th amendment securing this right was approved by Congress and three-fourths of the state legislatures. After the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, women used the organizing skills they had honed during in the Suffrage movement to continue to fight for equality.
The passage of the 19th amendment was the result of centuries of struggle, culminating in the late 19th century in a burst of public activism and civil disobedience that not only secured voting rights for women, but also helped define new possibilities for women’s participation in the public sphere.
Early in the history of the United States, women in New Jersey could legally vote, provided they met property requirements. However, this changed in 1807 when the State Assembly passed a law limiting suffrage to free white males. There would not be another law explicitly giving the vote to women until 1869, when the Wyoming territory granted women over 21 years of age the right to vote in all elections.
While some states explicitly prohibited women from voting, in 1872 New York did not, opening the door for Susan B. Anthony and a small group of suffragists to register and vote. They were arrested three weeks later on a charge of “criminal voting.” Anthony was found guilty and fined $100 plus court costs.
The first large gathering of those fighting for women’s rights occurred in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. One outcome of the Seneca Falls Convention was the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence that called for civil, social, political, and religious rights for women. Many of the signers of the Declaration, including Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, would go on to become the leaders of a generation of suffrage activists.
In the decades that followed the Seneca Falls Convention, formal groups were established to lead American women in their bid for voting and other rights. Well-known organizations include the National Woman Suffrage Association and would eventually unify to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. These groups lobbied for local and state voting rights in addition to working at the national level.
The Congressional Union was formed in 1913 to accelerate and intensify the fight with more radical protest methods as had been done in Britain. The National Women’s Party, formed in 1916, was an outgrowth of this organization.
Suffrage leaders were involved in other progressive movements before and after the Seneca Falls convention in addition to their suffrage work. Susan B. Anthony, an outspoken advocate for suffrage, was also a well-known abolitionist. Anthony and other suffragists got their start by speaking on the anti-slavery circuit. Suffragists were also interested in the dress reform movement and temperance. Additionally, Elizabeth Cady Stanton saw suffrage as a way for women to access more equal marriages through divorce rights and property rights. For suffragists, these many causes fit together. With access to the ballot came an unprecedented power to affect change for these other social issues.
In addition to organizing formal suffrage groups and rallying at conventions and meetings, supporters of universal suffrage employed a number of other strategies. Suffrage activists exercised their First Amendment rights to “peaceably assemble” and “petition for a government redress of grievances” first using traditional strategies, including lobbying lawmakers, and then implementing more radical -- for the time -- tactics such as public picketing and refusing bail after arrest. Individuals and groups published periodicals such as The Revolution, which focused on women’s rights but also covered politics and the labor movement. Activists campaigned in ways that were considered “unladylike,” such as marching in parades and giving street corner speeches. One radical strategy that had not been tried previously was regular picketing of the White House. Protesters carried banners naming President Wilson as an opponent of suffrage. The resulting arrests only served to bring more attention to the suffrage movement. The fight for suffrage rights escalated when the United States entered World War I in April 1917 and many women moved into the workforce.
Even while suffrage organizations and leaders professed goals of greater equality, they did not always include all women. White leaders were often exclusive and discriminatory. A group of African American women’s clubs was barred from joining the Leslie Woman Suffrage Commission in 1919 on the eve of the 19th Amendment’s passage. Some white suffragists argued that enfranchising women would expand the “native” voting population. Despite this open racism, African American women organized and advocated for suffrage and equality throughout the movement. Some, like Mary Church Terrell, worked closely with white leaders while advocating for racial equality. Ida B. Wells, an anti-lynching activist, organized a separate organization for African American women, the Alpha Suffrage Club. In this way, the women’s suffrage movement, tainted with racism, was a problematic as it was progressive.
Both women and men worked to oppose universal suffrage. Some argued that women wielded enough power within the home that there was no need for the American Woman Suffrage Association, which for power in society. State and national groups such as the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage and Association Opposed to Woman’s Suffrage were formed to actively resist suffrage rights for women. These groups were often opposed to any role for women outside the home, fearing the downfall of the family as well as a decrease in women’s work in communities and their ability to influence societal reforms.
Although women’s right to vote was secured by Constitutional amendment in 1920, the legacy of the suffragists continues to the present day. In fighting for the right to vote, women formed national political organizations, developed new strategies for protest, and brought women into the public sphere in new and more visible ways. These advances were not limited to their work for enfranchisement, but also laid the groundwork for civic action that has been emulated by those working for other civil rights causes.
Select items that reflect different strategies used in the fight for equal suffrage. Study the items opposing suffrage and compare strategies. If time allows, brainstorm or research to identify other strategies used in the struggle for suffrage.
Use the anti-suffrage items to identify and study the arguments made by those opposed to suffrage. Study the maps to form a picture of which states and territories enfranchised women and which did not. Speculate about why there were differences in rights in different states and areas, and then look for evidence to support the hypothesis.
Study the political cartoons and select one for further analysis. What do you think was the cartoonist’s opinion of women’s suffrage? Who do you think was the audience for the cartoon? What methods does the cartoonist use to persuade the audience? If time allows, search the Library’s collections for another political cartoon about suffrage, identify the cartoonist’s opinion about women’s suffrage, and compare the methods each cartoon uses to make its point.
Examine several items reflecting the consequences for the suffragists’ actions. What can you discover about the treatment of suffragists from these items? Ask students to think about what causes they’d be willing to fight for, knowing there might be harsh consequences.