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Exhibition Shall Not Be Denied: Women Fight for the Vote

Seneca Falls and Building a Movement, 1776–1890

Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.

—Susan B. Anthony, The Revolution, 1869

Notions of equality that inspired America’s war for independence from Great Britain brought only modest and fleeting change to the status of women, most of whom remained “civilly dead.” Women had no legal identity separate from their husbands and were unable to sign contracts, own property, obtain access to education, obtain divorces easily, and gain custody of their children after divorce well into the nineteenth century. The desire to address this inequality and challenge the country to live up to its revolutionary promise led to a two-day convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, where 300 women and men gathered to debate Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Declaration of Sentiments. Modeled after the Declaration of Independence, it outlined women’s inferior status and included a radical demand for suffrage.

After Seneca Falls, women’s rights conventions became annual events, where women met to discuss educational opportunities, divorce reform, property rights, and sometimes labor issues. Women lent their support to abolishing slavery believing universal suffrage would follow, but both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments ignored their demand for suffrage. National leaders responded differently, leading to a split in the movement and contrasting campaigns for voting rights at the local, state, and national levels. In 1878 the first federal women’s suffrage amendment was introduced but was soundly defeated later in the first full Senate vote in 1887. As the nineteenth century neared an end, competing national suffrage groups reunited as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and groundwork was laid for a national movement.

Early Feminist Inspirations
Seneca Falls and the Start of Annual Conventions
Family, Friends, and the Personal Side of the Movement
A Movement at Odds with Itself

Early Feminist Inspirations

But I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God has designed us to occupy.

—Sarah Grimké, Letters on Equality of the Sexes, 1838

The beginning of the American women’s suffrage movement is often marked by either the 1848 women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, or the earlier 1840 World Antislavery Convention in London, where Lucretia Mott and five other American women delegates were barred from participating after making the long journey. The women’s treatment convinced Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton of the need to convene a meeting focusing exclusively on women’s rights. Although the 1840 and 1848 conventions were undeniably pivotal events, women had for decades been writing and speaking about their inequality in private letters, public lectures, and published books, as shown here. A half-century of feminist writing and political activism preceded Seneca Falls, providing both an intellectual framework and fearless role models for the first generation of suffragists.

British Inspiration for American Women Seeking Equal Rights

“Mrs. Wollstonecraft.” Engraved by Ridley from a painting by Opie. For proprietors of the Monthly Mirror by T. Ballamy, King St. Covent Garden, February 1796. NAWSA Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

Seneca Falls and the Start of Annual Conventions

I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?

—Sojourner Truth, Woman’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, 1851

Many early suffragists served their political apprenticeships in the temperance and abolition movements, learning to organize, speak in public, and operate in volatile political environments. Veterans of both movements converged on Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19–20, 1848, to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” The organizers—Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Martha C. Wright, Jane Hunt, and Mary McClintock—were all married mothers. Influenced by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lydia Maria Child, Sarah Grimké, and others, they overcame their initial nervousness and sought to address the discrimination found in their homes and communities. The meeting’s success led to subsequent, more diverse conventions and visible progress in the areas of property rights, dress reform, and educational opportunities.

“I sell the shadow to support the substance.”

Sojourner Truth, ca. 1864. Photograph. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Family, Friends, and the Personal Side of the Movement

I expect to plead not for the slave only, but for suffering humanity everywhere. Especially do I mean to labor for the elevation of my sex.

—Lucy Stone, 1847

In asserting women’s equality, the suffrage movement challenged men’s control not only in the public world of politics and paid work, but also in the private sphere, where men typically “ruled the roost.” Antisuffragist songs and cartoons suggested that domestic tranquility and the virility of American men were under siege. Achieving happy marriages and finding ways to balance family responsibilities with a commitment to the cause proved as challenging for suffragists as it is for today’s working women. The campaign inevitably raised one’s consciousness to the inequities within marriage and to the social conventions that blocked women’s advancement. Sadly, many of the friendships that nurtured the movement before the Civil War suffered a setback when suffragists divided in 1869 over support for the Fifteenth Amendment, which failed to include women.

Love and Protest in a Suffrage Marriage

Lucy Stone (1818–1893) holding three-month-old daughter Alice Stone Blackwell (1857–1950). Daguerreotype, ca. 1857. Visual Materials from the Blackwell Family Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

A Movement at Odds with Itself

The history of our country the past hundred years, has been a series of assumptions and usurpations of power over woman, in direct opposition to the principles of just government. . . .

—National Woman Suffrage Association, Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States, July 4, 1876

In the late 1860s and 1870s, white and black suffrage leaders swept across the country giving lectures and inspiring the creation of new suffrage organizations. Key leaders emerged in every region, and in 1878, a federal women’s suffrage amendment was first introduced in Congress. Suffragists gained publicity by attempting to vote and disrupting the nation’s centennial celebration, but such tactics lost appeal by the late 1880s as the movement grew more conservative. Previously women had advocated for universal suffrage based on the individual rights of all people, regardless of sex and race. In the 1870s and 1880s, suffragists began to claim that women were different from men, and their distinctly higher morals would uplift the nation if given the vote. This emphasis on character and qualifications widened racial and class divides between suffragists.

Relentless Travel and a “New Departure”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906), ca. 1870. Photograph. NWP Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (027.00.00)