Women’s Suffrage

While it is believed that the struggle for women’s suffrage was sparked by the 1792 publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman written by Mary Wollstonecraft, American women did not earn their right of suffrage until after World War I. They were not the first women voters in the world, though. They were preceded in this respect by women in New Zealand who achieved their right of suffrage in 1893. The Australian women followed suit in 1902. (Grolier Online).

In the United States, the demand for the women’s right to vote was initially articulated in a convention called to discuss women’s rights which was held at the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, from July 19-20, 1848. The convention was dubbed the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. The seed for such a convention was actually planted during a World Anti-Slavery Convention which was held in London in 1840 when Cady Stanton and her fellow women delegates from the United States were not recognized due to their gender. Stanton, who was then married to an “antislavery agent,” met Lucretia Mott, a Quaker preacher, in that convention. It was during that London meeting that a preliminary plan of convening a women’s convention to discuss the condition of women was made (The Seneca Falls Convention, n.d.)

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It was not until eight years later, however, that the convention became a reality. Stanton, who was from Seneca Falls, New York, again met Mott who went to Waterloo, New York to visit her sister, Martha C. Wright. Stanton, Mott, Wright, and two other Quaker women, a Mary Ann McClintock and a Jane Hunt, decided to convene women “to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman.” Stanton was assigned to prepare the “Declaration of Sentiments” which would serve as the agenda of the convention. After declaring that “all men and women had been created equal” and listing down eighteen “injuries and usurpation on the part of man toward woman,” she prepared eleven resolutions for presentation to and approval of the convention, one of which was the assertion that all women are duty-bound to fight for women’s suffrage (The Seneca Falls Convention, n.d.).

However, while eight of the resolutions were immediately approved by the meeting attended by around two hundred and sixty women and forty men, the one concerning women’s suffrage was met with hostility, including an opposition from Lucrecia Mott who was shocked by the resolution which she considered ridiculous. Stanton, however, stood her ground and declared that women’s suffrage was critically important because “…the power to make the laws was the right through which all other rights could be secured.” It required the intervention of Frederick Douglas, editor of the Rochester North Star and a former slave, to have the women’s suffrage resolution approved. Unfortunately, although the Seneca Falls Declaration was signed by one hundred men and women, some signatories withdrew their signatures after being bombarded with severe criticism from several influential personalities (The Seneca Falls Convention, n.d.).

The antagonism against women’s suffrage was so harsh that a subsequent meeting held in Rochester a few days later had been swamped with ridicule and sarcastic remarks from many sectors including the press. Women’s suffrage was such an unpopular cause at that time. Frederick Douglas even observed that “A discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency by many of what are called the wise and the good of our land, than would be a discussion of the rights of woman.” James Gordon Bennett, on the other hand, tried to mock the convention by printing the Declaration of Sentiments in its entirety in the New York Herald. In spite of his obvious, derisive motive, however, his effort was appreciated by Stanton who believed that publicity, even if made with derision, would help the cause of women’s suffrage. She was then convinced that the first step towards progress had been taken. Cady Stanton championed women’s suffrage until her twilight years but never lived to see its final fruition because it would take seventy-two more years and the combined efforts of countless women leaders for American women to earn their right to vote (The Seneca Falls Convention, n.d.).

Meanwhile, although women activism for their right to vote intensified after the Civil War, a split occurred in 1869 over the 15th Amendment which granted voting rights to black men. Some of the “suffragists” like Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone endorsed the amendment because they believed that as soon as black men were allowed to vote, the women would subsequently accomplish their objective. Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony, on the other hand, rejected the amendment because it did not provide for women’s suffrage. Two women’s organizations surfaced as a consequence of their divergent opinions. Lucy Stone organized the Woman Suffrage Association to pursue issue on the state level. Cady Stanton and Susan Anthony, on the other hand, established the National Woman Suffrage Association and continued working for women’s suffrage on the federal level and demanded for more rights for women like the right of married women to own property. Fortunately, the two groups reunited in 1890 under the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Another organization, the National Woman’s party, emerged a few years later when Alice Paul was forced to leave NAWSA because of her penchant for “militant direct-action tactics” such as the holding of hunger strikes. The two organizations continued to press their common demand until victory was finally achieved on August 26, 1920, when American women were granted the right to vote under the 19th Amendment (Grolier Online, n.d.). Only one signatory to the Seneca Falls Declaration, however, had lived to savor their success. She was Charlotte Woodward, a young factory worker when the Seneca Falls Convention was held (The Seneca Falls Convention, n.d.).

The 19th Amendment which granted the right to vote to American women was passed on June 4, 1919 but was only ratified on August 18, 1920. Actually, the proposal for a constitutional amendment was introduced in Congress as early as 1878. The sentiment of the majority of Congress, however, was not inclined towards an amendment during those times. Several years later, in 1912, nine states in the western United States had adopted legislations providing for women’s suffrage. Four years later, most of the major organizations who were working for women’s suffrage began a unified campaign for a constitutional amendment. Probably because of the pressure, New York granted woman suffrage the following year, 1917. In 1918, the political balance shifted in favor of an amendment when President Wilson likewise changed his stand and declared his support for an amendment. Because of this development, the House of Representatives passed the amendment on May 21, 1919 to be followed two weeks after by the Senate. The 19th Amendment was finally ratified when the State of Tennessee completed the three-fourths vote of the states required for a constitutional amendment on August 18, 1920. Exactly eight days later, the ratification was duly certified by then Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby (19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, n.d.).

The prominent women leaders who contributed to the cause of women’s suffrage and became instrumental in the passage of the 19th Amendment are presented below, starting with Cady Stanton.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Elizabeth Cady was born November 12, 1815 and married Henry Brewster Stanton, an abolitionist, in 1840, the same year that women delegates to the World’s Anti-Slavery Convention held in London were denied official delegate recognition. Her meeting with Lucrecia Mott during that convention led to the Seneca Falls Convention eight years later. Stanton worked closely with Susan Anthony after 1851, taking the role of writer with Anthony serving as the strategist in their campaign for women’s suffrage. She served as the president of the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and later as president of the National American Suffrage Association (NAWSA) after the merger in 1890 between the NWSA and the American Woman Suffrage Association established by Lucy Stone. Aside from her work for women’s suffrage, Stanton is also remembered for her active participation in acquiring “property rights for married women, equal guardianship of children, and liberalized divorce laws so that women could leave marriages that were often abusive of the wife, the children, and the economic health of the family.” She died on October 26, 1902 in New York, 18 years before American women were granted their right to vote under the 19th Amendment (Lewis, n.d.).

Susan B. Anthony

Susan Anthony, who was born on February 15, 1820, grew up as a Quaker in New York. She started her career as a schoolteacher at a Quaker seminary and later became a headmistress. At 29, she started her involvement with the Temperance Movement which was discouraging alcohol consumption among Americans and then with the Abolitionist Movement which was an anti-slavery pressure group. She met Elizabeth Cady Stanton through a mutual friend, Amelia Bloomer. Since then, Susan Anthony, who was never married, became actively involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage. She was also one of those who created the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 and in 1868, became the publisher of Revolution, which had Stanton as editor. She co-founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) with Stanton. She tried to establish the fact that American women were already granted suffrage by the constitution by casting a test vote during the presidential election of 1872. Unfortunately, she was arrested, found guilty and fined which she refused to pay.

Susan Anthony opposed abortion because she believed that the medical procedures being used for abortion were not safe. Moreover, she argued that women were only forced to resort to abortion by the prevailing double standard at the time. According to her, abortion would become unnecessary once women acquire equality status with men.  There were times when she would appear racist in some of her writings. Some observers suspected that it was partly because of George Francis Train, a noted racist whose money helped finance the newspaper Revolution where she was the publisher. In 1979, she became the first woman whose image was depicted on a dollar coin. It did not become popular though, and was replaced in 1999 by the image of Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian woman (Lewis, n.d.).

Carrie Chapman Catt

Carrie Chapman Catt was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, on January 9, 1859 as Carrie Clinton Lane. She studied law for a short time after completing her training as a teacher. She worked as a high school principal and by 1883 was a Schools Superintendent in Mason City. She was married to Leo Chapman, a newspaper publisher and editor was widowed in 1885, shortly after relocating in California. Left alone to mend for herself, she was forced to work as a newspaper reporter. After becoming one of the lecturers of the woman suffrage movement, she went home to Iowa and worked with the Iowa Woman Suffrage Association. She remarried in 1890, to George W. Catt, a rich engineer she met in while in college and again in San Francisco with a prenuptial agreement which allowed her to devote four months out of every year to her work with the suffrage movement (Lewis, 2007).

In 1895, Catt assumed the position of NAWSA’s head of field organizing and by 1900, succeeded Susan Anthony as NAWSA president. She resigned as president, however, in 1904 to take care of her seriously ill husband who died a year later. She was one of the founders of the International Woman Suffrage Association and served as its president from 1904 up to 1923. She was its honorary president from 1923 until she died in 1947. In 1915, while concurrently serving as president of the International Woman Suffrage Association, she was re-elected as president of the NAWSA after the term of Anna Shaw. During her second term as president, she led NAWSA in its campaign for state and federal suffrage laws. She was behind the split involving Alice Paul because she did not agree with Paul’s method of insisting in working only at the federal level and Paul’s inclination to blame Democrats for the “failure of woman suffrage laws.” The efforts that she directed towards obtaining suffrage laws at the state levels had been instrumental in the passage and ultimate ratification of the 19th Amendment. Her other notable accomplishments were as one of the organizers of the Women’s Peace Party during the First World War as well as the League of Women Voters when the 19th Amendment was passed. She was also a supporter of the League of Nations during its critical inception stage immediately after World War I and the United Nations when it was being established in the wake of World War II (Lewis, 2007).

Alice Paul

Alice Paul, who was born on January 11, 1885, also belonged to a family of Quakers. After attending Swarthmore College, she proceeded to the New York School of Social Work while working with the New York College Settlement. She left the country for England in 1906 to study at the University of England, supporting herself with work she found with the settlement house movement. After her return from England, she pursued her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, completing the requirements in 1912 (Lewis, 2007).

Alice Paul became the chairperson of the congressional committee of the NAWSA barely a year after joining the organization in 1912. She was only in her mid-twenties then. However, the following year, she and some other members of NAWSA left the organization because of a disagreement in strategy. While Paul favored working only on the federal level, the leadership of NAWSA under Carrie Chapman Catt wanted to work on both the state and the federal levels. After leaving NAWSA, she and her group organized the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage which became the National Woman’s Party in 1917. Since then, her organization had been working for women’s suffrage on the federal level and contributed to the successful campaign which resulted to the passage of the 19th Amendment. One of the reasons for her being severed from the NAWSA was her preference for the more radical methods of protest which included conducting hunger strikes she learned during her stay in England. When she was already in the United States, the militant rallies and protest actions she organized caused her imprisonment three times (Lewis, 2007).


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