Women's Suffrage Movement

The woman suffrage movement, or the drive to grant all adult women the right to vote, culminated in the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

In colonial America, most positions of power outside the family were available only to property-owning men. While the American Revolution led to a broader idea of citizen participation, female taxpayers still voted in only some areas, and early women reformers did not focus on expanding the right to vote to all women citizens. Indeed, at the first women's rights convention, held in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton shocked her colleagues when she asked the assembly to vote on a resolution demanding suffrage for women.

After the Civil War, during which many efforts by women had been underappreciated, Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and other feminists began to view woman suffrage as their foremost goal. Many were disappointed by the proposed Fifteenth Amendment, which would grant African-American men the vote. In particular, Anthony and Stanton felt that the amendment merely expanded male suffrage, and they urged their male allies to withdraw their support unless the amendment was modified to include women. Stanton also prepared a petition requesting an amendment to the Constitution prohibiting states "from disenfranchising any of their citizens on the ground of sex." However, male abolitionists seemed surprised, even indignant, that women objected to the Fifteenth Amendment, and most of them refused to sign the petition.

Splitting over the issue of the Fifteenth Amendment, suffragists formed two organizations in 1869. The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) was led by Stanton and Anthony and was opposed to the Fifteenth Amendment. The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), supportive of the Fifteenth Amendment, was headed by Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Ward Beecher, and others. Critics viewed the female-run NWSA as more radical than the AWSA. Anthony affirmed that view when she tried to vote in 1872 and was arrested, found guilty, and fined. Other suffragists also brought the issue of woman suffrage into the courts, but the U.S. Supreme Court closed the matter when it ruled in 1875 that U.S. citizenship did not automatically confer the right to vote.

In 1877, the NWSA resolved to collect signatures for another petition supporting a woman suffrage amendment. After Anthony collected 10,000 signatures from 26 states, she presented them to the Senate, which responded with laughter. Three years later, however, the movement gained a bit more respectability when the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) endorsed woman suffrage. At the same time, suffragists attracted new enemies in the liquor industry, which viewed the WCTU as a threat.

Hoping that their combined forces would more quickly advance the idea of a constitutional amendment, the NWSA and the AWSA united in 1890 as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Led by Anthony, Stanton, and Stone, the organization worked on building support within the states and disassociating itself from radical causes. In recreating their image, some white suffragists even used racist rhetoric to curry favor in the South. Nevertheless, African-American women like Ida Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell, inspired by former slave and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth, maintained their support for woman suffrage.

For the next two decades, the NAWSA sought to increase its membership and further shed its radical image. Presidents like Carrie Chapman Catt reached out to educated, socially prominent women, and younger suffragists held many outdoor meetings and parades. Such tactics, however, did not convince any new states to approve woman suffrage.

Prior to World War I, activist Alice Paul brought her experiences with militant suffragists in England home to the United States. Her leadership, along with the increased support for woman suffrage fostered by the progressive movement, inspired many suffragists to focus exclusively on the federal government's failure to approve a woman suffrage amendment. During the war, many even protested the presidency of Woodrow Wilson in front of the White House. Meanwhile, Catt and the NAWSA continued to pressure the states to enfranchise their women. In contrast to Paul, the NAWSA supported Wilson and his war effort, which ultimately helped to convince the president to support the national amendment.

Finally, in 1919, Congress approved an amendment that would guarantee women the right to vote—the language of which had been written by Anthony 40 years earlier—and submitted it to the states. By the summer of 1920, 35 of the 36 states needed for ratification had ratified the amendment. Hoping to influence Tennessee's legislature, suffragists and antisuffragists gathered in that state, which finally approved ratification by one vote.
The Nineteenth Amendment was added to the Constitution on August 26, 1920. The last challenge to women's right to vote was defeated when the Supreme Court upheld the amendment in Leser v. Garnett (1922).

benevolent societies

Perhaps the earliest women's organizations in the United States were the female benevolent societies, which allowed women to engage in social welfare activities outside the home, provided them with company, and enabled them to collect money, chair meetings, and form networks. First established in the 1790s, the number of female benevolent societies grew between 1800 and 1860 and spread throughout the United States. Women's interest in temperance, abolition, and woman suffrage emerged from their tradition of benevolence.

Winning Plan
Devised by Carrie Chapman Catt in 1916, the Winning Plan was an effort to win political support for women's suffrage in the early 20th century. Catt, one of the leaders of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, based the Winning Plan on the idea that state and federal victories would interlock—that is, state victories would encourage the representatives and senators from the states' regions to support a federal suffrage amendment.

National American Woman Suffrage Association

The formation of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1890 represented the start of a truly nationwide women's rights movement. The group reunited two groups of the women's suffrage movement that had bitterly parted in 1869: the more radical National Woman Suffrage Association, founded by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in New York in 1869; and the more conservative American Woman Suffrage Association, established by Lucy Stone later that year in Cleveland, Ohio. Stanton was the NAWSA's first president, but Anthony assumed the post in 1892. The organization was infused with the ideas of a younger generation of feminists who had attended college and had careers.

The old tension between the two women's groups did not subside easily, as the NAWSA's leadership battled over whether to campaign for women's suffrage on the state or national level. By the mid-1890s, the group was waging campaigns on both fronts, by convening outside Washington, D.C. every other year and campaigning for state suffrage in individual states. Anthony hoped to broaden the organization's appeal, particularly to Southern women, and thus decided to restrict the organization to women's rights, not incorporating a stance on civil rights for African Americans. Her decision outraged many of her African-American coworkers and reform-minded colleagues, as well as contradicting her personal inclinations, but she was determined to gain support for the women's suffrage movement by any means. She even distanced herself from the first man to support publicly women's suffrage, Frederick Douglass. When organizers from the NAWSA went to Atlanta, Georgia, Anthony confessed, "I myself asked Mr. Douglass not to come. . . . I did not want anything to get in the way of bringing the Southern white women into our suffrage association."
In 1900, Anthony resigned from the presidency of the organization and was succeeded by Carrie Chapman Catt, who guided the NAWSA in a strategy to win women's suffrage in the states. In 1912, a young reformer named Alice Paul joined the organization and challenged Catt to push for a national amendment. Through the NAWSA's efforts, as well as those of other women's suffrage organizations, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, finally securing for women the right to vote throughout the country. After the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified in 1920, the nonpartisan NAWSA became the League of Women Voters.

League of Women Voters

The national League of Women Voters (LWV) has worked throughout most of its history more for improvement in government in general than for the rights of women.

In 1919, Carrie Chapman Catt conceived of the idea of an organization to unite women once they were enfranchised, and in February 1921, the LWV was formed at a convention celebrating the suffrage victory of its parent organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Roughly 5% of NAWSA became members of LWV. Originally, the LWV's priorities included more than five dozen items, which were grouped into seven categories: improvement of the electoral process, citizenship education, women's legal status, the condition of women working in industry, child welfare, social hygiene, and food supply. In 1923, its goals were redefined as the following: women's legal rights; the promotion of pacifism; and effective government handling of social welfare objectives.

Initially, the league adopted a frankly feminist approach, stressing the potential power of a women's voting bloc. By voting as a bloc and having their votes make a difference in elections, women would have had a tool for forcing serious recognition of their demands. To the dismay of some feminists, however, the league was within a few years intimidated into abandoning that position because of hostility from members of the establishment who felt threatened by an unfamiliar political tactic. Those individuals declared that any basis for organizing individuals (such as gender) apart from the two-party system was inherently un-American.

The approach adopted by the league in place of militant feminism was one that emphasized improvement in government as its chief overall aim, with the political education of women as a means to that end. This shift was somewhat more consistent with Catt's original conception of the organization: namely, that it would not attempt to steer women away from the major political parties or make them shun working with men but would lead them to participate in the political process on an individual basis, entering the existing political parties and working for their improvement.

For many years, the league actually devoted more attention to such issues as disarmament, wages and working hours, and child labor than to women's rights like the right to use birth control, divorce law reform, equal pay, and the right for women to serve on juries. Despite its middle- and upper-class membership, the league was determined to reach as many types of women as possible. It was careful to create a strong consensus among its members before proceeding with any decision. As part of its effort to be nonsectarian and nonpartisan, it mostly avoided candidate endorsements. To promote unity with other women, the league joined nine other women's organizations in the Women's Joint Congressional Committee to lobby for feminist goals. The committee was responsible for the Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act (1921), which provided health care funds, and the Cable Act (1922), which granted married women citizenship that was not fully dependent on (although still not fully independent of) their husbands' status.

Out of a desire to express support for working women, the LWV endorsed protective laws. For this reason, it often came into conflict with the staunchly feminist National Woman's Party, which opposed protective legislation because of its interference with the principle of a comprehensive ban on all sex discrimination in the form of an equal rights amendment. Moreover, some feminist groups accused the LWV of emphasizing patriotism over women's rights to the point of complacency on the latter subject. LWV's determination to effect change through the use of the right to vote may have been mistaken by some feminists as settling merely for equal suffrage. Also, the fact that it favors an incremental approach to achieving women's rights may have contributed to the perception that it lacked passion for feminist causes.

National Woman's Party

The National Woman's Party (NWP), a radical women's group, worked for passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
The NWP was founded by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who acted as chair and vice chair of the Congressional Committee of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1912. The committee influenced NAWSA's young members to work for a federal suffrage amendment instead of adhering to association president Carrie Chapman Catt's state-by-state strategy. In 1913, they formed a new organization, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU). In 1917, this group merged with Woman's Party to form the NWP.

Members of the militant NWP were imprisoned for picketing the White House in 1917, becoming national heroes in the process and greatly increasing public awareness regarding the potential passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Found guilty of "obstructing traffic," Paul, Burns, and 96 other suffragists served sentences of up to six months.

The women claimed political prisoner status. Although no court responded to the argument, the women at least had the satisfaction of hearing a District of Columbia Court of Appeals declare their arrests to be "invalid" in 1918. The public outcry over the arrests, combined with the more practical Winning Plan of the NAWSA, convinced President Woodrow Wilson to support the women's cause in 1918. The Senate voted the amendment down, however, and as a result, the NWP opposed Wilson's bid for reelection in 1918, pursuing a strategy of opposing the party in power until a federal suffrage amendment was passed. In addition, the NWP punished Wilson's party, the Democrats, by opposing all of its candidates for Congress, regardless of their position on suffrage. Despite the NWP's opposition, Wilson won 10 of the 12 suffrage states, and the NWP had little effect on congressional elections.

From 1919 to 1920, the NWP had 35,000 to 60,000 members. After the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, however, the NWP went into a decline, with only 152 members in 1921. At the national convention in 1923, the leadership proposed an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which was introduced into Congress by Senator Charles Curtis of Kansas on December 10 of that year. It said simply, "Men and women shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place subject to its jurisdiction." In 1943, the wording of the ERA was revised to read: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States on account of sex." The change was made to bring it into line with the language of the Nineteenth Amendment.

The NWP newsletter Equal Rights, founded in 1923, exemplified the high intellectual standards to which members of the NWP held themselves. It tracked legislative victories and other milestones for women, exposed discriminatory practices and their underlying social causes, and published essays on women's issues. The NWP still exists, and Equal Rights remains the name of its newsletter. The organization advocates ratification of an equal rights amendment and maintains the NWP Equal Rights and Suffrage Art Gallery and Museum in the Sewall-Belmont House, a national historic landmark in Washington, D.C.