“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Spanning over seven decades, the American women’s suffrage movement united several generations of American women in the fight for equal voting rights. The women’s suffrage campaign formally started in 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention in Seneca Falls, New York, and ended in 1920 with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Prior to 1848, activist women had agitated for women’s rights through benevolent associations, the abolitionist movement, and the temperance movement, but the Seneca Falls Convention marked the beginning of a concerted effort specifically focused on obtaining the right to vote for women. The Nineteenth Constitutional Amendment was simple and concise, yet took over seventy years to be passed. Thousands of Americans spent between 1848 and 1920 picketing, lobbying members of Congress, and serving jail time in their fight for the right to vote. The longevity of the movement, the political tactics employed by the suffragists, and the eventual successful outcome of the campaign makes the women’s suffrage movement one of America’s most triumphant battles for full citizenship rights.

Seneca Falls

The first major women’s rights convention in the United States took place on July 19th and 20th, 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York. The meeting was organized by Jane Hunt, Mary Ann McClintock, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Martha Wright. The women of Seneca Falls were motivated by discontent with daily life – they believed that women in America had too little intellectual activity and too much domestic drudgery. Women such as Stanton felt plagued by the social expectation that women belonged in the home, running the household and caring for children. Historians such as Barbara Welter have termed this idea – that women belonged to and ruled the “private sphere” – the “Cult of Domesticity.” The principal goal of the convention was to gather around the social, economic, and intellectual issues that plagued women and brainstorm possible solutions to these problems.

Women's Rights Convention
Signatures to the Declaration of Sentiments
The majority of the women who organized Seneca Falls learned to organize for political action and oratory skills in anti-slavery and temperance associations. Many of the women in anti-slavery and temperance societies were disillusioned with the second-class treatment they received. In May 1840, the abolition movement split the American Anti-Slavery Society into two groups over female leadership. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison emerged as the leader of the sect that supported female involvement within the movement. Later in 1840, Lucretia Mott attended the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London as a representative from the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, but female delegates were not accepted into the Convention proceedings. Elizabeth Cady Stanton also encountered difficulty as a female within the abolitionist movement. Stanton and her husband Henry Stanton participated in abolitionist activities in Boston, but she was not permitted to have a voice in business meetings due to her gender. The obstacles to full activism within the abolition movement convinced many women, such as Stanton and Mott, to re-focus their efforts on women’s rights. Prominent activist women believed that women could gain greater influence within reform movements if they secured equal political rights for all women.

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were introduced in 1851. They became a dynamic team within the women’s suffrage movement. Anthony was raised within a Quaker household in which girls and boys received equal respect. The Quakers had a long tradition of gender equality, allowing women to participate in church affairs and encouraging women to pursue an advanced education. Anthony did not attend the convention at Seneca Falls because she was still focused on the temperance movement. Reform movements such as temperance gave women a social outlet, as well as a venue to express issues that they confronted within the home. Temperance activism enabled women to agitate for solutions to domestic issues such as abusive drunken husbands who wasted family money on alcohol. Anthony became dissatisfied with the temperance movement after she and other women were denied access to speak at a temperance meeting, and decided that women could achieve greater social reform if they obtained the right to vote.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony - Suffragists
Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony
Anthony and Stanton were introduced in 1851; they quickly became friends and invited one another to reform activities. At the beginning of Anthony and Stanton’s relationship, they also worked with Lucy Stone, who became involved in the women’s rights movement after fighting for equality during her time in college. Together, Anthony and Stanton were the perfect team – Anthony served as the organizer and strategist while Stanton worked as the thinker and writer. Anthony planned the meetings and gathered the resources, and Stanton wrote and delivered the speeches. In 1866, the two women founded the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) along with Lucy Stone and Lucretia Mott, which sought to secure equal civil rights for all Americans regardless of race or sex. Through the AERA, Anthony and Stanton believed they could achieve universal adult suffrage by securing the vote for both African Americans and women. Two turning points for the pair (and the women’s rights movement as a whole) came after the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which granted citizenship to persons born or naturalized in the U.S., and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870), which enfranchised African American men. Despite the efforts of AERA to secure equality for all, the debates that ensued after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment made it clear that abolitionists wanted to abandon the cause of universal suffrage in order to obtain voting rights for African American men first. Anthony and Stanton were disappointed that their allies within the abolitionist movement did not fight to include women’s enfranchisement in the Fifteenth Amendment.

At this time, the AERA split into two groups. Lucy Stone and her husband Henry Blackwell embraced the cause of black suffrage as their priority, and Anthony and Stanton led a group that continued to fight for women’s suffrage. Anthony and Stanton pursued a more feminist approach to women’s rights. Unfortunately, their work also adopted a racist tone due to the bitterness they felt towards the abolitionists’ abandonment of universal suffrage. Anthony and Stanton were dismayed that illiterate slaves were granted the right to vote, yet educated white women were still denied suffrage.

In 1868, Anthony and Stanton started a feminist newspaper, The Revolution, to publish articles on the needs and concerns of women. The following year, the two women founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), installing Stanton as the President. Anthony served as the organizational mastermind behind the association, while Stanton worked in a more visible role as a writer and speaker. Also at this time, Anthony and Stanton broke from their working relationship with Lucy Stone. The split occurred in 1869, as Anthony and Stanton founded the NWSA, and Stone went on to lead the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). The NWSA was a woman’s organization with only female officers, while the American Woman Suffrage Association admitted men as equal members and officers. The formation of NWSA and the publication of The Revolution gave Anthony and Stanton new venues to tackle women’s issues in the post-Civil War era.

In 1872, Anthony voted in a Rochester, NY polling station and was arrested for illegal voting. She utilized her court appearances to make speeches in favor of female enfranchisement. Excerpts from Anthony’s remarks in her court appearances of 1873 can be found here.

Anthony also worked to unite the various women’s activism groups agitating for the goal of suffrage. As a means to achieve that goal, the NWSA organized a week-long International Council for Women in 1888. The Council was attended by members of over fifty women’s reform organizations and women from nine foreign countries. The Council created a greater sense of unity and sisterhood within the women’s rights movement, but the attendees still were cautious to formally adopt the cause of woman suffrage. The solidarity initiated by the Council established open lines of communication between the NWSA and Lucy Stone’s organization, the AWSA. After two years of negotiations, the two organizations merged in February 1890 to create the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Anthony attempted to keep the NAWSA as a non-partisan group in order to keep women united, but political disagreements inevitably occurred over the next few decades.

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA)

Stanton was elected as the first President of the NAWSA in 1890, but she only remained in the position for two years due to the difficulty of remaining non-partisan. Stanton resigned from the presidency at a convention in 1892, and gave one of her most famous speeches, “Solitude of Self.” She used her resignation speech to reinforce her core feminist beliefs regarding the need for equal rights. Anthony took over as President in 1892 and served in the position until 1900 when she was succeeded by Carrie Chapman Catt. A difficult point in Anthony’s presidency occurred at the 1896 NAWSA convention when the attendees debated the merits of Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible, published in 1895. The book was a commentary on Biblical passages involving women, and the passages’ relation to the progression of women’s rights. At the conference, a heated dispute took place as many NAWSA members did not want any association with the book. Anthony attempted to defend Stanton, but the NAWSA passed a resolution rejecting any relation to The Woman’s Bible. Stanton grew distant from the formal suffrage movement after this incident.

Stanton passed away in 1902 and Anthony followed four years later, marking the end of an era, but opening the door for a younger generation of suffrage activists. By the time Catt assumed the presidency of the NAWSA in 1900, four states, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, and Colorado, had given women the right to vote. However, a national amendment to the U.S. Constitution still had not been achieved. Catt served as the president of the NAWSA until 1904 when she was forced to resign to care for her dying husband. Anthony’s personal friend, Anna Howard Shaw, assumed the presidency from 1904-1915. Shaw was not an effective organizer or leader, despite her extensive education, suffrage history, and public speaking skills. Unfortunately, the NAWSA weakened under Shaw’s leadership, and a number of alternate women’s suffrage organizations were founded to pursue the cause with different tactics. While Shaw served as president of the NAWSA, Catt became the founder and president of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA). Catt also organized most of the suffrage associations in New York City under the umbrella organization of the Woman Suffrage Party. By 1915, NAWSA had become divided under Shaw’s leadership, and Catt reassumed the presidency.

National American Women Suffrage Association - Nineteenth Amendment
Helen Hamilton Gardener, Carrie Chapman Catt and Maud Wood Park (from left to right) on the balcony of Suffrage House, the Washington headquarters of the National American Woman Suffrage Association

Over three hundred men and women attended the meeting at Seneca Falls, and the event garnered media coverage in local newspapers. Newspaper coverage of the Seneca Falls Convention from the North Star in Rochester, NY can be found here through the Library of Congress. One major accomplishment from the Seneca Falls Convention was the creation of the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.” It listed all of the grievances women held in regard to citizenship, social conditions, and limited educational opportunities. Slightly altering the “Declaration of Independence” to include women’s rights, the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” states,

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Drawing on the American ethos of freedom and equality, the Seneca Falls “Declaration” stated that women were equal to men. The document also pressured the United States government to grant equal rights for both men and women because women were governed without the ability to vote for laws or government officials, echoing the rhetoric of tyrannical rule and taxation without representation from the American Revolution. The convention was so successful that the delegates agreed to meet again in two weeks in Rochester, NY. For full text of the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” see the Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony Papers Project.

With Catt at the helm once again, the NAWSA encouraged a state-by-state approach to suffrage. Catt proposed that national support would come easier if state support was already in place. As more states passed individual suffrage rights for women, Congressmen from those states were more likely to support women’s enfranchisement at a national level. In 1916, Catt and the NAWSA established lobbying headquarters in Washington, D.C. to have better access to Congressmen. The state of New York passed women’s suffrage in 1917, largely due to work completed by Catt and the Woman Suffrage Party.

African American Women in the Suffrage Movement

During the second half of the nineteenth century, black women participated in the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). After the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the racism that pervaded many women’s suffrage associations motivated African American women to pursue alternate activist organizations. Many African American women organized their own activist groups in order to circumvent the issue of racism within mixed-race associations. Black women’s clubs focused on similar issues to predominantly white women’s clubs, such as temperance and child welfare, but they were able to specifically focus on the needs of the African American community. In 1896, many black women’s clubs joined to form the umbrella organization called the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).

Founded by some of the most successful black women in America, the NACW focused on social uplift and the pursuit of civil rights, reflected in their motto, “Lifting as we climb.” The NACW adopted women’s suffrage as part of its platform as a means for black club women to obtain greater political rights and further the club’s agenda of social uplift. Mary Church Terrell was selected as the first President of the NACW. Terrell was a leader within the black women’s suffrage movement, but she also worked with the National Women’s Party by picketing at the White House. Another leader within the NACW was Nannie Helen Burroughs, founder of the National Training School for Women and Girls and an active writer in support of women’s suffrage. Burroughs focused on education, job training, and voting rights as the keys to women’s uplift within American society. African American female writer and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett founded the first black woman’s suffrage association, the Alpha Suffrage Club of Chicago. Wells-Barnett was not only a successful organizer but also a prolific writer in support of women’s rights and civil rights.

For women such as Burroughs, Terrell, and Wells-Barnett, it was often difficult to work with suffrage associations dominated by white women because they frequently encountered racism. However, black women formed their own organizations in order to maintain a focus on the needs of African American women. The black women’s organizations not only gave the women an outlet to participate in social uplift but also provided leadership for black women to cooperate with suffrage associations dominated by white women.

Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party

Alice Paul, Nineteenth Amendment
Alice Paul

Born in 1885 and raised a Quaker in New Jersey, Alice Paul received a Bachelor’s Degree from Swarthmore College in 1905, a Master’s Degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1907, and a Doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1912. Paul joined the local branch of the NAWSA during her time at the University of Pennsylvania. Paul became seeped in radical suffragist tactics while in London after completing her graduate degree in 1907. While in England, Paul protested with British suffragists and was arrested. During her jail sentence, she went on a hunger strike and was force-fed. Paul returned to the U.S. in 1912 and convinced the NAWSA to allow her to organize a lobbying group in Washington, D.C. Paul’s lobbying arm of the NAWSA became known as the Congressional Union, and they worked to pressure Congress to pass a federal women’s suffrage amendment.

The first major public event for the Congressional Union was a suffrage parade the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in March 1913. Paul and her comrade Lucy Burns organized 8,000 women to march in the parade, assembled into units with costumes and banners. African American women were told to march in a separate unit rather than integrating with the units from their respective states. During the parade, black activist Ida B. Wells slipped into the unit from her state because she refused to be segregated into the black unit.

The parade was purposely planned to coincide with the inauguration because Washington, D.C. was full of on-lookers, including the press. The parade was planned for full dramatic effect and was led by the suffragist lawyer Inez Milholland wearing a flowing white robe and riding a white horse. As the procession marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, the mostly male crowd began to harass the women and eventually blocked the progression of the parade. The War Department brought in mounted cavalry to restore order after the police failed to control the crowd. Despite the hostile end to the parade, the spectacle brought women’s suffrage to the forefront of the national press. For a fictionalized portrayal of the March 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., watch this clip from Iron Jawed Angels, an award-winning film about the women’s suffrage movement released in 2004.

Following the 1913 parade, Paul continued to lobby members of Congress for support using confrontational political tactics. Paul’s aggressive political style clashed with many moderate members of the NAWSA, including Catt. A formal split occurred in 1916 when the Congressional Union left the NAWSA and formed its own organization, the National Woman’s Party (NWP), under the leadership of Paul. Both organizations continued to lobby Congress, but the NWP also practiced confrontational public protests.

In early 1917, after a number of failed attempts to convince President Wilson to endorse suffrage, the NWP tried a new tactic – picketing the White House. Alice Paul and other NWP activists volunteered to stand at the gates of the White House every day with banners in support of women’s suffrage. The goal was to pressure President Wilson to support the suffrage cause. The female picketers stood at the gates rain or shine, year-round, starting in January 1917. At first, President Wilson and other citizens seemed amused at the picketers, but the public response to the women became hostile after the United States entered World War I in April 1917. Many citizens were outraged that the women continued protesting against a wartime President. In the eyes of many Americans, the NWP picketers were unpatriotic.

Despite the controversy, the picketers continued to show up at the White House every day. The NWP even attempted to utilize war ethos for the advancement of women’s suffrage. America entered into WWI in order to defend democracy in Europe, and the NWP took every opportunity to point out that true democracy did not even exist in the U.S. The picket banners frequently referred to President Wilson as “Kaiser Wilson” in an attempt to compare his political policies with those of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who was the primary enemy against the U.S. in WWI. As the wartime pickets continued, angry mobs in Washington, D.C. frequently attacked the women as police stood by and watched. Starting in June, police arrested the picketers for trumped-up charges such as obstructing traffic. However, more women showed up to protest each morning, no matter how many women were arrested the day before. Those who were arrested refused to pay the fine, and were typically sent to prison for six-month sentences.

The majority of the arrested picketers were sent to Occoquan Workhouse, which was a prison in Virginia. The female prisoners faced harsh treatment, including unsanitary living quarters and beatings by prison guards, but they continually demanded to be treated as political prisoners. In the fall of 1917, about 500 female picketers were arrested, 168 of whom served jail sentences. Alice Paul avoided the picket line for most of 1917, but she decided to picket and face arrest in October 1917 because she believed her leadership could make a greater difference in prison rather than in the offices of the NWP. As self-professed political prisoners, Paul and her fellow picketing prisoners began hunger strikes in jail as an additional form of protest. ((Ibid., 192)) The women on hunger strikes were frequently brutally force-fed by prison guards. Despite the atrocities the women faced in prison, the picketing continued because it drew national attention to the cause. Stories of the hunger strikes and forced feeding leaked out of prison and into the press, which garnered sympathy for the women. On November 27, 1917, President Wilson suddenly released the protestors from prison after he realized that arrests were not going to stop the picketers from showing up every day.

Women Get the Vote

Referring to women’s suffrage as a “war measure,” President Wilson publicly expressed support for a suffrage amendment at the end of 1917. In January 1918 the House of Representatives passed the suffrage amendment, but the Senate did not vote on the amendment until June 1918. When the amendment came up for the vote in the Senate, anti-suffrage senators filibustered to block the vote from taking place. Beginning in August 1918, Paul and the NWP also began protesting on a regular basis at the statue in Lafayette Square, which was dedicated to Marquis de Lafayette, the Frenchman who fought for liberty during the Revolutionary War. Again, many female protestors were arrested throughout the month as they engaged in speeches and rallies at Lafayette Square. Starting in September, the protesters at Lafayette Square burned copies of President Wilson’s speeches to emphasize the incongruity between his rhetoric of democracy and his failure to grant women the vote. As 1918 progressed, the protest banners also targeted specific anti-suffrage Senators who had blocked the passage of the amendment.

As another Congressional vote on the amendment approached, on February 9, 1919, a group of suffragists burned Wilson in effigy outside of the White House in order to demonstrate disapproval of his leadership. Demonstrations by members of the NWP continued throughout the spring, despite additional arrests. Finally, on May 21, 1919, Congress voted on suffrage and passed the amendment. Paul and the NWP immediately began lobbying the state legislatures to ensure that the amendment would be ratified. Over a year later, the amendment was ratified when Tennessee became the final state to approve the suffrage amendment. On August 26, 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted into the United States Constitution, which fully enfranchised American women.

Nineteenth Amendment
Suffrage worker with newspaper clippings on the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote by the United States Senate.

For more information:

  1. Miriam Gurko, The Ladies of Seneca Falls: The Birth of the Woman’s Rights Movement. New York: Schocken Books, 1974: 2-3
  2. Sue Davis, The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 40
  3. Gurko, The Ladies of Seneca Falls, 48
  4. ibid., 48-49
  5. Davis, The Political Thought of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 43)
  6. Gurko, The Ladies of Seneca Falls, 109-111
  7. Ellen Carol Dubois, ed., The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1981: 6-7
  8. Dubois, The Elizabeth Cady Stanton-Susan B. Anthony Reader, 90
  9. ibid., 91-92
  10. ibid., 176
  11. Details of the Council’s program of events can be found in the New York Times, and newspaper coverage of the Council meeting can be found on March 25th, March 27th, March 29th, March 30th, and March 31st.
  12. Edith Mayo, “Introduction,” Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote, ed. Carol O’Hare. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995: 20-21
  13. National Women’s History Museum, “Rights for Women: The Suffrage Movement and Its Leaders,” http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/rightsforwomen/AfricanAmericanwomen.html
  14. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “African American Women and Suffrage,” Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote, ed. Carol O’Hare. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995: 196
  15. National Women’s History Museum, “Rights for Women: The Suffrage Movement and Its Leaders,” http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/rightsforwomen/Burroughs.html
  16. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, “African American Women and Suffrage,” Doris Stevens, Jailed for Freedom: American Women Win the Vote, ed. Carol O’Hare. Troutdale, OR: NewSage Press, 1995: 195
  17. Alice Paul Institute, “Alice Paul: Feminist, Suffragist and Political Strategist,” http://www.alicepaul.org/alicepaul.htm
  18. National Women’s History Museum, “Rights for Women: The Suffrage Movement and Its Leaders,” http://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/rightsforwomen/AfricanAmericanwomen.html
  19. Alice Paul Institute, “Alice Paul: Feminist, Suffragist and Political Strategist,” http://www.alicepaul.org/alicepaul.htm
  20. Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008: 177-180
  21. ibid., 191
  22. Alice Paul Institute, “Alice Paul: Feminist, Suffragist and Political Strategist,” http://www.alicepaul.org/alicepaul.htm
  23. Adams, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign, 220-221
  24. ibid., 236