“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This is the First Amendment in the United States Constitution, ratified on December 15, 1791. The sentiment is beautiful. For students learning today about the Constitution and all the freedoms it allows us, as Americans, it would seem perfect. However, for many groups of Americans these freedoms, so eloquently posed, stood as a reminder of all the ways in which they were outside participants in the United States of America. These outside groups held no political authority, were unable to contribute their opinions in press publications, were not educated with the tools necessary to effect change and were not entitled to hold any positions of authority within religious organizations. This paper will address one of those groups, women, and outline their struggle in becoming recognized as equal citizens.
Prior to the beginning of the uphill battle for equality, the United States social structure operated under what has been termed the “Cult of Domesticity.” The Cult of Domesticity was part and parcel of the separate spheres methodology which separated society into two distinct spheres, the public and the private. The public sphere belonged to males, it was their duty to go out and earn the income for the family. The private sphere was deemed the responsibility of the woman. It was their duty to maintain the home and family. Under this mode of thinking, four virtues were ascribed to the “true woman.” These virtues were piety, purity, submission and domesticity. If a women were to educate herself it was deemed unladylike. If a woman were to perform physical labor it was considered unfeminine. Legal and political marginalization of women resulted through the passage of protective labor laws and “scientific” findings that women were incapable of effectively participating in the realms of politics, commerce or public service. The “New Woman” emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries as an independent decision maker. The “New Woman” was educated and able to take on the intricacies of the political and mercantile spheres. This “New Woman” was born within the suffragettes. (Scott, 73)
The general consensus on the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement is that it began in July of 1848 with the first convention held in Seneca, New York. This first convention was important for two reasons. First, it established a precedent, and two years after this first convention, the first ever National Women’s Rights Convention took place in Massachusetts, attracting over 1,000 participants. This national convention then continued to occur every year for a decade. Second, this is where the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” was drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. (One Hundred Years) Stanton used the Declaration of Independence as the inspiration for her framework and cited 12 explicit grievances, 11 of which were agreed upon unanimously by all 100 participants. The divisive citation, the right to vote, was thought by some to be too revolutionary a concept and outside the realm of what could be accomplished. A majority vote was not received until Frederick Douglas spoke in favor of it, expressing his view that the right to vote belonged to all. Perhaps as a way to placate those that thought these sentiments to be too extreme, the declaration ended on a note acknowledging the long struggle they knew they would be facing. “In entering upon the great work before us, we anticipate no small amount of misconception, misrepresentation, and ridicule; but we shall use every instrumentality within our power to effect our object.” (Living the Legacy)
After this first convention, a massive grass roots campaign was begun by women from all over the country. These women were extremely different from one another. Some were former slaves, some were the wives of rich land owners, some were educated, and some were not. All they had in common was the desire to be treated as equal members in society. “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be strong enough to turn it back, and get it right side up again.” This quote comes from Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech which was delivered at a Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. (Modern History) Throughout this period of grassroots campaigning, women are becoming educated. They are publishing works of literature, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Certain key players in the Women’s Rights Movement are using this time to build momentum for their cause and just one year after the Civil War ends, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton form the American Equal Rights Association, which was a group comprised of both black and white, men and women dedicated to the dream of universal suffrage. Unfortunately, this organization splits after the ratification of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments which define “citizens” and “voters” specifically as male. Many women involved in the Equal Rights Association felt that they should not support the passing of these amendments, but rather push for a new bill that would call for Universal Suffrage. (One Hundred Years) The split resulted in the formation of two separate groups, The National Woman Suffrage Association and The American Woman Suffrage Association in the year 1869.
The National Woman Suffrage Association, created by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, focused their attention on getting the right to vote through a Congressional amendment to the constitution. Viewed as the more radical of the two groups, they pushed for changes to societal norms, wanting an easier divorce process, and expanded their numbers dramatically, by offering all woman suffrage organizations an opportunity to become an auxiliary of the NWSA. (Brittanica) The American Woman Suffrage Association, created by Lucy Stone and Henry Blackwell, worked for enfranchisement from the state and local levels. They pushed for grass roots dissemination of information and encouraged each state to set up auxiliary offices of the AWSA. The AWSA welcomed abolitionists amongst its ranks and encouraged male officers. They focused their attention solely on the goal of enfranchisement and even supported the Republican party. (Brittanica) These two factions worked with their own methodologies until 1890 when they finally decided that a unified organization would achieve better results.
In 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association was formed, headed by Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. The National American Woman Suffrage Association had two main objectives, recruiting new members and obtaining the right to vote for women. In order to obtain the vote, they planned on pushing states to ratify state suffrage amendments, in the hopes that, if enough state governments agreed, Congress would be forced to approve a federal amendment. They initiated what was called the “Society Plan,” in hopes of recruiting educated, privileged, politically influential members. Colorado became the first state to adopt an amendment enfranchising women in 1893. Then in 1896 two major events take place. One, Utah and Idaho both pass amendments giving women the right to vote. Two, The National Association of Colored Women is formed. (Woman Suffrage National) The National Association of Colored Women was formed at a convention in Washington D.C. The result of a merger between the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the National League of Colored Women. Its founders included, Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. The organization had a very ambitious agenda, including job training, wage equity, and child care. (Sterling, 19) Their agenda was similar to the National Women’s Trade Union League, formed in 1903, which advocated for better wages and working conditions, for women. It wasn’t until 1912 that the NACW endorsed the suffrage movement, however, that same year, they initiated a national scholarship fund for African American college bound women. (Brittanica) Washington State was next to allow women the right to vote in 1910. Followed by, California in 1911. Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona followed suit in 1912. Alaska and Illinois agreed in 1913. Also in 1913, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns form the Congressional Union. Their main objective was to pass a federal amendment giving women the right to vote. They were eventually renamed the National Women’s Party and practiced civil disobedience such as marches and picket lines to achieve their goal. (Evans, 42) Montana and Nevada enfranchised women in 1914. In 1916, the first woman ever was elected into the House of Representatives, Jeannette Rankin for Montana. New York finally gave women the right to vote in 1917, Michigan, South Dakota and Oklahoma in 1918. In 1919, the federal woman suffrage amendment, originally written by Susan B. Anthony, and introduced into Congress in 1878, is passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate. It is then sent to the states for ratification. 1920, sees the formation of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. Their objective is to collect data about women in the workplace and safeguard good working conditions for women. (Scott, 93) Finally, on August 26, 1920 the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote, is signed into law by Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby.
Women fought for 72 years for the right to vote in this country, but the fight for equality is not finished. In 1923, The National Woman’s Party proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to eliminate discrimination on the basis of gender. It has never been ratified and women are still subjected to discrimination in the media, religious organizations, and the workplace. Women’s Suffrage was an incredible, awe inspiring movement in our nations history, but we should always keep in mind that it was only the first step. We have to continue pushing forward and building a better future for our children, both our sons and our daughters.