Contrary to popular belief, obtaining the vote was not always the primary goal of the women’s movement prior to the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Women March, explores the efforts of a wide range of women to expand American democracy in the century before the suffrage victory, as well as after; while the Museum is temporarily closed, we are committed to sharing its ideas from afar.
Although the Declaration of Sentiments issued at the 1848 Seneca Falls convention called for women’s participation in politics and for pursuit of the vote, the demand was controversial. Many supporters of women’s rights during the mid-19th century prioritized other goals, such as protecting property rights for married women and increasing women’s access to education. Utilizing tools such as petitioning that had been traditionally coded as feminine to effect change, plus newer tactics including public speaking, they worked to expand their rights, and to advocate for causes important to them.
The Civil War and the end of slavery presented an opportunity to remake U.S. society. Many of the men and women who had fought for abolition also supported women’s rights, and eagerly advocated for legislation to protect the formerly enslaved and to advance the rights of all Americans. The 14th and 15th Amendments presented the nation with new legal strategies and arguments for expanded rights, but the process of their passage laid bare the persistent struggles over race and sex. Not all white women supported giving the franchise to Black men, and not all abolitionist men supported women’s suffrage, splitting the coalition that had worked for both causes up until this point. In 1869, two suffrage organizations emerged from this newly refined focus on suffrage and the conflict around the new amendments: Lucy Stone’s and Julia Ward Howe’s American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s and Susan B. Anthony’s National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). AWSA supported the 15th Amendment, while NWSA did not, and the groups developed different strategies for pursuing women’s suffrage until they merged in 1890.
In the early 1870s, hundreds of women attempted to cast a ballot, among them Sojourner Truth, Anthony, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary. The women claimed the 14th Amendment granted them the vote as a right of citizenship, in a strategy known as the New Departure. Reform journalist, first woman to address a congressional committee, and presidential candidate Victoria Woodhull had popularized this argument, though the Supreme Court decision in Minor v. Happerset (1875) would ultimately invalidate it. The first woman suffrage amendment would be introduced in the Senate in 1878.
Without the vote, women still sought to enact community and societal change with the tools available to them. Black and white women in the north formed relief organizations providing clothes and funding to the formerly enslaved and taught in schools across the South. Formerly enslaved women searched for their lost children and family members by placing advertisements in newspapers, and engaged themselves in politics. Black women in Virginia eagerly attended the 1867–68 state constitutional convention, sharing their opinions about the new legislation and influencing Black delegates. Within their churches, Black women allied with sympathetic men to access new leadership roles. And even though they could not vote, women ran for political office, serving on school boards and town councils.
The suffrage movement is often described as achieving limited progress nationally during the late 19th century, but if we take a broader view of women’s collective action, a different landscape appears. Although the two rival national suffrage organizations struggled to pass state referendums on suffrage, women in small towns, cities, and states joined suffrage organizations, advocated for causes important to them, took political office, and attempted to vote. The language and ideas of women’s rights spread through the lecture circuits as women made a living giving speeches in support of women’s rights. Women’s groups such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union endorsed suffrage in 1881 to empower women to vote for temperance legislation and elect sympathetic politicians. Women’s rights and the demand for suffrage became familiar to American mainstream culture. The vote became seen not only as a right, but also as a key to further a diverse range of causes important to American women. Whether claiming suffrage as a right of citizenship or desiring it as a means to gain a stronger voice in government, those denied the vote have long understood its importance.
Read more from our suffrage centennial series:
- Commemorating an Incomplete Victory: The 19th Amendment at 100
- The Many “Official” Colors of the Suffrage Movement
- White Supremacy and the Suffrage Movement
- “Girls in Caps and Gowns”: The Deltas March for Suffrage
- Obstacles to Suffrage after 1920
- “Get Ready to Vote:” Black Women after the Voting Rights Act
- Fighting Back: Women of Color and the Ongoing Struggle for Citizenship Beyond the Vote
- Many Fronts, One Struggle: Native American Women’s Activism Since the 19th Amendment
- The Suffrage Centennial: Righting, and Rewriting, Historical Wrongs
Written by Laura Mogulescu, Curator of Women’s History Collections, Center for Women’s History