The women’s suffrage movement in the United States underwent a dramatic evolution over several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through perseverance and changing tactics, women’s rights activists transformed what was initially considered a radical idea into a nationwide reality with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
- The Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 launched the organized push for women’s equality and suffrage.
- Competing suffrage organizations, including the NWSA and AWSA, eventually united under the NAWSA.
- Suffragists utilized diverse tactics from writing to picketing outside the White House.
- Support from President Wilson and both major political parties finally secured passage of the 19th Amendment.
- Even after gaining suffrage, women continued campaigning for broader social reforms.
How did the initial push for women’s suffrage begin?
The first major public call for women’s suffrage came at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, spearheaded by early activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. This landmark convention produced the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which demanded equal treatment and rights for women, including voting rights. Stanton’s resolution demanding woman suffrage was initially met with skepticism, even by many women’s rights activists. But after debate, it was approved by the majority of convention attendees. This convention marked the beginning of the organized push for women’s suffrage.
In the 1850s and 1860s, women’s rights leaders like Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began making woman suffrage a central aim of the broader women’s rights movement. They formed associations dedicated specifically to achieving voting rights. However, their proposals were still met with stiff resistance. Voting was seen as a privilege restricted to men alone.
How did major suffrage organizations emerge in the late 1800s?
In 1869, two rival national women’s suffrage organizations were formed. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA). This organization focused on campaigning for a Constitutional amendment to grant women nationwide voting rights. Meanwhile, Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Blackwell, and others formed the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). This group pursued a state-by-state strategy of trying to secure woman suffrage legislation.
For over 20 years, the NWSA and AWSA operated as competing organizations with somewhat different philosophies and tactics. Some friction emerged between them, such as when the NWSA harshly criticized the AWSA’s support of the 15th Amendment granting suffrage to Black men, but not women. However, the groups also coordinated on some initiatives, like annual suffrage conventions.
According to a historical study published in the Journal of Policy History, over time the differences between the two associations lessened as leaders aged and a new generation took over1. So in 1890, the NWSA and AWSA merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). For the next three decades, the NAWSA would coordinate a nationwide push for women’s voting rights.
How did suffragists’ tactics evolve in the late 1800s and early 1900s?
Early women’s rights activists like Stanton and Anthony primarily used writing, speeches, and petition drives to advocate for women’s equality and suffrage. But as the movement evolved, suffragists pioneered the use of more attention-grabbing tactics aimed at spurring social and political change.
For example, suffragists held silent vigils and picketed in front of the White House beginning in 1917. Led by Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party, protesters held banners demanding women’s suffrage during World War I to emphasize female citizens’ lack of voting rights. Some were arrested and went on hunger strikes during their imprisonment. According to a Smithsonian Magazine piece, this civil disobedience brought heightened public awareness2.
Suffragists also lobbied politicians tirelessly. For example, Carrie Chapman Catt of the NAWSA organized letter-writing campaigns and published a pro-suffrage magazine to persuade male voters and leaders3. These diverse tactics kept suffrage issues in the public eye even as full voting rights remained elusive.
How did President Wilson and major political parties finally support suffrage?
For decades, the major political parties and most U.S. presidents opposed women’s suffrage. Some suffragists became disheartened by this resistance. However, things began shifting in the 1910s due to both internal and external pressures.
The NAWSA organized a focused campaign to pressure President Woodrow Wilson into supporting a federal suffrage amendment4. Suffragists picketed outside the White House and drew attention to the hypocrisy of Wilson advocating democracy abroad during World War I while denying it to female citizens at home. Wilson remained steadfastly opposed until 1918, when he finally backed the amendment as a wartime necessity and called on Congress to pass it.
Additionally, the rival Democratic and Republican parties began competing for the newly enlarged base of pro-suffrage Western voters. Both major parties supported suffrage in their 1916 conventions for the first time ever. With public sentiment shifting and parties competing for moral authority, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment granting women nationwide voting rights in 1919. It was ratified by enough states and added to the Constitution in 1920.
How did women’s rights advocacy evolve after suffrage was achieved?
Gaining the right to vote did not mark the end of activism for women’s equality, however. Women continued campaigning for equal access to education, fair labor laws, and protection of reproductive rights in the 1920s and beyond.
For instance, organizations like the League of Women Voters fought for legislation like the Cable Act of 1922, which allowed women to retain their citizenship after marrying immigrants5. The National Woman’s Party introduced the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923 to constitutionally protect women’s equality. And activists like Margaret Sanger openly challenged laws restricting contraception education.
This advocacy work reflected how achieving suffrage was one stepping stone in the longer journey toward women’s full empowerment and equal participation in society. Even a century after the 19th Amendment, the broader push for women’s rights continues evolving.
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Frequently Asked Questions
When did the earliest calls for women’s suffrage first emerge?
The very first demands for women’s suffrage appeared at the Seneca Falls Convention for women’s rights held in New York State in 1848. Suffrage remained a contentious issue over the next few decades, however.
What differing approaches did the NWSA and AWSA take?
The NWSA under Susan B. Anthony advocated for a federal constitutional amendment granting universal suffrage to women. Meanwhile, the AWSA under Lucy Stone focused more on securing voting rights for women at the state level. Their competing strategies led to some friction until the groups merged in 1890.
How did suffragists keep pressure on President Wilson?
Suffragists relentlessly picketed the White House beginning in 1917 to demand Wilson’s support for a suffrage amendment. This tactic finally succeeded in helping change Wilson’s stance in 1918 as he portrayed himself as a worldwide democracy advocate.
When did the major political parties endorse women’s suffrage?
In a major shift, both the Republican and Democratic party platforms endorsed women’s suffrage at their conventions in 1916. This reflected growing public pro-suffrage sentiment that the parties wanted to capitalize on.
What reforms did women’s rights activists pursue after the 19th Amendment?
After winning voting rights, activist women continued advocating for equal access to education, fair labor laws, reproductive rights, and other reforms. They understood suffrage as one step in pursuing full equality.
The decades-long struggle for women’s suffrage involved both triumphant milestones and frustrating setbacks along the way. But through determination and evolving advocacy, the activists of this movement transformed a radical idea into a legitimate nationwide cause that politicians could no longer ignore. The 19th Amendment enfranchised millions of female citizens and opened new doors for broader campaigns for women’s equality that continued long after ratification. By studying the suffrage movement’s history, we gain inspiration from the courage and vision of the women who persisted in their battle to shape a more just and democratic society.
- Fowler, Robert Booth. “Splintered Sisterhood: Gender and Class in the Campaign against Woman Suffrage.” Journal of Policy History, vol. 5, no. 1, 1993, pp. 8–30. ↩
- Zaeske, Susan. “The ‘Prominent Part’ Women Took in the Suffrage Movement.” Smithsonian.com, 1 Feb. 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/prominent-part-women-took-suffrage-movement-180967854/. ↩
- Hymowitz, Carol, and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America. Bantam, 1978, pp. 254–257. ↩
- Keyssar, Alexander. The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. Basic Books, 2009, pp. 174–179. ↩
- Women’s Rights National Historical Park. “After Winning the Vote.” National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/wori/learn/historyculture/after-winning-vote.htm.