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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard

«·The Rise of the Woman Movement · CHAPTER XXIII·»

The National Struggle for Woman Suffrage

The Beginnings of Organization.—As women surmounted one obstacle after another, the agitation for equal suffrage came to the front. If any year is to be fixed as the date of its beginning, it may very well be 1850, when the suffragists of Ohio urged the state constitutional convention to confer the vote upon them. With apparent spontaneity there were held in the same year state suffrage conferences in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts; and connections were formed among the leaders of these meetings. At the same time the first national suffrage convention was held in Worcester, Massachusetts, on the call of eighty-nine leading men and women representing six states. Accounts of the convention were widely circulated in this country and abroad. English women,—for instance, Harriet Martineau,—sent words of appreciation for the work thus inaugurated. It inspired a leading article in the “Westminster Review,” which deeply interested the distinguished economist, John Stuart Mill. Soon he was the champion of woman suffrage in the British Parliament and the author of a powerful tract The Subjection of Women, widely read throughout the English-speaking world. Thus do world movements grow. Strange to relate the women of England were enfranchised before the adoption of the federal suffrage amendment in America.

The national suffrage convention of 1850 was followed by an extraordinary outburst of agitation. Pamphlets streamed from the press. Petitions to legislative bodies were drafted, signed, and presented. There were addresses by favorite orators like Garrison, Phillips, and Curtis, and lectures and poems by men like Emerson, Longfellow, and Whittier. In 1853 the first suffrage paper was founded by the wife of a member of Congress from Rhode Island. By this time the last barrier to white manhood suffrage in the North had been swept away and the woman’s movement was gaining momentum every year.

The Suffrage Movement Checked by the Civil War.—Advocates of woman suffrage believed themselves on the high road to success when the Civil War engaged the energies and labors of the nation. Northern women became absorbed in the struggle to preserve the union. They held no suffrage conventions for five years. They transformed their associations into Loyalty Leagues. They banded together to buy only domestic goods when foreign imports threatened to ruin American markets. They rolled up monster petitions in favor of the emancipation of slaves. In hospitals, in military prisons, in agriculture, and in industry they bore their full share of responsibility. Even when the New York legislature took advantage of their unguarded moments and repealed the law giving the mother equal rights with the father in the guardianship of children, they refused to lay aside war work for agitation. As in all other wars, their devotion was unstinted and their sacrifices equal to the necessities of the hour.

The Federal Suffrage Amendment.—Their plans and activities, when the war closed, were shaped by events beyond their control. The emancipation of the slaves and their proposed enfranchisement made prominent the question of a national suffrage for the first time in our history. Friends of the colored man insisted that his civil liberties would not be safe unless he was granted the right to vote. The woman suffragists very pertinently asked why the same principle did not apply to women. The answer which they received was negative. The fourteenth amendment to the federal Constitution, adopted in 1868, definitely put women aside by limiting the scope of its application, so far as the suffrage was concerned, to the male sex. In making manhood suffrage national, however, it nationalized the issue.

Susan B. Anthony
Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
Susan B. Anthony

This was the signal for the advocates of woman suffrage. In March, 1869, their proposed amendment was introduced in Congress by George W. Julian of Indiana. It provided that no citizen should be deprived of the vote on account of sex, following the language of the fifteenth amendment which forbade disfranchisement on account of race. Support for the amendment, coming from many directions, led the suffragists to believe that their case was hopeful. In their platform of 1872, for example, the Republicans praised the women for their loyal devotion to freedom, welcomed them to spheres of wider usefulness, and declared that the demand of any class of citizens for additional rights deserved “respectful consideration.”

Experience soon demonstrated, however, that praise was not the ballot. Indeed the suffragists already had realized that a tedious contest lay before them. They had revived in 1866 their regular national convention. They gave the name of “The Revolution” to their paper, edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They formed a national suffrage association and organized annual pilgrimages to Congress to present their claims. Such activities bore some results. Many eminent congressmen were converted to their cause and presented it ably to their colleagues of both chambers. Still the subject was ridiculed by the newspapers and looked upon as freakish by the masses.

The State Campaigns.—Discouraged by the outcome of the national campaign, suffragists turned to the voters of the individual states and sought the ballot at their hands. Gains by this process were painfully slow. Wyoming, it is true, while still a territory, granted suffrage to women in 1869 and continued it on becoming a state twenty years later, in spite of strong protests in Congress. In 1893 Colorado established complete political equality. In Utah, the third suffrage state, the cause suffered many vicissitudes. Women were enfranchised by the territorial legislature; they were deprived of the ballot by Congress in 1887; finally in 1896 on the admission of Utah to the union they recovered their former rights. During the same year, 1896, Idaho conferred equal suffrage upon the women. This was the last suffrage victory for more than a decade.

The Suffrage Cause in Congress.—In the midst of the meager gains among the states there were occasional flurries of hope for immediate action on the federal amendment. Between 1878 and 1896 the Senate committee reported the suffrage resolution by a favorable majority on five different occasions. During the same period, however, there were nine unfavorable reports and only once did the subject reach the point of a general debate. At no time could anything like the required two-thirds vote be obtained.

The Changing Status of Women.—While the suffrage movement was lagging, the activities of women in other directions were steadily multiplying. College after college—Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Wellesley, to mention a few—was founded to give them the advantages of higher education. Other institutions, especially the state universities of the West, opened their doors to women, and women were received into the professions of law and medicine. By the rapid growth of public high schools in which girls enjoyed the same rights as boys, education was extended still more widely. The number of women teachers increased by leaps and bounds.

Meanwhile women were entering nearly every branch of industry and business. How many of them worked at gainful occupations before 1870 we do not know; but from that year forward we have the records of the census. Between 1870 and 1900 the proportion of women in the professions rose from less than two per cent to more than ten per cent; in trade and transportation from 24.8 per cent to 43.2 per cent; and in manufacturing from 13 to 19 per cent. In 1910, there were over 8,000,000 women gainfully employed as compared with 30,000,000 men. When, during the war on Germany, the government established the principle of equal pay for equal work and gave official recognition to the value of their services in industry, it was discovered how far women had traveled along the road forecast by the leaders of 1848.

The Club Movement among Women.—All over the country women’s societies and clubs were started to advance this or that reform or merely to study literature, art, and science. In time these women’s organizations of all kinds were federated into city, state, and national associations and drawn into the consideration of public questions. Under the leadership of Frances Willard they made temperance reform a vital issue. They took an interest in legislation pertaining to prisons, pure food, public health, and municipal government, among other things. At their sessions and conferences local, state, and national issues were discussed until finally, it seems, everything led to the quest of the franchise. By solemn resolution in 1914 the National Federation of Women’s Clubs, representing nearly two million club women, formally endorsed woman suffrage. In the same year the National Education Association, speaking for the public school teachers of the land, added its seal of approval.

Copyright by Underwood and Underwood, N.Y.
Conference of Men and Women Delegates at a National Convention in 1920

State and National Action.—Again the suffrage movement was in full swing in the states. Washington in 1910, California in 1911, Oregon, Kansas, and Arizona in 1912, Nevada and Montana in 1914 by popular vote enfranchised their women. Illinois in 1913 conferred upon them the right to vote for President of the United States. The time had arrived for a new movement. A number of younger suffragists sought to use the votes of women in the equal suffrage states to compel one or both of the national political parties to endorse and carry through Congress the federal suffrage amendment. Pressure then came upon Congress from every direction: from the suffragists who made a straight appeal on the grounds of justice; and from the suffragists who besought the women of the West to vote against candidates for President, who would not approve the federal amendment. In 1916, for the first time, a leading presidential candidate, Mr. Charles E. Hughes, speaking for the Republicans, endorsed the federal amendment and a distinguished ex-President, Roosevelt, exerted a powerful influence to keep it an issue in the campaign.

National Enfranchisement.—After that, events moved rapidly. The great state of New York adopted equal suffrage in 1917. Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Michigan swung into line the following year; several other states, by legislative action, gave women the right to vote for President. In the meantime the suffrage battle at Washington grew intense. Appeals and petitions poured in upon Congress and the President. Militant suffragists held daily demonstrations in Washington. On September 30, 1918, President Wilson, who, two years before, had opposed federal action and endorsed suffrage by state adoption only, went before Congress and urged the passage of the suffrage amendment to the Constitution. In June, 1919, the requisite two-thirds vote was secured; the resolution was carried and transmitted to the states for ratification. On August 28, 1920, the thirty-sixth state, Tennessee, approved the amendment, making three-fourths of the states as required by the Constitution. Thus woman suffrage became the law of the land. A new political democracy had been created. The age of agitation was closed and the epoch of responsible citizenship opened.

General References

Edith Abbott, Women in Industry.

C.P. Gilman, Woman and Economics.

I.H. Harper, Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony.

E.R. Hecker, Short History of Woman’s Rights.

S.B. Anthony and I.H. Harper, History of Woman Suffrage (4 vols.).

J.W. Taylor, Before Vassar Opened.

A.H. Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer.

Research Topics

The Rise of the Woman Suffrage Movement.—McMaster, History of the People of the United States, Vol. VIII, pp. 116-121; K. Porter, History of Suffrage in the United States, pp. 135-145.

The Development of the Suffrage Movement.—Porter, pp. 228-254; Ogg, National Progress (American Nation Series), pp. 151-156 and p. 382.

Women’s Labor in the Colonial Period.—E. Abbott, Women in Industry, pp. 10-34.

Women and the Factory System.—Abbott, pp. 35-62.

Early Occupations for Women.—Abbott, pp. 63-85.

Women’s Wages.—Abbott, pp. 262-316.


1. Why were women involved in the reform movements of the new century?

2. What is history? What determines the topics that appear in written history?

3. State the position of women under the old common law.

4. What part did women play in the intellectual movement that preceded the American Revolution?

5. Explain the rise of the discussion of women’s rights.

6. What were some of the early writings about women?

7. Why was there a struggle for educational opportunities?

8. How did reform movements draw women into public affairs and what were the chief results?

9. Show how the rise of the factory affected the life and labor of women.

10. Why is the year 1848 an important year in the woman movement? Discuss the work of the Seneca Falls convention.

11. Enumerate some of the early gains in civil liberty for women.

12. Trace the rise of the suffrage movement. Show the effect of the Civil War.

13. Review the history of the federal suffrage amendment.

14. Summarize the history of the suffrage in the states.

«·The Rise of the Woman Movement · CHAPTER XXIII·»