The Women’s Suffrage Movement

1913 Woman Suffrage Procession Photo: Benjamin Moran Dale (1889–1951), for the National American Women's Suffrage Association - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3g02996, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

You most likely know that women haven’t always had the right to vote in the USA, and they won that right through fighting through the women’s suffrage movement. However, do you know exactly what happened during this time, and what women had to do to get their rights recognised? Here’s a brief history of the movement and how it achieved success.

The Beginnings Of The Movement

The one thing you may not know about the suffrage movement is that it took nearly 100 years for women to get the right to vote. It was a long and hard battle to get there, and it began in the time before the Civil War.

At this time, in the 1820’s and 30’s, all white American men had the right to vote, regardless of their station, how much money they had, and whether they owned property. At this same time, there were many reform groups that were beginning to come together. These included moral reform societies, temperance leagues, anti slavery groups, and so on. What’s crucial about these groups is that women served key roles in them.

At the same time, there were beginnings of unrest within the female population. There was an image of ideal woman that society asked them to fit into, that of the subservient housewife and loving mother. Historians have called this ‘the cult of true womanhood’, and the main issue with it was that women weren’t supposed to be concerned with issues outside of the home.

When all this was happening, there was a real focus on what it meant to be a woman within the USA. This became the backdrop to the women’s suffrage movement.

The Seneca Falls Convention

The true beginnings of women’s suffrage can be found in the Seneca Falls Convention, where a group of mostly female abolitionists came together to discuss women’s rights. This was headed by famous names in the movement, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott.

At the convention, it was agreed that contrary to popular opinion, women in the US were their own, autonomous beings who deserved the same rights as men. As such, they deserved to have a say in politics too.

This was laid out in the Declaration Of Sentiments that was was created by the people at the convention. In this they wrote: “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.”

As such, it was agreed that women in the USA should have the right to vote.

The Civil War And It’s Effect On Women’s Suffrage

The fight for the vote began to pick up steam after the Seneca Falls Convention, but was waylaid thanks to the Civil War. After the war ended though, there were amendments to the constitution and these helped bring up the subject of women’s right to vote again.

The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and extends the protection of the Constitution to all male citizens. The 15th Amendment was made in 1870, and gives all black men the right to vote.

This caused some suffragists to side with racist groups that wanted to push back against the amendments, as they wanted to push back and have the right to vote extended to women as well. This lead to several other suffragist groups being created, as there were concerns about endangering the newly created rights of black people. This included the American Woman Suffrage Association, who fought for women’s rights as a separate issue, to protect the rights of black people.

There was another group called the National Woman Suffrage Association founded in 1869, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. This was made to fight for a universal suffrage amendment to the constitution.

Changes To The Suffrage Movement

In 1890, the animosity between these two groups eventually faded. They eventually came together to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and their first president was Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

At this point, the arguments being used by the group had actually changed. In the beginning, they had been fighting for rights on the premise that women were equal to, and the same as, men. However now, they were arguing that they must have the right to vote as they were different to men.

This was because they had domestic skills that could be brought over into making the country better. As such, they wanted to make the country more maternal, and therefore purer and more moral too.

The movement worked for lots of different groups, as it went with their needs. Temperance movements, for example, said that women getting the vote would help them achieve their own goals. It was also positive for many white women, as they wanted to achieve their own rights within the framework of white supremacy.

Winning The Vote

Once women started winning the right to vote, it didn’t all happen at once. Firstly, the right to vote was awarded to women in Idaho and Utah in the end of the 19th century. This then carried on into the 1910’s, although some states were resistant to change. Nevertheless, there were ceaseless campaigns to get other states to follow suit and allow women the right to vote. It was an encouraging step in the right direction. By 1918, women had equal voting rights to men in 15 states.

There were some groups that started resorting to drastic measures. That included the National Women’s Party, who used tactics like hunger strikes and pickets to get publicity.

Again, when World War I broke out, the fight for women’s rights slowed down. However, there were still women fighting throughout, and actually helped their campaign in some ways. For example, with men away fighting, they were able to take on their roles and show that they were just as deserving of the right to vote as men were.

Finally, the right to vote for all women was ratified through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. This was done on August 18th 1920, and that allowed more than 8 million women across the country to vote for the very first time. At this point both major political parties were committed to women’s suffrage, and so the vote was carried through with the necessary two thirds of the vote needed from both sides.

The fight for women’s suffrage was long and hard, interrupted by two wars, and marked by in fighting to some degree. Eventually though, with the hard work of the women involved in the movement, they got the rights that they were entitled to.