The long road to women’s suffrage

women in history sign

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal …”

Those hollowed words, written in 1848 at the first Women’s Rights Convention held at Seneca Falls, New York, announced the opening of a new American revolution. The goal was to overthrow masculine “tyranny” and to establish political, social and economic equality between the sexes.

Although the campaign for the vote created the greatest public outcry, it was merely one facet of the larger struggle of women to enter the professions, to own property and to enjoy the same legal rights as men. Only by gaining these goals could American women emerge as people instead of remaining as chattels.

Spirit of reform

The 1848 meeting was not an isolated phenomenon; it was part of the general reform spirit of abolition, temperance, labor, education and religion of the period. Prosperous middle and upper classes had developed in large urban centers along the Atlantic seaboard. This prosperity created a new, leisured class of women who could devote at least part of their time to worthy causes, such as the cause of women’s rights.

Obviously, both men and women worked for social reforms. As each effort was successful, it inevitably led to others, thus creating a climate in which reform prospered. This process can be seen most clearly in the 1830s and 1840s, again in the Reconstruction period (1865-1877), and in the first two decades of the 20th century. These periods saw changes in legal, social and economic positions of blacks, women and labor. As their problems were interrelated, advancement of one group normally brought gains for the others.

Stanton, Anthony and Stone. The moving force behind the 1848 meeting and the establishment of an Equal Rights Association was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who had been denied admission to an anti-slavery convention in London in 1840 and was one of the first women reformers to consider rights important to women.

Her most important co-workers were Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone. Anthony later emerged as the strongest force behind the suffrage drive. Although the association was chronically short of funds, it managed to establish a short-lived newspaper, sponsor speeches and organize women’s groups to petition and lobby in their home states.

During the Civil War era, pressure for equal rights was submerged first by the demand for abolition of slavery and later by the drive to pass the 15th Amendment. Male abolitionist promised that if women would work to secure suffrage for Negro men, their turn would come next.

Anthony and Stanton found such a position intolerable and founded the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869. Stone, the most flamboyant of the three women, formed a rival American Suffrage Association that same year. Although the new organizations concentrated on women’s suffrage, it was later to cost them support among working women whose primary concerns were better jobs and equal pay. In the same year in which the two new women’s suffrage organizations were formed, Wyoming became the first territory to adopt full women’s suffrage; in 1890 it entered the Union as the first state in which women could vote in all elections.

A united front

In 1889, the two rival groups decided once again to present a united front, and they merged to form the National Woman Suffrage Association. In the West, the  vigorous campaigns were sometimes successful. In the East, association members were genteel, interested in prohibition, but voteless.

The 1890s saw the death or retirement of most of the original suffrage leaders and the stagnation of the drive. Fortunately for the movement, the new 20th century brought new leaders and new organizations — the Women’s Political Union (1907), the Woman Suffrage Party (1909), the Congressional Union (1912) and later the Woman’s party (1916). Their leaders were better educated and better off financially.

To speeches and petitions they added picketing, rallies and demonstrations which in turn lead to mass arrest. In jail they were uncooperative and when released, they exposed the loathsome conditions of the lock up to a shocked public. Not only did the method of focusing attention on the suffrage problem change, but also did the means for attaining the end.

Alice Paul

Alice Paul, a spirited organizer saw that the only way to achieve national woman suffrage was through an amendment to the Constitution. However, suffrage activities made little headway in the conservative South and in other states, the traditional friendship between prohibitionists and advocates of women’s rights led to liquor interests financing successful campaigns against women’s suffrage.

Paul established women’s groups in every state to pressure officials to force Congress to pass a women’s suffrage amendment. Additional groups worked in Washington to bring direct pressure to Congress. Although both Democrat and Republican parties included statements endorsing women’s suffrage in 1916 platforms, they failed to translate the words into action after the election.

World War I obstacles got in the way for several years, but June 4, 1919, the 19th Amendment passed the Senate and was submitted to the states. Ironically, it was a southern state, Tennessee, that cast the decisive 36th vote to ratify the amendment.

On Aug. 26, 1920, American women were enfranchised, after 72 years and countless hours of work and determination stemming from the Seneca Falls meeting. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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