Women in the United States made the fight for suffrage their most fundamental demand because they saw it as the defining feature of full citizenship. The philosophy underlying women's suffrage was the belief in "natural rights" to govern themselves and choose their own representatives. Woman's suffrage asserted that women should enjoy individual rights of self-government, rather than relying on indirect civic participation as the mothers, sisters, or daughters of male voters. However, most men and even some women believed that women were not suited by circumstance or temperament for the vote. Because women by nature were believed to be dependent on men and subordinate to them, many thought women could not be trusted to exercise the independence of thought necessary for choosing political leaders responsibly. Others feared that entry of women into political life challenged the assignment of women to the home and might lead to disruption of the family. For all of these reasons, women's enfranchisement did not come easily. American women have toiled long and hard for many decades to secure a voice in the United States Government; and through much effort, women and women's groups have worked to gain freedom in the same areas as men. This paper recants these struggles, beginning in 1647 and ending in 1920 when women were finally obtained a Constitutional amendment that gave them the right to vote.
The first woman in the North American colonies to demand the vote was Margaret Brent, the owner of extensive lands in Maryland. In 1647 Brent requested two votes in the colonial assembly, one for herself and one for Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, whose power of attorney she held. However, the governor denied her request which let to Brent's boycott of the assembly. Although Brent's original bid for voting rights failed, widowed property owners voted in several eighteenth-century colonial elections.
And, New Jersey women voted as early as 1790 when they discovered a loophole in the state's constitution that gave the vote to anyone who satisfied certain property and residential requirements. Unfortunately, their ability to take advantage of the loophole didn't last long. A state legislator who had almost been defeated by women voters helped to pass a bill to disenfranchise the state's women and black men in 1807. Thereafter, with only few and minor exceptions until 1869, American women were barred from voting in all federal, state and local elections.
American women were the first in the world to voice organized demands for the vote. Abolitionist activists Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, along with several other women friends organized the women's rights convention which was held in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19 and 20, 1848. The catalyst for the event was discontent with the limitations placed on women after the American Revolution had been fought to put an end to tyranny, but the benefits had largely eluded women. They called "A convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman."
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the group's leader, used the Declaration of Independence as the basis for what she called a Declaration of Sentiments. In doing so, she connected the campaign for women's rights directly to a powerful American symbol of liberty. The grievances elaborated in the Declaration of Sentiments included:
Married women were legally dead in the eyes of the law
Women were not allowed to vote
Women had to submit to laws when they had no voice in their formation
Married women had no property rights
Husbands had legal power over and responsibility for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with impunity
Divorce and child custody laws favored men, giving no rights to women
Women had to pay property taxes although they had no representation in the levying of these taxes
Most occupations were closed to women and when women did work they were paid only a fraction of what men earned
Women were not allowed to enter professions such as medicine or law
Women had no means to gain an education since no college or university would accept women students
With only a few exceptions, women were not allowed to participate in the affairs of the church
Women were robbed of their self-confidence and self-respect, and were made totally dependent on men
The convention unanimously endorsed the Declaration of Sentiments and all resolutions with the exception of the woman's right to vote. This right was the most controversial of all the resolutions because the right to vote was inconceivable to many women during this time period. A heated debate about the right to vote ensued. Surprisingly, it a black male abolitionist, Frederick Douglas, that swayed the convention to pass the resolution, but only by a narrow majority.
And, the women agreed to endorsement of the following statement, "It is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves the sacred right to the elective franchise."
The 1848 convention was followed by the first national women's right convention in 1858 which attracted more than 1,000 participants to Worcester Massachusetts from as far away as California. Paulina Wright Davis was the organizer and president of the 1850 national convent. Remarks in her opening speech outlined the purpose of the gathering, "It is one thing to issue a declaration of rights...but quite another thing...to commend the subject to the world's acceptance...to secure the desired reformation." National conventions continued to be held yearly (except for 1857) through 1860.
The early feminists in the United States demanded a wide range of changes in woman's social, moral, legal, educational, and economic status, but shied away from emphasizing the right to vote as a major area of reform. But, after the Civil War, women's rights leaders saw enfranchisement as one of the most important of their goals. This is because of their disappointment when the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution did not provide universal suffrage for all Americans, but extended the franchise only to black men. In response, two women suffrage organizations were founded in 1869, with different positions on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment and different ideas about how to best promote woman suffrage. Regretfully, the net effect of the two separate groups was to dilute the efforts of woman's suffrage for more than twenty years.
The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) headed by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony opposed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment and, instead, called for a Sixteenth Amendment that would enfranchise women. Led exclusively by women, the New York-based NWSA focused upon the enfranchisement of women through federal action, and adopted a radical tone in promoting a wide variety of feminist reforms. The efforts of the NWSA yielded poor results. Between 1869 and 1888 Members of Congress submitted eighteen constitutional amendments designed to extend voting rights to women, but these proposals received little consideration and none won legislative approval in either the House or the Senate.
Outside of Congress, the NWSA resorted to other tactics, including civil disobedience. In 1872, Anthony and others were arrested for attempting to vote in state elections. Their trials attracted a considerable amount of attention to the suffrage movement and prompted a United States Supreme Court decision, Minor v. Hapersett (1875). In this case the Court decisively rejected the claim that the term "citizens" in the Fourteenth Amendment granted the right to vote to women. The Court's decision was a major setback for the NWSA, and it also signaled the Court's subsequent and similarly narrow reading of the individual rights protected by the Fifteenth Amendment.
The other competing woman's suffrage organization, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) was led by Lucy Stone with the aid of her husband Henry Blackwell, Mary Livermore, Julia Ward Howe, Henry Ward Beecher, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and others. This group endorsed the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments while simultaneously working for woman suffrage as well by developing state-level grass roots support. The AWSA strategy was to try to make woman suffrage and other feminist reforms seem less radical and consistent with widely-shared American values than did the AWSA. However, its strategy didn't fare any better than that of NWSA; the group did not achieve any state-level voting rights for women.
In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA merged into one organization, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Elizabeth Cady Stanton was elected President; Lucy Stone, head of the Executive Committee; and Susan B. Anthony, Vice President. It was Anthony who actually took command of the new organization and she officially became president in 1892. Members agreed that they would first need to build support within the states before they could make headway at the federal level The goal was to win enough state suffrage amendments that Congress would have to approve a federal amendment which would then be supported by enough states to ensure ratification. Most NAWSA leaders thought it imperative that the movement focus almost exclusively on winning the vote rather than on broader feminist issues to…