The journey to get the right to vote was a long and arduous one for women in the United States (US). The campaign for women’s suffrage initially began as a part of the larger movement to demand more legal rights for women. It took various reformers and advocacy groups about 100 years to finally win that right. The campaign for enfranchising the women encountered numerous hurdles during its course. The strategy disputes and wars tried to mar the movement many times. However, on August 26, 1920, with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, women, like men, were declared to be deserving of all responsibilities and rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.
Women’s Increasing Role in Public Affairs
The women’s suffrage campaign began decades prior to the Civil War. In the 1820s and 30s, all white men had been granted the right to vote, irrespective of how much property or money they had. Also at the same time, reform groups of different types were multiplying in the US. These included anti-slavery organizations, moral-reform societies, religious movements, temperance leagues and more. Women played a key role in many of these organizations.
During this era, women also started deviating away from the ‘Cult of True Womanhood’. This essentially described ‘true’ women as submissive, pious mothers and wives who were exclusively concerned with family and home. For instance, Sarah Moore Grimke, who was born and raised in a slave-owning plantation family of South Carolina, delivered public speeches against slavery in the northeast US in the mid-1830s. Prevented from pursuing higher education by her family, she became an activist and also published The Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Women in 1838.
In this way, the breakaway from old and outdated ideologies was bringing forward a new awakening in women about their wider role in society, and rights as a citizen of the United States.
The Convention of Seneca Falls
In 1848, reformers Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton invited a group of abolitionist activists, consisting of mostly women and some men, to Seneca Falls, New York. The motive was to discuss the problems associated with women’s political rights. At the end of the meeting, most delegates agreed that American women deserved their own political identities as they are autonomous individuals, similar to men.
The Declaration of Sentiments proclaimed : “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.”
However, the opposition to women’s rights remained strong. Many subsequent women’s conventions were disrupted by male opponents or mob violence. These people were not only against women gaining political rights but also antagonistic to women’s right to speak in public.
Mission Universal Suffrage
In the 1850s, the movement of women’s rights steadily gained momentum, but the beginning of the Civil War harshly stunted the progress. After the war ended, the familiar questions related to citizenship and suffrage were raised again. The 14th Amendment to the Constitution defined “citizens” as “male” and the 15th one ensured that black men got the right to vote. Many woman-suffrage activists at the time saw this as a chance to usher universal suffrage. Therefore, they did not back the 15th Amendment. To push the lawmakers, they even joined hands with racist Southerners. However, the Southerners’ viewpoint was that the votes of white women could help in neutralizing the votes of African-Americans.
The first National Women’s Rights Convention, to be held after the Civil War in 1866, took the decision to transform itself into the American Equal Rights Association, to simultaneously campaign for the enfranchisement of both African Americans and women. However, in 1869, the organization split into two opposing groups. Though both the groups opposed slavery, one group led by Lucy Stone agreed to prioritize the right of African American men to vote over woman-suffrage, while the other group wanted to carry forward the woman-suffrage movement as a politically independent movement.
In the year 1869, leaders of the latter group, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, formed the National Woman Suffrage Association. The aim of this group was to bring about universal-suffrage amendment to the Constitution of the US. In 1872, Anthony garnered national attention when she was arrested for casting a vote in the presidential elections, and tried in a court of law. She used the trial to highlight “the high handed outrage upon my citizen’s rights”.
Shift in Strategy
Wyoming (1869), Utah (1870), Colorado (1893) and Idaho (1896) were some of the earliest territories to grant limited or partial women enfranchisement. Meanwhile, interaction between the two rival factions of the woman-suffrage movement gathered momentum. Finally, in 1890, the two oranizations merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). From 1900 onwards, Carrie Chapman Catt led the efforts of the organization to forge alliances with other women’s groups, at both the state level as well as the international level, to orchestrate a strong woman-suffrage campaign. A few women leaders, such as Lucy Sone, also started publishing journals or newspapers demanding more rights for women, including the right to vote.
In a parallel development, more women belonging to the younger generation started defying the traditional notions of lady-like behavior, by moving out of households, riding bicycles and marching in ‘suffrage parades’ for long distances to press for their demands.
The Victory at Last
Beginning in 1910, a few more states began to grant women the right to vote, sometimes in a restricted manner in school or municipal elections. It was a progressive move, nonetheless. These states included Washington (1910), California (1911) and Illinois (1913).
However, the eastern and southern states were still resisting. NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt in 1916 then came up with a “Winning Plan” to win the right across all the states. She put forward a blitz campaign. This helped in mobilizing local suffrage organizations and states all over the country. Special attention was given to recalcitrant regions. During the same time, a more radical group called the National Women’s Party carried out White House pickets and hunger strikes, getting huge publicity for their cause.
When World War I began, it again slowed down the campaign of suffragists. However, the situation helped women in proving a point. Many women worked in war efforts, signifying their patriotism and the fact that they were just as deserving as men to exercise full rights of their citizenship.
And on August 26, 1920, the women got their right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. On November 2 of the same year, over 8 million women cast their votes in presidential elections for the first time.
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