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Why the Women's Rights Movement Split Over the 15th Amendment

two elderly women looking at a book.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton (Left) and Susan B. Anthony (right) circa 1900.

Wikimedia Commons

When the American Civil War concluded in 1865, women's rights advocates felt that the time had come to push for voting rights. Women had largely put aside their political activism during the war in the interest of promoting the Union war effort. They worked as laborers, as nurses on the battlefield, and as caretakers for their families. Now it seemed as if the time had come to grant women's suffrage as a token of gratitude for this wartime service. The most powerful organization promoting female suffrage at this time was the American Equal Rights Association (AERA), which was composed of veteran activists such as Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass.

From 1866 to 1869, every state that held a referendum on women's suffrage rejected the idea. One major victory occurred when the Governor of Wyoming territory signed a bill in 1869 granting voting rights for women in that area. Activists were nevertheless frustrated with their continued struggles and explored the idea of a constitutional amendment to ensure women's voting rights across the country. Two more setbacks on the federal level further complicated these efforts, however. When the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, Section 2 stated that if any state prevented a portion of its male population from voting, the basis of that state's Congressional representation would be reduced in proportion to its total adult male population. In other words, the insertion of the word "male" into the Constitution gave the appearance that voting was a right reserved for males only. That same year, a proposed 15th Amendment called for the end of voter discrimination on the basis of race, but no such language was added to end discrimination based on gender.

As President Ulysses S. Grant took office and argued in support of the 15th Amendment in 1869, the message of universal suffrage within the American Equal Rights Association began to crumble. On the one hand, some leaders such as Stone and Douglass supported the 15th Amendment and argued that it was "the Negro's hour," and that Black male voting rights should come first. Once the 15th Amendment was ratified, AERA could then push for a separate amendment for women's suffrage. On the other hand, prominent voices such as Anthony and Stanton argued that any constitutional amendment that did not grant women's suffrage was unacceptable. If anyone was deserving of the vote, it was "educated" white women. Stanton in particular argued that African Americans were ignorant of the laws and customs of the U.S. political system, and that it was "a serious question whether we had better stand aside and see 'Sambo' walk into the kingdom [of civil rights] first." African American women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper criticized both sides of the debate for ignoring the unique position of Black women in America. During a National Women's Convention in 1866, Harper declared that "You white women speak here of rights. I speak of wrongs. I, as a colored woman, have had in this country an education which has made me feel as if I were in the situation of Ishmael, my hand against every man, and every man's hand against me."

The tipping point for AERA came during its third annual meeting on May 12, 1869. Frederick Douglass rose to speak and argued that Stanton's use of racist language and stereotypes was offensive. He continued by arguing that "I do not see how any one can pretend that there is the same urgency in giving the ballot to woman as to the negro. With us, the question is a matter of life and death, at least, in fifteen States of the Union [in reference to the former slave states]. When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans . . . when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads; when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then they will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own."

Susan B. Anthony responded to Douglass. She argued that "if you will not give the whole loaf of suffrage to the entire people, give it to the most intelligent first. If intelligence, justice, and morality are to have precedence in the government, let the question of women brought up first and that of the negro last . . . Mr. Douglass talks about the wrongs of the negro; but with all the outrages that he today suffers, he would not exchange his sex and take the place of Elizabeth Cady Stanton." Echoing Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's earlier comments, Sojourner Truth asserted that “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about the colored woman; and if colored men get their rights, and not colored women get theirs, there will be a bad time about it.” The organization's fault lines began to show.

The American Equal Rights Association dissolved after the 1869 meeting and the women's rights movement split into two distinct groups, never reuniting again during the 19th century. Stanton and Anthony created the National Woman Suffrage Association, which advocated for a constitutional amendment for women's suffrage and took on other political issues such as divorce laws and the temperance movement. The organization's leadership was also exclusively women. Stone and Julia Ward Howe organized the American Woman Suffrage Association, which advocated for state laws allowing for women's suffrage, but largely refrained from other political issues. Men also took leadership positions in this organization. While historian Sally McMillen concedes that a split within the women's rights movement was most likely inevitable, she argues that the movement for suffrage rights was delayed until the early 20th century in part because of division and strife among the movement's leadership. Debates over the 15th Amendment play a crucial role in explaining how these tensions arose after the Civil War.

Further Reading

National Park Service, "Overview of Women's Suffrage."

Sally McMillen, Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women's Rights Movement. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matlida Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, Volume II: 1861-1876. Rochester, NY: Charles Mann, 1887, pg. 382-390.

Last updated: August 22, 2020