American women’s struggle for the vote, a profoundly important chapter in the story of American democracy, did not unfold as an independent plot. Instead, the woman suffrage movement emerged from and was continually fed by other social movements and political causes. Between the 1830s and 1920, women’s enfranchisement was intimately connected to such crusades as the struggle for racial justice, the women’s rights movement, the campaign to regulate alcohol, and the labor movement. For some women, involvement in these social movements created the very desire for the vote; for many, it honed skills necessary to building a political movement. At various points, factions within those social movements became allies of the suffrage campaign, expanding its base of support. Many of these movements circulated ideas about human rights and democracy that prompted increasing numbers of Americans to advocate women’s enfranchisement. In all these ways, other reform movements were crucial to the victories of woman suffrage.
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The antebellum period (the years before the Civil War), awash in religious fervor, economic upheaval, and debates over the meaning of the American Revolution, generated many potent reform movements. Women’s participation in these movements often nudged them beyond the domestic sphere, accepted in the early nineteenth century as women’s natural place, and sometimes eroded their acceptance of social norms that required women’s subordination to men. In the 1840s and 1850s, a women’s rights movement coalesced from a wide array of antebellum reform drives and eventually produced a sustained struggle for woman suffrage.
The antislavery movement, the most significant antebellum reform effort, proved a powerful generator of women’s rights activism. A fundamental institution of American life at the birth of the republic, slavery became ever more central to the US economy during the early nineteenth century. Organized opposition to slavery emerged first among free Blacks in the North, as well as Quakers, Unitarians, and evangelical Christians, both Black and white. Radical abolitionism publicly debuted in 1829 when African American David Walker published Walker’s Appeal, In Four Articles, a forceful critique of slavery and racial discrimination. Two years later, white New Englander William Lloyd Garrison began publishing the Liberator, and, in 1833, he joined with other opponents of slavery to form the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). The AASS demanded the immediate abolition of slavery and full civil rights for African Americans. Its broad commitment to human rights opened the AASS to overtures by women for voice and leadership: over one hundred local women’s affiliates joined the cause. (Figure 1)
The Liberator demonstrated its openness to women in 1831 when it published an essay by Maria Stewart, a free Black woman, who condemned slavery as well as discrimination against free Blacks and women. Stewart urged free Black men, “sue for your rights and privileges,” and she asked, “How long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” When a Boston antislavery society invited Stewart to speak in 1832, she became the first American-born woman to address an audience of both women and men. By doing so, Stewart violated social conventions that forbade women from speaking before what was termed a “promiscuous” audience. Women might speak before a gathering of women in their parlors or churches, but an audience of both women and men outraged propriety. Although Stewart left Boston in 1833, disappointed that the city seemed to reject her leadership, the publication of her works by the Liberator assured that her anti-racist, abolitionist feminism reached beyond Boston, and her public addresses set a precedent for other female activists.
The belief of many women in the antislavery movement that God called them to the cause weakened their acceptance of cultural prohibitions against women’s public activism. Some antislavery activists even began to see the exclusion of women from public life as a violation of women’s own human rights. By 1838, Sarah Grimké came to the conclusion that “Men and women were CREATED EQUAL; they are both moral and accountable beings; and whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman.” Some of those who could not countenance this perfect equality of women and men nevertheless questioned limitations on women’s freedom to work publicly to benefit others. After all, dominant ideals of womanhood assumed women’s selflessness and innate moral perspicacity. If God granted women special moral insight, some asked, did it make sense to ban women from public life, which so desperately needed moral leadership? (Figure 2)
So contentious did women’s roles become among abolitionists that they split over the issue in 1840. Those accepting women’s rights as a legitimate commitment for their movement remained in the AASS, and those opposed formed the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society. From that point on, women such as Lucretia Mott and Lydia Maria Child were elected officers of the AASS, and others, including Susan B. Anthony, were hired as paid organizers. In this way, the antislavery movement became a significant node in the emerging network of activists demanding greater power and scope for American women.
There were many other nodes. One was the labor movement. Textile manufacturing industrialized in the early nineteenth century and recruited young women from rural families to work in the new cloth-making mills that dotted New England. In the 1830s, those earliest of America’s industrial workers staged strikes against deteriorating working conditions, claiming a public voice and presence for working women. In that same decade, both Black and white women, working and middle class, joined a movement for moral reform. These activists decried social norms that allowed respectable men to frequent brothels while condemning prostitutes as hopeless sinners. Moral reformers wanted men held to the same chaste standard as women and to offer alternative employment opportunities to poor women. This movement critiqued the existing gender system and slid some women reformers into public life. Like moral reform, the temperance movement urged men to control their desire for pleasure, in this case by abstaining from drunkenness. Some women saw temperance as an issue on which they must take a public stand in order to protect their families from domestic violence and poverty. The antebellum temperance movement became another site for reimagining women’s proper place in society and giving some women experience in public speaking and movement organizing.
The antebellum period also witnessed independent campaigns explicitly for women’s rights. Frances Wright began lecturing about the equality of women and men soon after her immigration to the United States from Scotland in the 1820s. Her efforts produced no sustained following, probably because she rejected marriage and supported racial equality. But other, more focused drives won adherents. Calls for equal access to education and employment, for instance, drew broader support. Demands for equal pay resonated powerfully among women teachers. Agitation for married women’s property rights gained momentum when, in 1836, Ernestine Rose, a Jewish immigrant from Poland by way of England, campaigned in New York for a law aimed at securing married women’s property rights. The proposal represented change because, when women in the United States married, they generally lost control of their property and even the wages they earned. Husbands controlled all under the legal doctrine of coverture, which said that women had no independent legal identity once married. In the 1840s, emerging feminists Paulina Wright and Elizabeth Cady Stanton joined Rose in lobbying for married women’s economic rights in New York, where they achieved partial success in 1848 and a broader triumph in 1860.
Suffrage became a central concern of the women’s rights movement because of the allied movement for racial justice. The US Civil War interrupted the campaign for women’s rights between 1861 and 1865, but once slavery was legally abolished and the US Congress began to debate the civil and political rights of freed people, women’s rights agitation reemerged. During a congressional push for the protection of Black men’s voting rights, some advocates of African American and women’s rights formed the American Equal Rights Association to press for the simultaneous enfranchisement of Black men and all women. (By that point, the states had generally enfranchised all white men.) When it became clear, however, that Congress would, through the Fifteenth Amendment, protect the voting rights of Black men but not those of women, some women’s rights activists, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, refused to support it and formed the National Woman Suffrage Association to push for a Sixteenth Amendment enfranchising women. Activists committed to maintaining the alliance between the movements for racial justice and women’s rights, especially Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, formed the American Woman Suffrage Association, which supported the Fifteenth Amendment and mounted state-level battles for women’s enfranchisement. Not until 1890 would the two groups reunite in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which became the principal woman suffrage organization in the decades leading to ratification of Nineteenth Amendment. By that time, the alliance between the movements for racial justice and women’s rights was severely attenuated.
As women’s rights advocates split over their relationship to racial justice, the woman suffrage effort received a boost from another social movement, the temperance crusade. Founded in the 1870s, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) became the largest women’s organization in the late nineteenth century. Especially strong in the Midwest and South, the WCTU focused on closing saloons through nonviolent direct action and laws limiting the sale of alcohol. In 1876, one of the WCTU’s leaders, Frances Willard, concluded that women would have greater power to win temperance legislation if they had the vote. She did not claim the franchise as a right, however, but as a necessity for fulfilling women’s domestic duties. While in prayer, Willard wrote in her autobiography, she received the revelation that she should “speak for the woman’s ballot as a weapon of protection to her home.” With that framing, in 1881 Willard convinced the WCTU to endorse woman suffrage. (Figure 3) As a result, many socially conservative women began to support their own voting rights, expanding the movement’s base. Indeed, because so many women backed temperance, the Prohibition Party endorsed woman suffrage in 1872 and remained a staunch supporter of the movement for decades.
Although the Populist Party disappeared into the Democratic Party in 1896, many of its commitments were absorbed by the Progressive movement that emerged in the 1890s and dominated American politics in the early twentieth century. The Progressive movement began in diffuse local initiatives aimed to diminish the egregious inequalities of wealth and power created by new national corporations. By the 1890s, these economic behemoths controlled entire sectors of the US economy and wielded substantial political power. Women were prominent among local reformers who tried to rein in corporate power through state laws to limit working hours, regulate child labor, and institute factory safety measures. Those same reformers also expanded public education, built public playgrounds, and created a juvenile justice system. They eventually created a federal income tax and public programs to reduce maternal and infant mortality. By the 1910s, many women in the Progressive movement were national political leaders, including Mary Church Terrell, first president of the National Association of Colored Women; Jane Addams, champion of working-class families; Florence Kelley, head of the National Consumers League; and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching crusader and cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
As millions of American women worked passionately in the Progressive movement, many came to believe, as had so many female abolitionists and temperance advocates, that they needed the vote in order to succeed in their other reform efforts. Some also believed that women deserved the vote as a matter of right. Either way, these reformers swelled the ranks of the woman suffrage movement. Their visibility and effectiveness as reformers also meant that Progressive men increasingly supported votes for women. In fact, the Progressive Party of 1912, an enormously important third-party effort, endorsed woman suffrage, and its presidential nominee, former president Theodore Roosevelt, proclaimed that women would participate in the Progressive Party on a basis of “absolute equality” with men.
Although African American suffragists worked vigorously for the cause in the early twentieth century, the deterioration of US race relations after 1890—embodied in brutal measures to segregate the races and disfranchise African American men in the South—meant that suffragists worked mostly in racially segregated organizations between 1890 and 1920. While white suffragists, including some who expressly opposed the enfranchisement of Black women, increased the membership of NAWSA to two million, many Black women worked for the vote through multifocus organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women or the Women’s Convention of the Black Baptist Church. Ida B. Wells-Barnett founded the Alpha Suffrage Club in Chicago, which contributed mightily to the victory of woman suffrage in Illinois (1913). The NAACP, organized in 1909–10, became an important forum for suffrage activism that included both woman suffrage and the reenfranchisement of Black men in the South.
Women in the labor movement and Socialist Party also expanded support for woman suffrage in the early twentieth century. Immigrant women in New York’s garment industry, including Clara Lemlich, Rose Schneiderman, and Pauline Newman, agitated for the vote. (Figure 4) Although many male labor leaders and Socialists supported woman suffrage in principle, they did not make it a priority. Indeed, many belittled woman suffrage as a middle-class issue. But leaders among the dramatically increasing group of working women argued that wage-earning women needed the vote. Only with suffrage, they insisted, could working women hope for equal pay, safe work places, and humane hours. In 1909, working-class suffragists generated a major debate about their cause within New York’s labor community, and in 1911 they formed the Wage Earners’ League for Woman Suffrage. One of the league’s flyers asked, “Why are you paid less than a man? Why do you work in a fire trap? Why are your hours so long?” The answer: “Because you are a woman and have no vote. Votes make the law. The law controls conditions. Women who want better conditions must vote.” Woman suffrage triumphed in New York in 1917 partly because so many working-class men voted yes. Similar agitation occurred elsewhere to such an extent that throughout the 1910s, working-class men memorialized Congress to pass a woman suffrage amendment to the Constitution. Likewise in the territories, where, Puerto Rican labor activist Luisa Capetillo argued so effectively for woman suffrage that by 1908 the island’s Free Federation of Workers endorsed women’s enfranchisement, and wage-earning women and the Socialist Party were among the most ardent suffrage activists.
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Relationships between the woman suffrage movement and other social movements were sometimes wrenching: witness the conflict over the Fifteenth Amendment and the racial and class segregation of most suffrage organizations in the early twentieth century. Even so, the suffrage movement owed its existence and much of its gradually increasing strength to other reform movements. A host of antebellum reform efforts drew female adherents out of the domestic sphere, challenging prevailing gender conventions and motivating many to ask questions about all the restrictions on their lives. The accumulation of those questions—and experience with writing, speaking, and organizing—produced a women’s movement that eventually put suffrage front and center. Moreover, the fervent desire to change American life—whether by increasing women’s wages or decreasing alcohol consumption—encouraged many women between the 1830s and 1920 to desire the vote as an important tool in their quest to perfect the union. Male colleagues in those reform movements increasingly perceived the value to their own political causes of enfranchising the women who worked alongside them. In sum, other reform movements were crucial to the victory of votes for women.
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