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Setting the Stage

The struggle for civic equality and the broadening of enfranchisement is a common theme in American history. Different groups at different times organized to fight – some violently and others peacefully – for the right to vote and to take part in American democracy. These struggles to expand freedom for excluded groups included many ordinary Americans, but a few became important leaders whose lives we know about today because of their work.

American women started organizing as distinct political groups in the middle of the 19th century. Women organized for many different charitable, social, religious, and political causes. Historians tend to place the beginning of the broad American women's rights movement at Seneca Falls in 1848, when women and some men gathered to discuss the state of women's liberty in the United States. This was the Seneca Falls Convention, attended and organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. The 13-point Declaration of Rights and Sentiments that the convention produced pointed out that, among other grievances about their civic and social status, women were prevented from voting. Though there were many issues women's rights activists were involved in – sometimes on opposing sides – by the end of the century it was the right to vote that all feminists wanted and so suffrage became a widely recognized goal.

One major women's organization from this era that survived through to the end of the struggle for the right to vote was the National American Women's Suffrage Association. This organization formed in 1890 when members of competing women's suffrage organizations compromised for the sake of keeping the pro-suffrage movement afloat. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the first presidents of the NAWSA. This popular organization attracted millions of members in hundreds of chapters across the United States during its lifetime. It focused on gaining suffrage state-by-state.

By 1919, women had state and local voting rights in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho Washington, California, Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, New York, Michigan, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. They could vote for the president in Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Most states gave these voting rights during the 1910s. The exceptions were Wyoming, Utah, Washington, and Montana, which gave full voting rights to women in the 19th century when they were territories. The Alaska territory gave women full voting rights in 1913. All American women gained the Constitutional right to vote when the states ratified the 19th Amendment in 1920.


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