Activities: Context Activities
Making Amendments: The Woman Suffrage Movement
Back to Context Activities
 L. Prang & Co., Representative Women (1870), courtesy of the Library of Congress
When American women go to the polls to cast their ballots in local and federal elections, most of them do not realize that it took dedicated generations of women almost seventy-five years of activism to ensure their right to vote. Most of the women who first began working for suffrage in 1848 did not live to see the Nineteenth Amendment ratified in 1920. The struggle for female enfranchisement was long and difficult, and the "suffragettes," as suffrage activists were called, adopted many different strategies and tactics before reaching their goal.
The woman suffrage movement began at a convention in Seneca Falls, New York, when a group led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton adopted a resolution calling for the right to vote. At the time, the idea of woman suffrage was so radical that many delegates at the convention refused to sign Stanton's "Declaration of Sentiments," with its call for the enfranchisement of women, even though they supported her other goals of ensuring higher education and property rights for women. However radical the goal of enfranchisement had once seemed, after the Civil War it emerged as one of the most important women's issues when activists realized that the right to vote was necessary both to effect social and political change and to symbolize women's full status as equal citizens. Because the woman suffrage movement had begun in the same reform milieu as abolitionism, many activists were tremendously disappointed when the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments extended suffrage to African American men but not to black or white women. The issue was so volatile that in 1869 the women's rights movement split over whether or not to support the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage to black men.
One group of activists, led by Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, opposed the Fifteenth Amendment, but called for a Sixteenth Amendment that would give women the right to vote. Their organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), viewed suffrage as only one of many important feminist causes on their agenda, and they were unafraid to adopt radical policies and rhetoric to forward their goals. For example, in 1872 Susan B. Anthony went to the polls and tried to vote, hoping to get arrested and thus attract attention for the movement. She was indeed arrested, found guilty of "knowingly, wrongfully, and unlawfully voting," and issued a fine. In contrast, NWSA's rival association, the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), led by Lucy Stone and Julia Ward Howe, was more moderate in its tone, promoted "partial suffrage" legislation, and worked to make feminist reforms appealing to mainstream Americans. AWSA supported the Fifteenth Amendment but vowed to continue working for woman suffrage.
Although they were no longer a united force, the suffrage organizations had made significant strides by the turn of the century. In the West, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho had all adopted woman suffrage by 1896. The suffrage movement also made gains through its alliance with the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). A more mainstream and conservative organization than either NWSA or AWSA, the WCTU encouraged its large membership to support suffrage as a way of protecting traditional family and domestic values. In particular, they hoped that women voters would be able to pass legislation mandating the prohibition of alcohol. The association of woman suffrage with the temperance movement was both a boon and a hindrance to the effort to achieve enfranchisement. On one hand, the Christian temperance platform attracted a broader base of support and made suffrage seem less radical to mainstream women. But on the other hand, the WCTU endorsement of suffrage fueled big business's fears that women voters would threaten their interests by tilting the nation toward reform. The brewing and liquor industry, especially, came to perceive woman suffrage as a significant threat and threw its considerable political clout behind stifling the movement.
In 1890, the NWSA and the AWSA finally put their differences behind them and joined forces to make a concerted push for enfranchisement. The new, unified movement, known as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), focused its efforts almost exclusively on winning the vote rather than on other feminist issues. Their strategy involved building support within individual states and winning suffrage referendums on a state-by-state basis. They hoped that when enough states had adopted suffrage amendments, the federal government would at last agree to approve an amendment to the Constitution. In pursuit of this strategy, NAWSA opted to disassociate the suffrage movement from its traditional affiliation with the cause of African American civil rights. Many suffrage activists either shared the racist sentiments so prevalent in turn-of-the-century America or believed that they had to comply with racist views in order to make their cause appealing to a wide constituency. In any case, whether motivated by racism or a misguided sense of expediency, by the late nineteenth century the suffrage movement excluded black women from meaningful participation and refused to take a strong position in support of black women's equal right to enfranchisement.
In its final push for the vote, the suffragists adopted other new--and sometimes radical--strategies. They borrowed newly developed advertising techniques, circulating catchy jingles with pro-suffrage lyrics and distributing stationery and buttons emblazoned with pro-suffrage designs. To attract public attention, they held open-air meetings and rallies in busy urban areas. Suffragists sponsored elaborate parades featuring decorated floats, horses, music, and hundreds of marchers wearing colorful banners. A more militant wing of the suffrage movement, led by Alice Paul, developed more radical tactics, including picketing the White House, getting arrested, and going on hunger strikes. Perhaps the suffrage activists' most successful strategy involved aggressive lobbying among politicians. By targeting and converting individual politicians--including President Woodrow Wilson--suffragists eventually convinced Congress to adopt the Nineteenth Amendment by a narrow margin. The fight for ratification demanded unabated effort and political maneuverings, but finally, on August 21, 1920, the Tennessee legislature completed the ratification process. Their victory came by a very slim margin and after years of struggle, but the suffragists had finally won for American women the right to vote.
The suffrage movement both contributed to and reflected the growing independence of American women by the turn of the century. Women were acquiring education, working in the business world, and achieving economic and social self-sufficiency in greater numbers than ever before. Some women began wearing trousers, smoking, and asserting their sexual freedom. These "new women," as such emancipated women were called, resisted the ideals of domesticity and "true womanhood" that had dominated women's lives in the first part of the nineteenth century. Instead, they demanded new freedoms and transformed the position of women in the United States. Their legacy lives on in contemporary women's movements in support of such causes as economic equality and reproductive freedom.
- Comprehension: Why did the suffrage movement split into two separate groups in 1869? How did the NWSA differ from the AWSA?
- Comprehension: What was the relationship between the suffrage movement and the movement for African American rights? How did it change over time?
- Comprehension: What was a "new woman"?
- Context: Examine the anti-suffrage cartoon featured in the archive. How are women voters portrayed in this cartoon? What anxieties about woman suffrage underlie the humor of this cartoon?
- Context: In Henry James's "Daisy Miller," Winterbourne describes Daisy Miller as an "American girl" of a "pronounced type." What characteristics does Winterbourne attribute to the "American girl"? Why is he so eager to label her as an example of a "type"? Does his vision of the "American girl" have anything in common with the concept of the "new woman"? Would Daisy see herself as a "new woman"?
- Context: How do the debates and rifts within the woman suffrage movement compare to the debates and rifts that emerged within the movement for African American rights at the end of the nineteenth century? How do the strategies and philosophies employed by the NWSA, AWSA, and NAWSA compare to the strategies and philosophies developed by black leaders such as Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois?
- Exploration: What kinds of women's issues continue to be a focus for reform movements? What strategies do contemporary women's groups adopt to generate support for their causes?
- Exploration: How have minority women writers like Toni Morrison and Gloria Anzaldúa broadened and revised nineteenth-century ideas about women's rights?
 Anonymous, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Seated, and Susan B. Anthony, Standing, Three-Quarter-Length Portrait (1880),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ61-791].
Stanton and Anthony were two of the foremost activists for women's suffrage; their struggle touched on the enfranchisement of black Americans after the Civil War, but both opposed the Fifteenth Amendment because it extended voting rights to black men only.
 Currier & Ives, The Age of Brass, or the Triumphs of Women's Rights (1869),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1921].
This anti-suffrage cartoon depicts women suffragists voting. One woman scolds a cowed man holding a baby; another woman, in pantaloons, holds a sign reading, "Vote for the Celebrated Man Tamer." Such cartoons played to predominantly male fears about the reversal of men's and women's public and private roles and were designed to reinforce the Cult of True Womanhood and notions about the dangers of suffragism.
 Anonymous, The Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives Receiving a Deputation of Female Suffragists (1871),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62- 2023].
This print, originally in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, shows Victoria Woodhull, backed by a group of woman suffragists, reading a speech to a skeptical judiciary committee. The speech, about the legality of women's suffrage, was based on the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution.
 Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Woman Suffrage in Wyoming Territory. Scene at the Polls in Cheyenne (1888),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-2235].
Woman suffrage was established in Wyoming in 1869. When Wyoming entered the union in 1890, it was the first state that allowed women the right to vote. Esther Morris is credited with convincing the territorial legislature to grant suffrage to women.
 L. Prang & Co., Representative Women (1870),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-5535].
Seven individual portraits of leaders in the woman suffrage movement: Lucretia Mott, Grace Greenwood, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anna E. Dickinson, Mary Ashton Rice Livermore, Lydia Maria Francis Child, and Susan B. Anthony.
This tool builds multimedia presentations for classrooms or assignments.
An online collection of 3000 artifacts for classroom use.
Download the Instructor Guide PDF for this Unit.