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The Long Road to Suffrage

From Seneca Falls to the 1920s: an Overview of the Woman Suffrage Movement

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Suffrage March - New York City 1913

Suffrage March - New York City 1913

Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

Beginning in 1848

The first women's rights meeting in the United States, held at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, itself followed several decades of a quietly-emerging egalitarian spirit among women. At this convention, the delegates called for the right to vote, among other women's rights.

What a long road it would be to actually winning suffrage for women! Before the Nineteenth Amendment secured women's right to vote in the US, more than 70 years would pass.

After the Civil War

The Woman Suffrage movement, begun in 1848 with that pivotal meeting, weakened during and after the Civil War. For practical political reasons, the issue of black suffrage collided with woman suffrage, and tactical differences divided the leadership.

Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone founded the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA), which accepted men as members, worked for black suffrage and the 15th Amendment, and worked for woman suffrage state-by-state. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who, with Lucretia Mott, called the 1848 gathering at Seneca Falls, founded with Susan B. Anthony the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA), which included only women, opposed the 15th Amendment because for the first time citizens were explicitly defined as male. The NWSA worked for a national Constitutional Amendment for woman suffrage.

Frances Willard's Women's Christian Temperance Union, the growing Women's Club movement after 1868, and many other social reform groups drew women into other organizations and activities, though many worked for suffrage, too. These women often applied their organizational skills learned in the other groups to the suffrage battles -- but by the turn on the century, those suffrage battles had been going on for fifty years already.

Transitions

Stanton and Anthony and Mathilda Jocelyn Gage published the first three volumes of their history of the suffrage movement in 1887, after winning women's vote in only a few states. In 1890, the two rival organizations, the NWSA and the AWSA, merged, under the leadership of Anna Howard Shaw and Carrie Chapman Catt in the National American Woman Suffrage Association.

After fifty years, a leadership transition had to take place. Lucretia Mott died in 1880. Lucy Stone died in 1893. Elizabeth Cady Stanton died in 1902, and her lifelong friend and coworker Susan B. Anthony died in 1906.

Women continued to provide active leadership in other movements, too: the National Consumer's League, the Women's Trade Union League, movements for health reform, prison reform, and child labor law reform, to name a few. Their work in these groups helped build and demonstrate women's competence in the political realm, but also drew women's efforts away from the direct battles to win the vote.

Another Split

By 1913, there was another split in the Suffrage movement. Alice Paul, who had been part of more radical tactics when she visited the suffragists of England, founded the Congressional Union (later the National Women's party), and she and the other militants who joined her were expelled by the NAWSA.

Large suffrage marches and parades in 1913 and 1915 helped bring the cause of woman suffrage back to the center. The NAWSA also shifted tactics, and in 1916 unified its chapters around efforts to push a suffrage Amendment in Congress.

In 1915, Mabel Vernon and Sarah Bard Field and others traveled across the nation by automobile, carrying half a million signatures on a petition to Congress. The press took more notice of the "suffragettes."

Montana, in 1917, three years after establishing woman suffrage in the state, elected Jeannette Rankin to Congress, the first woman with that honor.

The End of the Long Road

Finally, in 1919, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, sending it to the states. On August 26, 1920, after Tennessee ratified the Amendment by one vote, the 19th Amendment was adopted.

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