For two days in July 1848, a convention of women and a number of male supporters met in Seneca Falls, New York, to publicly address a number of grievances related to the subjugation of women. The culmination of this gathering was the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, modeled directly on the language of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, and it called for gender equality in relation to marriage, property rights, legal status, contract law, child custody matters, and, most radically, voting rights. Undeterred by the chorus of criticism they received from the press and the public at large, women leaders from the Seneca Falls Convention, among them Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Julia Ward Howe, and Lucy Stone, began a lifetime crusade to win voting rights for American women. Most of these early suffragists, including Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth, would not live long enough to enjoy the right for which they fought so long. Only in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, were women given federal access to the polling booth.
The most common explanation for why the Seneca Falls convention took place has to do with the outrage that American women abolitionists felt when they were denied positions as delegates at the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840. They were forced to sit behind a curtain during the official proceedings, silently listening to the arguments of men. Spurred by this event, as well as countless jeers from an audience that overwhelmingly believed it unseemly for a woman to speak in public, nineteenth-century abolitionists vented their anger about their imposed inferiority in their declarations of woman's rights at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. There, in the hometown of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, women demanded that they be given rights traditionally enjoyed only by property-owning, white men—especially the right to vote, which Stanton argued was the most important obstacle in the path of true gender equality. The following year, in 1849, the National Woman's Rights Association was formed, its membership firmly committed to winning voting rights for American women.
For the remainder of the century, women's suffrage gradually gained support from an ever-skeptical public that often argued that American social and national stability would be undermined if women were allowed to vote. After the American Civil War ended in 1865, momentum for women's suffrage increased as questions related to whether former slaves should be allowed to vote consumed the nation's attention. While nearly all suffragists had supported the extension of citizenship, civil rights, and liberties to freed blacks in the Fourteenth Amendment, their leadership split over whether to support the Fifteenth Amendment as it was proposed—guaranteeing citizens the right to vote, regardless of their race—or to campaign for the inclusion of gender in the equal protection clause. In 1869 suffragists divided into two organizations over this debate: the American Woman Suffrage Association, led by Howe and Stone, which supported ratification, and the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Anthony and Stanton, which argued that although black men should be allowed to vote, any constitutional amendment which excluded women could not in good conscience be supported. After passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, the rival suffrage organizations continued their work. In 1869 the National Woman Suffrage Association held its first convention in what would become an annual event for the next fifty years to build grassroots support for a federal amendment to the constitution, granting women voting rights. The American Woman Association increasingly turned its attention to state congresses in hopes of winning female enfranchisement state by state. Their first victory came quickly in 1869 when the Territory of Wyoming became the first place where women were allowed to vote; in 1870 Utah followed suit. Other western states and territories would continue this trend over the next two decades, probably due to social conditions in frontier regions where women often assumed roles that were not available to them in eastern states.
After 1870, women suffragists also became increasingly militant in their tactics to win voting rights. Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872 despite the fact that she and the women she hoped to represent could not vote. Also in 1872, Anthony tested voting rights in New York by placing her ballot in a local election. She was promptly arrested for illegal voting, and the following year she was pronounced guilty in a trial in which she was not allowed to testify in her own defense because she was a woman. Anthony's eloquent and forceful denunciation of that verdict after the judge asked her if she had anything to say about her sentence and fine became a lightning rod for fellow suffragists. Over the next decades, numerous women intentionally challenged the law against voting, using their acts of civil disobedience and the guilty verdicts they invariably received to showcase the injustice of unequal voting rights. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, suffragists continued to work for voting rights. In 1890 the American Woman Suffrage Association and the National Woman Suffrage Association merged to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As many scholars have noted, their tactics in the last decade of the century were often aimed at gaining popular support for their movement by making the cause seem less radical than it was commonly perceived. This was done in a variety of ways, some women stressing that woman's supposed moral superiority would prove itself a boon for social reform and regeneration through the ballot box. Others argued that women needed the vote to gain power in relationships too often dominated by drunken, abusive husbands.
Scholars continue to study the language, strategies, and influence of the nineteenth-century woman suffrage movement, examining in particular the outspoken articulations of women's increasing demand to be given rights traditionally denied them. These studies have also begun in the past three decades to focus on lesser-known voices for gender equality and woman suffrage, especially from black women who suffered the prejudices of both gender and race, even from white women who often excluded black women from their delegations and conventions either as a result of their own or the perceived prejudices of their audiences.
Susan B. Anthony
"Letter to the Colored Men's State Convention in Utica, New York" (letter) 1868
United States of America v. Susan B. Anthony (court records) 1873
"Discontented Women" (essay) 1896
Elizabeth Burrill Curtis
"The Present Crisis" (essay) 1897
Frances D. Gage
"Woman's Natural Rights, Address to the Woman's Rights Convention in Akron" (essay) 1851
Matilda Joslyn Gage
"Woman's Rights Catechism" (speech) 1871
The National Citizen and Ballot Box [editor] (journal) 1878-1881
"An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South" (essay) 1836
"Appeal to the Women of the Nominally Free States" (essay) 1837
"Address to Free Colored Americans" (essay) 1837
Ida Husted Harper
The Life and Work of Susan B. Anthony 2 vols. (biography) 1899
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
"Dialogue on Woman's Rights" (poem) 1857
Isabella Beecher Hooker
"Two Letters on Women's Suffrage" (essay) 1868
Julia Ward Howe
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Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, Mary Ann Mcclintock, And Jane C. Hunt (Document Date 1848)
SOURCE: Cady Stanton, Elizabeth, Lucretia Mott, Martha C. Wright, Mary Ann McClintock, and Jane C. Hunt. "Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at the First Woman's Rights Convention in Seneca Falls (1848)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 190-93. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following excerpt, originally published in 1848, early suffragist leaders mimic the tone and sentiments of the American Declaration of Independence to advocate for women's rights, most notably equal voting rights.
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SOURCE: Stone, Lucy. Woman Suffrage in New Jersey: An Address delivered by Lucy Stone at a Hearing Before the New Jersey Legislature, pp. 3-19. Boston: C. H. Simmons & Co., 1867.
In the following excerpted address, Stone underscores the importance of women's suffrage.
GENTLEMEN OF THE COMMITTEE:—
Grateful for the hearing so promptly accorded, I will proceed without preliminary to state the object of the petition, and to urge its claim.
Woman ask you to submit to the people of New Jersey amendments to the Constitution of the State, striking out respectively the words "white" and...
(The entire section is 6412 words.)
SOURCE: Truth, Sojourner. "Colored Men Will Be Masters Over the Women (1867)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 237. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following speech, originally delivered in 1867 and published in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 2, 1861-1876 in 1886, Truth argues that former slave women deserve the right to vote just as much as black men.
My friends, I am rejoiced that you are glad, but I don't know how you will feel when I get through. I come from another field—the country of the slave. They have got...
(The entire section is 1078 words.)
SOURCE: Hooker, Isabella Beecher. "If Women Could Vote." In Early American Women: A Documentary History, 1600-1900, edited by Nancy Woloch, pp. 512-15. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992.
In the following excerpt, originally published in Putnam's Magazine in 1868, Hooker argues that women are in fact better suited for enfranchisement and political office than men.
My Dear Daughter:
You ask me what I think of the modesty and sense of a woman who can insist, in these days, that she is not sufficiently cared for in public and in private, and who...
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National Woman Suffrage and Educational Committee. An Appeal to the Women of the United States, pp. 2-4. Hartford: Case, Lockwood & Brainard, 1871.
In the following letter, the committee for woman suffrage and education implores the women of America to ban together in an effort to attain equal rights.
The question of your rights as citizens of the United States, and the grave responsibilities which a recognition of those rights will involve, is becoming the great question of the day in this country, and is the culmination of the great question which has been struggling through the ages...
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SOURCE: Anthony, Susan B. "United States of America vs. Susan B. Anthony (1873)." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 244-45. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.
In the following court transcript, originally published in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 2, 1861-1876 in 1886, Anthony argues that the guilty verdict rendered against her for the crime of voting is unjust because she is denied the fundamental rights of an American taxpaying citizen.
… The Court, after listening to an argument from the District Attorney, denied the...
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SOURCE: Anthony, Susan B. and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. "Political Lessons." In Early American Women: A Documentary History, 1600-1900, edited by Nancy Woloch, pp. 509-11. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992.
In the following excerpt, originally published in History of Woman Suffrage, Vol. 2 in 1882, Stanton and Anthony argue that the rejection of their movement by liberal male abolitionists over issues concerning the Fifteenth Amendment turned out to be a blessing in disguise, freeing women to fight for their rights without the need to compromise with the interests of men.
So utterly had the women been...
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SOURCE: The National Woman Suffrage Association. Library of Congress. Gift of the National American Woman Association (1 November 1938).
In the following document, originally created in 1883, the members of the National Woman Suffrage Association detail the mission and structure of the organization.
The National Woman Suffrage Association
ARTICLE 1.—This organization shall be called the NATIONAL WOMAN SUFFRAGE ASSOCIATION.
ARTICLE 2.—The object of this Association shall be to secure NATIONAL protection for women citizens in the exercise of their right to vote.
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